As the first month of the season is coming to a close, the elephant in the room is too irresistible to ignore. What team has the best chance of beating the Alabama Crimson Tide on January 6 in the BCS National Championship game at the Rose Bowl?
While it is not a given, Alabama’s chances of making the title game are pretty high at this point. Outside of the game against LSU on November 9, Alabama should breeze through its remaining schedule. The edge favors the Crimson Tide since the game is in Tuscaloosa.
After they dust off the Tigers, it is off to win the SEC Championship Game again and then the BCS title game for a chance to three-peat. Of course this is over simplified, but this is Alabama. They’ll get it done.
With all due respect to Florida State, Clemson and Oregon, who could easily make it to the title game, the only team with the entire package on and off the field to dethrone Alabama is Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have Urban Meyer, who is enemy number one in SEC territory. He also has the rings, the attitude and the SEC arrogance to pull off the upset. Meyer started the SEC’s run by beating the Buckeyes 41-14 in the desert. Can he stop it by beating his arch nemesis in the shrine that all Big Ten teams covet?
Deep down, Alabama probably needs to beat a team like Ohio State to legitimize its streak. Clearly, they are the benchmark in college football, but the last two championship games feel a little hollow. Notre Dame was overrated and LSU forgot to show up. That is not Alabama’s fault, but a team should have to break a sweat to win a championship game.
Ohio State fans would love to get the SEC monkey off their back. Beating Alabama won’t erase all the painful memories of past losses, but it will give them bragging rights for a change.
Winning a BCS National Championship by beating Ohio State would cap an amazing four-year run for Alabama and probably vault the Tide to the top of the list as the best college football team ever.
Taking down the king won’t be easy, but there are three components that must happen in order to do it.
Win the battle in the trenches
Nothing went right for the Buckeyes in their losses to Florida and LSU in the BCS title games, but the most glaring weakness was the offensive line’s inability to block the vastly superior defensive lines. The speed coming from the outside was too difficult to contain, leaving the line completely overwhelmed and the playmakers helpless at the point of attack.
This year appears to be different. Like most great teams, the engine starts up front. The Buckeye offensive line is loaded with talent, experience and depth. Ed Warinner has done a fabulous job coaching the line into one of the finest units in the country.
Center Corey Linsley and left tackle Jack Mewhort are the key players and guards Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall are both outstanding in the middle. Newcomer Taylor Decker is performing well in the right tackle spot, but he has yet to face any serious threat.
Against Alabama’s 3-4 defense, the performance of the offensive line would likely determine the outcome. Linsley will need to control Alabama’s nose guard and Hall and Norwell will need to play extremely physical to get free from the blocks and up into the big and athletic linebackers to create space for the runners.
Of course this is easier said than done because the talent level is incredible and Saban is a defensive wizard. If the running game is working, he’ll eventually scheme to slow it down. To counter, Ohio State will need to have success throwing the ball.
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State’s defensive line is a work in progress. The future is bright with budding stars like Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington and Michael Bennett who all have the rare combination of size, power and speed. The only drawback is they are raw and need more experience before they can be expected to win the battle against an elite level offense.
Fortunately, Alabama’s offensive line is inexperienced too. By season’s end, both of these units will be much improved. The edge would favor the Crimson Tide line because they’ll face better competition throughout the season.
The primary objective for the defense should be stopping the run. Alabama rushed for 620 yards in its three BCS National Championship Games. If they limit T.J. Yeldon, the Buckeyes have a good shot at keeping the game close because their secondary is good enough to go toe-to-toe against A.J. McCarron and company.
Balance on offense
The Crimson Tide’s defense is always stout and thrives on getting their opponents in long yardage situations where they can attack and close the middle of the field.
The only way to offset this sizable advantage is to have a balanced attack led by Braxton Miller.
Forget the quarterback controversy brewing in Columbus. Miller is the starter plain and simple. He may be prone to minor injuries, but he is tough and resilient. His leadership is needed for Ohio State to win a championship.
Joining him in the backfield is a stable of productive running backs. Jordan Hall has been taking full advantage of Carlos Hyde’s suspension. He already has 402 yards rushing with six touchdowns and is showing no signs of rust coming off an injury-filled 2012 season.
Hyde returns this week. He may not earn his full-time starter position back, but Meyer will need his power as the grind of the season wears on. Their one-two punch would be critical to keep the legs fresh against a very physical Alabama defense.
After Saban makes the proper adjustments to minimize the running game, Miller’s arm will be needed to move the ball effectively. Last season the passing game was a liability. That’s not the case anymore.
The Buckeyes finally have the outside threats that make Meyer’s read-option attack even more efficient. Through the first three games, Devin Smith has done a good job at stretching the field with his speed and Corey Brown has come up huge in the end zone. Combined, they already have six touchdowns, which is only three less than all of last season.
The X-factor that is making the entire offense more dynamic is freshman Dontre Wilson. He is quickly proving what his speed can do on the perimeter. He has 315 all-purpose yards with one touchdown, and his playmaking ability in the open field is giving Meyer all kinds of options on the edge. His production will only improve as the season progresses.
The most important factor for the offense will be first down execution. Gaining three to four yards on first down will keep them in manageable situations. If they fail on first down, the game will be a nightmare.
Avoid self-inflicted wounds
Ohio State has the ability to beat Alabama. What they cannot overcome are turnovers and penalties because the Crimson Tide flourish when they force their opponents into making costly mistakes.
In their three BCS Championship games, Alabama is plus-six in turnovers and has 64 less penalty yards.
By comparison, in the last two games against Texas A&M and the 2011 loss to LSU, Alabama is minus-two in turnover margin and has 96 more penalty yards. The Buckeyes would need to win these battles to win the game.
If this game does happen, it would be the fourth BCS National Championship game for each school, tying Oklahoma as the teams with the most appearances. The buildup would be astonishing.
Among the intriguing storylines would be Saban vying for his fifth national title and Meyer for his third, Meyer potentially matching Saban as the only coach in the Associate Press poll era who has won a national title with two different schools and the Big Ten reestablishing itself in the conference pecking order.
Few can match Saban when it comes to keeping everyone on the team focused and disciplined. If Meyer wants to get his title back as the best college football coach, he’ll need to beat him at his own game by getting Alabama out of its comfort zone.
Outside of Columbus, not many would give Ohio State much of a chance to win this game. Meyer is stockpiling SEC-level talent, but the program is not on the same level yet. The Buckeyes would need to play a flawless game, but that is what it takes to be a champion. Unfortunately, Ohio State is probably a year away from winning it all.
The young defense will make tremendous strides over the course of the year, but the leadership of A.J. McCarron, C.J. Mosley and Saban will find a way to exploit the inexperience. Alabama would pull away in the fourth quarter to win a close game.