Standing in its way is the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1, 7-1), a program that has won three national championships in the last five seasons.
OSU coach Urban Meyer, who has faced Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide three times in his career, said Tuesday that he is looking forward to the challenge.
“I think it’s just a great opportunity,” Meyer said. “We’re very well-balanced, as are they. I think we’re one of the top offenses in the country. Certainly they are. We’re much better than we have been on defense. We’re getting better. On special teams we’re very good. So those are two teams that are pretty well-rounded. And that’s the first thing you think about when you face an Alabama team.”
Leading the Tide offensively is junior wide receiver Amari Cooper. Cooper, who finished third in the Heisman race, accounted for exactly half of Alabama starting quarterback Blake Sims’ completions with 115.
Cooper enters the 2015 Allstate Sugar Bowl with 1,656 receiving yards to go along with 14 touchdown receptions on the year.
Meyer said containing Cooper is his main concern when Alabama has the ball, but added the Buckeyes (12-1, 8-0) can’t overlook the other weapons on the Crimson Tide offense.
“That’s probably challenge number one,” Meyer said when discussing Cooper. “And the other thing that they have those two good backs. When you take two players to stop one, that’s leaving something else open. And that’s what every offense is looking for. When you have that checker and you know you can take two out and now you have nine left, that’s that whole part of the game, that chess match between the two coordinators.”
The man likely defending Cooper, OSU senior cornerback Doran Grant, said he is ready for the challenge on college football’s biggest stage.
“Definitely I’m looking forward to it, especially on the Sugar Bowl stage, first college playoff, semifinals. Great teams, great matchups,” Grant said. “It’s one of those things I’ll play my boundary and we’ll go. I know we’ll have some matchups. That’s what I’m looking forward to, especially at a big stage like this. That’s what the whole playoff is about anyway.”
OSU junior linebacker Joshua Perry said that despite its recent history against star receivers, he believes the Buckeye secondary will rise to the occasion.
“I am really confident personally because I trust those guys and we spend a lot of time around them,” Perry said. “We have been through a lot of tough scenarios with those guys so we know what they are made out of.”
The backs that Meyer and Perry discussed, junior T.J. Yeldon and sophomore Derrick Henry, have combined for 1,827 rushing yards and 10 scores on the ground apiece for the Alabama offense.
In order to take the pressure off of the secondary, Perry said he, along with the other six up front, will have to do their part.
“We are going to need to as a front seven do a really good job of stopping the run because if we can’t stop the run, they are not going to have to worry about throwing it to Cooper,” Perry said.
OSU sophomore defensive lineman and unanimous All-American Joey Bosa said Tuesday that while the Alabama offensive line has impressed all season, he is confident in his unit’s ability to perform.
“(They are) big talented guys. Athletic. Big, big dudes,” Bosa said of the Crimson Tide offensive line. “And we haven’t really matched up with someone like this before, this athletic, this big, but like I said yesterday, I don’t think they’ve seen someone‑‑ a D line as consistent as us and as physical as we’re going to be. It’s going to be interesting to see.”
On the flip side of the ball, redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones is set to make just his second career start, following his masterful performance in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game in which he threw for 257 yards and three scores, all to senior wide receiver Devin Smith.
Smith said that despite the pressure that comes with starting in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Jones has been preparing with confidence leading up to the game.
“You can tell that he’s focusing on the look from his drop step and his motion throwing the ball you can really tell he’s a lot focused on that,” Smith said. “But at the same time he’s going in there like he started before and not letting all this get to him.”
Jones said Tuesday that while the notoriety he has received has been nice, he acknowledged that the Sugar Bowl is not something he, or his teammates are taking lightly.
“The experience has been unbelievable, but the preparation not just by myself, by my teammates, has been more special and more prepared and more ready than I’ve ever seen since I’ve been here,” Jones said. “So we’re preparing because it’s a one‑game season.”
The defense that Jones is preparing to go up against this season has shown its weaknesses in 2014, as the Crimson Tide are allowing 223.7 yards per game through the air, ranking 58th in the country in that category.
Despite Alabama’s troubles stopping the pass game, Jones said he does not expect for the Crimson Tide to change their identity for just one game.
“They’re not trying to trick you, they’re trying to line up and play football and beat you,” Jones said. “So all that tricking, they don’t need to do that.They have the top guys in the country.”
One of those top guys is Alabama senior linebacker and Springfield, Ohio, native Trey DePriest, who said while he would typically watch multiple games on an opposing quarterback, the Big Ten title game will be a good starting point to prepare for Jones.
“That was his only game but you still have a lot to go off because he had a lot of success for that game,” DePriest said. “For him to show up like he did, what is it 59‑something and on that type of stage, him being thrown into the fire like that, I mean, he handled himself great. That’s a great tape to watch.”
OSU sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott said that while he hasn’t been in the starting backfield with Jones for long, he is confident in the Glenville High School product because of how he has looked in practice leading up to the game.
“He is more of an even-calm guy. Just through bowl practice you have seen so much of the progression,” Elliott said. “In the film room getting better and better every day, just him looking so much more smooth as bowl practice went on. The timing with the wide receivers seemed spot on and everything just seemed like it is clicking on all cylinders.”
Should Jones go down, he said redshirt-sophomore H-back Jalin Marshall would resume the duties behind center, something Marshall said he is okay with.
“I am very confident in my game. Being a confident player, wanting to be an entertainer as a player,” Marshall said Tuesday. “So I feel that if it was for me to be a quarterback, then I am very confident in my arm and confident in my team. They have my back in any situation.”
While Alabama boasts the No. 1 rush defense in the country, Elliott could very well be relied on to take the pressure off of guys like Marshall and Jones, as he rushed for 1,402 yards on his own in 2014.
Elliott said that the Buckeyes have endured fast paced week of practice, and added that he believes that will benefit the OSU squad.
“We have definitely revved it up a bit, there has been no foot off the pedal. Coach Meyer has definitely had us going,” Elliott said.
After all the game preparation still lies the temptations of New Orleans, however Perry said he is not worried about the teams discipline leading up to the game.
“With some teams it is kind of tough. I don’t think it is very tough with this team. We came down here with a business-first mentality, I think we did a great job with that. And then our leaders have been so good trying to get us to stay focussed and making sure guys are staying focussed,” Perry said. “They imposed their own curfew, earlier than what the coaches said we could have because they know how serious this game is and how much it means to us. We really appreciate that out of our leadership.”
The Buckeye leaders will try to keep their season alive as OSU is set to clash with the Crimson Tide on New Year’s Day at 8:30 p.m. in New Orleans.