Talk about a game with a bunch of storylines!
If you had told me before the season that the Ohio State Buckeyes would end up playing the Florida Gators in a bowl game, I would have pictured both teams with decent records.
I didn't expect a whole lot from OSU this season with all of the offseason problems and suspensions. I certainly expected more than 6-6, but all things considered, the team played well at times.
I knew coach Luke Fickell didn't have much of a chance beyond this season, as OSU is a program that can bring in top-tier coaches. I never in a million years thought Urban Meyer would be coaching next season, though. I was never a fan of his at Florida, but I have to admit I'm excited for the future of Ohio State football now.
Regarding this year's Gator Bowl, can you imagine a better matchup from a media standpoint?
You have two of the nation's most high-profile schools, both coming off down years (identical 6-6 records). Both teams average 25 points per game and allow 20. Neither team played well on the road, and both had the exact same division records and conference records.
It is also a rematch of the 2007 BCS title game; Urban Meyer was at Florida when the Gators dominated that game.
He will now be watching both teams as Luke Fickell coaches his final game as the Buckeyes' head coach. This is as odd a bowl game as I can ever remember from just about every standpoint. Looking ahead, there are many things the Buckeyes will need to do to beat the Gators on their home turf.
Here are five keys to victory for the scarlet and gray.
Braxton Miller has to be allowed to play to his strengths when the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Florida Gators in the Gator Bowl. The game isn't until Jan. 2, 2012, which will play a role in the game plan. In the past, Ohio State has often come out looking to pass.
They need to run early and often this time around!
Miller is a dynamic athlete who knows how to run effectively. He still has a lot of work to do to improve his accuracy throwing the football. This is all the more reason to allow him to create early and often.
Miller is the Buckeyes' leading rusher, with 695 yards on 144 carries, and has scored seven times on the ground.
The main reason the Buckeyes lost to Michigan was that Miller couldn't connect down the field. He had three opportunities that would have been huge gains—more than likely touchdowns. He ran well all day, and he should be able to do the same against this average Gators team.
When he does throw the football, Miller is at his best when he is on the move. The coaching staff needs to allow him to roll out and make plays. Play-action passes and roll-out plays should be the main focus in the passing game. Miller seems to struggle throwing from the pocket more than he does when being chased.
Play to this kids strengths, OSU—he isn't a pocket passer!
The Ohio State Buckeyes have several good running backs, and, of course, one of the best running quarterbacks in the country in Braxton Miller. If they expect to beat the Florida Gators in the Gator Bowl, they will need to run the football.
Not only are the Buckeyes successful when they run, but they are also four deep at running back—not counting Miller. Dan Herron, Carlos Hyde, Jordan Hall and even Rod Smith are capable starters.
Having all of these guys is a true luxury, as they are all able to stay fresh. Rod Smith didn't get many carries this season, but he is only a freshman. He averaged four yards a carry on 29 attempts and is built like an NFL power back at 6'3", 230 pounds!
All of the running backs I mentioned, along with Braxton Miller, collectively averaged over four yards per carry on the season. As a team, the Buckeyes carried the ball 525 times for 2,345 yards (4.5 YPC) and 20 touchdowns!
Running the ball doesn't excite the fantasy football crowd or the media, but it wins football games and controls the clock.
Much like the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Florida Gators have struggled passing the ball. This has caused them to rely largely on their running game, and they have a few good running backs just as the Buckeyes do.
The difference between the Gators and Buckeyes is that Braxton Miiler is a freshman—just learning—and Gators quarterback John Brantley is a senior.
Brantley hasn't turned out to be a very good quarterback at all, and the Buckeyes must force him to beat them. I know that it will be tough to shut down Florida's run game completely but they need to limit the big plays.
Brantley has completed 132 of 224 passes for 1,912 yards and 10 touchdowns, but also has six interceptions. He is simply an average quarterback at this level, and the Gators try to hide his weaknesses. They call a lot of short passes and run the ball a lot. 8.54 yards per passing attempt isn't too bad, but Brantley doesn't pass many times a game.
The Gators' running game is powered by seniors Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps. Rainey has 790 yards on 155 carries and two touchdowns, an average of 5.1 yards per carry. Demps has 539 yards on 91 carries and six touchdowns, averaging 5.9 yards a carry.
As you can see, Florida will be looking to run over Ohio State. They aren't going to throw the ball much unless they have to. Ohio State and Florida are very similar in this regard, but Brantley isn't a running threat at all, whereas Miller is a dual threat.
Miller isn't accurate at this point, but he has the arm strength and running ability to keep defenses honest.
Ohio State cannot afford any turnovers or big mistakes in the Gator Bowl.
In a game as evenly matched as this one, one turnover could be the difference between a win or a loss. I know this goes without saying, but with this offense, the Buckeyes can't afford them. All of the Buckeyes losses—other than the loss to Miami—were by seven points or less. There were costly turnovers and mistakes in all of them.
Braxton Miller especially needs to play within himself. He cannot afford to go out there and try to be something he isn't yet, which is a passer.
If Miller goes out and slings the ball all over the place, the Buckeyes won't win the game. After the Michigan game, he knows there is a lot he needs to work on, so I'm sure he will make good choices.
If the pass isn't there, Braxton needs to tuck the ball and run. He gets a little loose with the football at times—put it away, man!
Other than the occasional bad decision, Miller has progressed nicely. He makes good reads even when he misses the throw, which is encouraging for the future. The hardest part is making the right read, which he has improved on. The accuracy will come as he practices and gets even more used to the speed of college football.
It would be easy for the players to be thinking ahead to next season with all of the talk about Urban Meyer and his dream staff looming over their heads.
The seniors won't be, of course, since this is their last game as Buckeyes, but the younger players can't help being excited. There is more hype around this coaching hire than I have ever seen at Ohio State, and for good reason. The players, coaches and Ohio State fans know how successful Meyer was at Florida.
He has won championships and is a great recruiter. His spread offense is as good as it gets, and Braxton Miller especially has to be fired up! He should thrive in an offense that made a less athletic Tim Tebow into one of the greatest college players of all time.
There is no reason Miller shouldn't be successful as well.
This group of players needs to stay in the moment with current head coach Luke Fickell and bring home a win. In a season that has been average at best, this would be a great transition into next season. What better way to prepare for the Urban Meyer era than to beat his former team?