How does the playoff matchup set for 8:30 p.m. Thursday between #1 Alabama and #4 Ohio State play out differently this time around?
To the particulars.
Alabama offense vs. Ohio State defense
This isn’t your granddaddy’s ‘Bama offense. The Tide rolled up 37.1 points and 490.5 yards per game in 2014, getting 209.5 yards per game on the ground, and 5.1 yards per rushing attempt, and a solid campaign out of first-year starting quarterback Blake Sims (64.8 percent completion rate, 26 touchdowns, seven interceptions). Look out for wideout Amari Cooper (115 catches, 1,656 yards, 14 TDs) and tailbacks T.J. Yeldon (932 yards, 5.1 yards per carry) and Derrick Henry (895 yards, 5.6 yards per carry).
Ohio State gives up 21.0 points per game, but just 328.0 yards per game. A number that stands out as a way of explanation is the points off turnovers data point. The Buckeyes offense turned the ball over 20 times in 2014, not anything out of the ordinary, to say the least, but opponents turned those miscues into 152 points, just short of 13 points per game. Yeah, wow. The rush D is pretty good (3.9 yards per rush), and the pass defense intercepted opposing QBs 21 times, and Ohio State forced 29 turnovers overall, which the offense translated into 243 points. (Is there something to the way B1G tracks points off turnovers that’s different than the way the rest of college football does it?)
Ohio State offense vs. Alabama defense
Ohio State is productive on offense, putting up 45.0 points and 507.6 yards per game. The Buckeyes gained 260.8 yards per game on the ground (5.8 yards per attempt). Third-string QB Cardale Jones made just one start, but made it count, leading Ohio State to 558 yards of total offense in a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. Ezekiel Elliot ran for 1,402 yards (6.5 yards per attempt). Watch out for game-breaking deep threat Devin Smith at wideout (26.6 yards per catch, 11 TDs among his 30 receptions in 2014).
Alabama is Alabama. A Nick Saban defense isn’t going to do anything flashy, but it will stop you. The 2014 Tide D gave up 16.6 points and 312.4 yards per game, limiting opponents to 88.6 yards rushing per game and 2.8 yards per attempt, basically making you a one-dimensional team and teeing off on your passing game when that’s all you have left.
Alabama placekicker Adam Griffith is merely average (12-of-19 on field goals, 7-of-13 from 30+). Punter J.K. Scott is elite (47.0 yards per kick, 26 of his 48 punts inside the 20). Ohio State placekicker Sean Nuernberger is also merely average (11-of-18 on field goals, 5-of-10 from 30+). Punter Cameron Johnson is also elite (45.1 yards per punt, 22 of his 39 punts inside the 20). Nothing special in either return game.
How This One Plays Out
Both teams can score in prodigious quantities, but expect Saban and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer to go conservative, aiming to keep things simple and position themselves to pounce when their opponent makes a mistake. These two teams are pretty much mirror images of each other, with the only slight advantage going to Alabama for its stout run defense, everything else basically being equal.
This one is a pick ‘em, and I’m going more with my gut than my head in picking Ohio State in the upset.
– Column by Chris Graham