COLUMBUS, Ohio — In order to make it into the first ever College Football Playoff, Ohio State first had to stop a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Now to advance in it, the Buckeyes are going to need to shut down another.
Limiting Melvin Gordon to 76 rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship Game, Ohio State effectively brought an end to the Wisconsin running back's Heisman chances while simultaneously clinching its spot in college football's final four.
Gordon would go on to finish second behind Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota in Heisman voting, one spot ahead of the only other player invited to New York City as a finalist for college football's most prestigious award.
That would be Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, whose Crimson Tide will take on the Buckeyes in the playoff semifinal game that is the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
While he may have finished third in Heisman voting, you'd be hard-pressed to find a player who's been more dominant than Cooper has been in 2014.
"He's one of the best receivers ever to play college football," Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said.
The numbers back up that sentiment, as Cooper's 115 receptions and 1,656 yards currently rank 21st and 25th, respectively, on college football's all-time single-season lists.
Should he reach his averages of 8.8 catches and 127.4 yards per game in the Sugar Bowl, Cooper would slide into 15th and 10th place, respectively, in the record books, with a potential appearance in the National Championship Game looming.
In fact, if Cooper reaches those numbers, a trip to Arlington, Texas for Alabama would likely be more than just a possibility. It's not a coincidence that the Crimson Tide possess one of their most potent passing attacks in recent memory despite less than standout play from senior quarterback Blake Sims.
|Amari Cooper 2014 Stats|
|All-time single-season rank||21||25||75|
The Buckeyes know this, which is why when their attention turned toward Alabama, it simultaneously turned to Cooper.
The versatility of the 6'1", 210-pounder is what stands out to Meyer most, as Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has made use of his team's best player in both the short and deep passing games alike.
"They use him as a matchup guy in screens and quick screens," Meyer said of Cooper. "But they also—obviously he's the best downfield threat there is in the game right now."
This is obvious, as evidenced by Cooper's three 200-plus-yard receiving games and hauls of 75, 79 and 80 yards in separate games.
The 2014 Biletnikoff Award winner will head to New Orleans with no shortage of momentum either, having tallied 13 receptions for 224 yards and three touchdowns in the Iron Bowl against Auburn, and 12 catches for 83 yards in the SEC Championship Game versus Missouri.
If ever there was a test to see how far the Ohio State pass defense has come in the past year, this would be it, after the Buckeyes surrendered 16 receptions, 227 yards and two touchdowns to Clemson's Sammy Watkins in last season's loss to the Tigers in the Orange Bowl.
OSU has seen significant improvement in its secondary this season, moving from 112th (267 yards per game) to 17th (188.2 YPG) in pass defense, but the Buckeyes are yet to have faced a receiver as talented as Cooper.
"Amari is not worthy of anyone comparing him to anybody else," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said after his team's win over Auburn on Nov. 29. "He is Amari Cooper. He has his own style. He's a very competitive guy who works really, really hard. Has really good speed getting in and out of breaks. Works hard in the game to get open. Does a good job of executing, has made a lot of really big plays for us this year."
Containing a player of Cooper's caliber will take a group effort from Ohio State, but if there's one Buckeyes defensive back to keep an eye on, it's cornerback Doran Grant.
A first-team All-Big Ten selection this season, Grant has grown into one of Ohio State's most reliable defensive players, tallying nine pass breakups and five interceptions on the year.
Although Cooper will be the best player that Grant has matched up with this season, the Akron, Ohio native has reason to remain confident heading into the Buckeyes' battle in the Bayou.
After all, Grant did a more than admirable job in his toughest test of the season to this point, limiting Michigan State wideout Tony Lippett to just five catches for 64 yards in OSU's Nov. 8 showdown with the Spartans.
That marked the Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year's second-lowest output in a game in which he did not score a touchdown this season and played an essential role in the Buckeyes' season-defining victory.
"He was chirping off at the mouth from the beginning," Grant said of Lippett after OSU's 49-37 win in East Lansing. "But then as the game started going, he was like, 'Hold up.'"
Trash talk shouldn't be an issue with Cooper, who is perhaps known as much for his quiet nature as he is for his big-play ability. Throughout his historic junior campaign, the Miami native has let his play do the talking, although that alone has made plenty of noise.
“He is sort of a quiet guy when it comes to how he plays," Saban said in September. “He’s the complete package when it comes to a guy that is a pretty complete player.”
But as the Buckeyes showed with Gordon—and to a lesser degree, Lippett—they've had a knack for bottling up the elite players that they've faced thus far.
Should Ohio State do the same with Cooper, it will likely find itself playing for the national championship a week later, where waiting for the Buckeyes in Arlington will either be Mariota's second-ranked Ducks or last season's Heisman Trophy winner in Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.
In other words, to win a national title, Ohio State is going to have to pull off a Heisman finalist trifecta. Welcome to the playoff age of college football.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.