With Alabama and Ohio State grabbing the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in a slew of post-spring preseason polls, it’s a great time to stack the two programs up against one another.
Before moving forward in our analysis, it’s absolutely key to point out that when we’re discussing the identity of Ohio State in terms of 2013, we’re actually embarking on a somewhat complex situation.
This means that discussing long-term traits such as philosophy, strategy and inherent strengths and weaknesses requires looking back both at the Jim Tressel era (2001 through 2010) and—even more importantly—at Meyer’s time at Florida (2005 to 2010).
Therefore, when we stack the two teams up against one another—Ohio State and Alabama—we’ll take the approach that the ’13 Buckeyes foundation is built on a trio of factors that aren’t limited only to what happened in the 12 games that defined their 2012 season.
There is no doubt that Alabama and Ohio State have two of the best coaches currently working in the college game.
One could argue that if Urban Meyer had stayed at Florida, Nick Saban may not have had his dynastic run at Alabama.
To illustrate this somewhat controversial point, Meyer’s final SEC title came in 2008 when he and his Gators toppled Saban and his Tide in the conference championship.
This was also the final season that Urban Meyer would lead Florida to a national championship, while Saban and Alabama would go on to lose in the BCS Sugar Bowl.
The next season, the two teams were back at it in the SEC title game with Saban and Alabama besting Meyer and Florida with similar results; the Crimson Tide went on to win the BCS title while the Gators moved on to win the BCS Sugar Bowl.
The following year, 2010, was Meyer’s final season at Florida. After posting the 8-5 record he was out, leaving clear sailing for Saban to post back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.
As far as stacking the two coaches’ total resumes against one another, here’s a look at the numbers.
Total years as a college head coach: 18
Overall record as a college head coach: 159-55-2
Total national championships: 4
Total conference titles: 5 (one MAC, four SEC)
Total division titles: 6 (all SEC-West)
Record in bowl play: 8-6
Record in BCS play: 5-1
Top 25 finishes: 10
Top 10 finishes: 8
Total years as a college head coach: 12
Overall record as a college head coach: 116-23
Total national championships: 2
Total conference titles: 4 (two Mountain West, two SEC)
Total division titles: 4 (three SEC-East, one Big Ten-Leaders)
Record in bowl play: 7-1
Record in BCS play: 4-0
Top 25 finishes: 8
Top 10 finishes: 5
In terms of coaching, Ohio State and Alabama are very evenly matched. But at this point in time, you’ve got to give the nod to the Crimson Tide.
This comes down to Nick Saban having his system in place at Alabama as opposed to Urban Meyer still getting his set-up at Ohio State.
It is the difference between “Can he do it?” and “He is already doing it.”
When you look at the results both Saban and Meyer have managed to pump out at their signature roles thus far, they have both used comparable formulas to propel their respective programs to the top.
Though Saban gets a bunch of credit for his “system,” Meyer was also successful utilizing a philosophy at Florida that generally consisted of the same major components.
And until proven otherwise, it seems safe to assume that all the puzzle pieces are in place for Meyer to translate this same philosophy at Ohio State.
Both coaches' approaches begin with serious recruiting, a method that was shared at Ohio State when Tressel held the reigns there from 2001 to 2010.
To illustrate, only once have either the Buckeyes or Crimson Tide fallen out of the top 15 team recruiting rankings since 2007 (when Saban took over at Alabama), a blip that occurred in 2010 when Ohio State hauled in a class that ranked No. 25 nationally according to Rivals.com.
This same success rate was met by Urban Meyer’s Florida teams from 2007 to 2010, all of which finished in the top 11 of the Rivals.com team recruiting rankings.
So the philosophy begins with bringing in the best talent, but it obviously doesn’t stop there.
Next Saban, Meyer and Tressel all had (and have in Saban’s case) the type of programs that took the raw talent in the front door, coached them up, slotted them in the right positions and sent them out the tunnel on game day to enjoy great successes.
Though this obviously simplifies the actual process, the basic philosophy at both programs and by all three coaches is the same; sign the best athletes, use the best coaching staff available and systematically pump out winning products.
In terms of general approach, the two programs are very similar.
For the sake of this comparison we’re going to define strategy as how each of these two programs (and Florida under Meyer) have achieved their success levels.
In the case of Alabama in the Saban era, the strategy has been a stifling defense coupled with a run-dominated offense that in most years puts just enough points on the board to keep the wins coming.
To illustrate, since 2008 the Crimson Tide have only been ranked below No. 2 nationally in scoring defense once, a flagrant misdeed that occurred in 2010 when they finished the season ranked a lowly No. 10.
Offensively speaking, Alabama has slowly put more points on the board as the Saban era has marched on, but still the No. 12 national ranking in scoring in 2012 marks the high-water mark for the unit since 2007.
The only passing blip on the radar during Saban’s tenure at Alabama came in 2010 when the Tide finished No. 27 in passing yards. Other than that, the best mark came way back in 2007 when the No. 59 ranking was achieved.
The running numbers, the strategy that works best for Saban, are much healthier, averaging a No. 20 ranking from 2008 through 2012.
To begin our multi-pronged approach to looking at Ohio State’s strategy, we’ll start with a quick glance back at what made the Buckeyes successful under Tressel and then move on to the more relevant business of Urban Meyer’s resume.
During the final four seasons of the Tressel era, Ohio State, like Alabama, was all about stifling defense and again, like the Tide, the Buckeyes weren’t likely to light up the scoreboard.
Ohio State never fell out of the top six in scoring defense from 2007 to 2010, giving it very similar numbers to the Crimson Tide of the same time period.
The Buckeyes did rise to a No. 11 ranking in scoring in 2010, but other than that they never made the kind of progress under Tressel that the Tide made have managed under Saban.
What’s most striking when looking back at the Buckeyes' offensive stats is their imbalance from a run/pass standpoint.
To illustrate, in 2008 and 2009 Ohio State ranked No. 24 and No. 19 nationally in rushing yards, while during the same years it ranked No. 105 and No. 104 in passing yards. It was a one-dimensional attack to the max.
Moving on to Urban Meyer’s strategy during his tenure at Florida and then during his single-season thus far at Ohio State, we first see continuity from the standpoint of rushing being the offensive emphasis.
Though his offense might look completely different than that of Tressel’s at Ohio State or Saban’s at Alabama, Meyer’s Gator products and one Buckeye team share the common trait of scoring points on the ground as opposed to through the air.
But, this is where the similarities stop.
Yes, Meyer fielded No. 4 ranked scoring defenses at Florida in 2008 and 2009, but other than those two high marks, his 2007 D ranked No. 46, his 2010 product was rated No. 29 and his 2012 squad was ranked No. 31.
Not necessarily the top-five stuff we’ve seen out of Saban and Tressel.
Next, you’ve got the fact that historically, Meyer fields teams that are going to score some serious points.
For example, the Gators finished each of the 2007 through 2009 seasons ranked in the top 10 in points scored. His first product at Ohio State was ranked No. 21 (the second highest finish for the Bucks in six tries).
At the end of the day, Meyer’s path isn’t necessarily the same as Tressel’s was or Saban’s is.
Based on our analysis regarding strategy, the strengths of the Ohio State and Alabama programs in 2013 are a bit easier to pinpoint, especially when you look back at the stats they posted last season and factor in returning starters.
Alabama’s obvious strength is its defense. With the Tide to set to return seven defensive starters in 2013, this will continue to be the heart and soul of the program.
Statistical highlights from the Tide’s defensive performance last season are the No. 1 national ranking in scoring, a No. 1 rank against the run and a No. 7 rank against the pass.
Other accolades are an offense that ranked No. 12 nationally in scoring (averaging 38.7 points per game) and a rushing attack that finished the season ranked No. 16 in yards.
Less heralded, but oh so important to the bottom line, are a No. 14 national ranking in turnover margin and a No. 7 ranking in penalty yards per game.
What’s key to Alabama’s past success under Saban and its bright future are the high unit rankings combined with the stellar successes in terms of recruiting
Ohio State is set to return nine starters to an offense that scored 37.2 points per game in 2012. Among that number are four members of the O-line.
This is all important to a Meyer-led program, since we’ve already established that point scoring is how he reaches paydirt.
Though there are plenty of concerns defensively, the good news is that three starters are expected back in the secondary, offering a measure of relief for a unit that struggled to a No. 78 national ranking in 2012.
Another upside on the D is the fact that the rushing defense finished last season ranked No. 14 nationally against the run.
As is the case with Alabama, perhaps the biggest strength for the Buckeyes is the fact that their last two recruiting classes ranked No. 4 and No. 2 per Rivals.com, meaning that the best is yet to come.
And remember we’re building on a 12-0 record here, not a 7-6 finish or a hopeful 8-4 campaign.
The other hidden strength for Ohio State is its affiliation with the Big Ten.
This liaison and the associated schedule makes perfection and the BCS championship a more realistic goal for Ohio State than does Alabama’s situation in the SEC.
Laying the framework via our first four slides makes highlighting potential weaknesses coming into 2013 much easier.
That said, we’re still dealing with two programs with only one loss between them in the last 12 months.
Even though the Crimson Tide are the team with the only loss in the last calendar year, it’s difficult to sit down and devise a list of inherent weaknesses.
But, this is still a team capable of losing; which it almost did against LSU and Georgia last season and absolutely did manage to do at home versus Texas A&M in 2012.
Even though Alabama lays claim to the No. 1 rated passer in the FBS ranks in A.J. McCarron, the Crimson Tide are not a great passing team, finishing the 2012 season ranked No. 76 in passing yards.
Is this a weakness?
Well, it’s hard to argue when you still score over 38 points per game, but you could still make a case for shutting Alabama down on the ground and then forcing it to beat you through the air.
The other “weakness” is that the Tide return just two starters to their epic O-line from 2012.
Though the overwhelming successes at recruiting should be able to take care of this, what if it doesn’t and what if the Tide can’t sock other teams in the mouth in the trenches like they did last year?
Perhaps Alabama’s biggest “weakness” is that it has won the BCS national title twice in two years and three times in four tries.
Yes, it will be a struggle to get their “bumps up” even if Nick Saban is their coach.
Even given the 12-0 finish in 2012, the weakness list for Ohio State is easier to manage than it is for Alabama.
This is partially because of who the Buckeyes played last season and partially because of the lack of a postseason combined with the fact that it was Meyer’s first season at the helm.
First, you’ve got the defensive concerns, which for now center on a secondary which was exposed last season by teams like Indiana. The Hoosiers scored 22 points in the fourth quarter, and the Bucks barely survived, 52-49, in what could have been one of the most catastrophic losses in years.
Next, you’ve got the one-dimensional offense. QB Braxton Miller accounted for 65 percent of Ohio State’s total team yards last season.
The obvious question here is, if Miller goes out, then what?
As far as imbalance offensively, try this on for size: The Buckeyes finished 2012 ranked No. 10 nationally in rushing yards and No. 105 in passing yards.
Also of concern is the fact that Ohio State ranked No. 107 last season in terms of penalty yards per game.
Though Buckeye fans may hope that is just a blip on the radar—Ohio State hasn’t ranked lower than No. 39 in penalty yards since 2007—Urban Meyer’s Florida teams didn’t post favorable penalty stats either.
Alabama DE Jeoffrey Pagan
Taking the comparison one final step further, we’ll take a look at both Alabama and Ohio State’s depth charts for 2013 and point out some specific personnel issues that may make a difference in the two team’s upcoming seasons.
Though we could take an exhaustive review of both squad’s complete charts, we’ll limit this discussion to what could bite these two traditional powerhouses in the proverbial buttocks.
The Tide are rock-solid in the offensive skill positions, and their depth at RB and WR is such that even a seemingly ruinous injury could be overcome simply due to the fact that there are so many guys waiting in the wings.
Offensively, the big deal will be whether or not Alabama can replace the three starters gone from the O-line.
Back on campus are OT Cyrus Kouandjio and OG Anthony Steen, leaving openings at center, tackle and guard.
Taking over at center is Ryan Kelly, a 3-star rated guy from the class of 2011 who participated in nine games as a redshirt freshman in 2012. At guard, it's likely we'll see Cyrus Kouandjio’s older brother Arie, a 4-star from the class of 2010 who participated in 10 games as a redshirt sophomore in 2012.
Finally, at the open tackle spot it’s thought that Austin Shepard, a 3-star from the class of 2010 who came off the bench in nine games as a redshirt sophomore in 2012, will get the nod.
Shifting over to defense, the D-line is the biggest concern. Only one starter, DE Ed Stinson, is due back.
This puts the pressure on guys like DE Jeoffrey Pagan and NT Brandon Ivory, who look to be the starters at least from the very early vantage point of the spring.
Pagan was recruited as a 4-star with the class of 2011 and made solid contributions off the bench in all 13 games as a sophomore in 2012, while Ivory was a 3-star in 2010 who played in 12 games last season, including making one start.
Overall, it would be interesting to see how Braxton Miller’s athleticism would look versus Alabama’s defense, especially given the fact that his contributions, in terms of percentage of total yards, are so similar to those of Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M.
With the exception of QB Braxton Miller’s impact on the bottom line of yardage and the potentially catastrophic effect if he gets injured, Ohio State’s offense is as solid as one could hope for in the cyclical world of college personnel turnover.
The real concern depth-wise for the Bucks is defensively, where four new guys will start on the line, a true freshman will play alongside OLB Ryan Shazier (who led the team in tackles in 2012) and Curtis Grant (with 10 tackles in two seasons) will take over the MLB role.
In the secondary, which we glossed over earlier, there is certainly more experience than in the front seven. But still, the situation shouldn’t give anyone a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Overall, the situation at CB (Bradley Roby is back) is preferable to that at safety, where four seniors are back in action in 2013 (C.J. Barnett, Christian Bryant, Corey Brown and Jamie Wood), none of whom have proven they have the stuff to make diehard fans sleep soundly at night.
Even with all the skill back on offense, it would be a thrill to see Meyer’s seasoned Buckeye offense lace it up against Alabama’s D—and it might be a bit scary to see the Ohio State defense try to manage Alabama’s offense.
Especially after the Tide’s O-line has 12 games to come together as a unit.