Ridgeland High School in Rossville, Ga., is just over a three-hour drive from the University of Alabama.
The drive from Ridgeland to Ohio State is about four hours longer.
In 2013, the football program up north in Columbus was on the rise — coach Urban Meyer had just led his Buckeyes to an undefeated season in his first year on the job. But the program down south in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was already on top of the world. Coach Nick Saban had just led the Crimson Tide to its second-straight national title, and third in four years.
The Southeastern Conference was the pinnacle of college football, and nearly every top recruit seemed destined to play for Saban.
The same can be said for Vonn Bell, who was a five-star rated safety at Ridgeland.
According to Scout.com, Bell’s final list came down to OSU, Alabama and Tennessee, and according to a close-to-accepted national opinion, ‘Bama was the place for him.
Eventually, Bell’s time to make a decision came, and he announced his college choice live on ESPN on Feb. 6, 2013. The moderator introduced him as a Tennessee fan and mentioned his Southern roots, but the school he announced wasn’t Alabama and its mascot isn’t the Volunteers.
“For next year, I will be attending the Ohio State University,” Bell said after a speech thanking those who had helped him get to that position.
He then donned a scarlet OSU hat, and explained his decision.
“You know, Urban Meyer is on a mission right now for a national championship,” Bell said. “You see this year he went 12-0 with his guys he didn’t even recruit this year.”
Bell chose the Buckeyes and Columbus, probably not for the cold weather, but because of the impression Meyer had made.
“I just felt more comfortable with coach Meyer because I had spent more time with him and his staff,” Bell said, according to a Feb. 11, 2013, The Lantern article.
Not even two full years later, the Rossville, Ga., native is set to start for OSU against the coach and team he could have picked.
Meyer said Bell has become one of the keys to the Buckeyes’ success — including their run to the first-ever College Football Playoff — since he chose to spurn the SEC.
“He’s a very talented guy, highly recruited guy … that could have really went anywhere and to go down to the south and — I know with Tennessee and Alabama, and he grew up a Vols fan,” Meyer said Sunday during a teleconference. “So he’s a big part of who we are.”
But before finishing his sophomore season tied for first on the team with five interceptions, and second on the team with 78 total tackles, Bell’s career might not have started out the way a five-star recruit would hope.
Bell played in all 14 games as a freshman, but contributed mostly on special teams. He totaled just 19 tackles and one interception — which didn’t come until his first start as a Buckeye: OSU’s Orange Bowl loss to Clemson to end the season.
Looking back, Meyer said getting Bell on the field earlier and more often could have been beneficial for the Buckeyes.
“He’s having a pretty good year, he’s our starting safety,” Meyer said. “Came in last year, was very instrumental on special teams. I probably should have pushed harder as far as getting him in the game a little more as a freshman.”
But even if Meyer would’ve given the second-year more playing time last season looking back, Bell didn’t even start the first game of 2014.
Instead, sophomore safety Cam Burrows started the Buckeyes’ opener against Navy back in August, but Burrows didn’t last long. Bell ended up coming into the game and playing starter’s minutes, and hasn’t looked back.
Bell and the Buckeyes peaked over the weekend, when OSU shellacked Wisconsin on its way to a 59-0 win in the Big Ten Championship Game, effectively sealing its New Year’s date with Saban and the Crimson Tide. Bell tied for the team lead in the game with seven total tackles — including four solo tackles — and had a key first-half interception as the Buckeyes extended their lead to 17-0 on the ensuing drive.
Considering Bell’s success at OSU, Saban said during a Sunday teleconference that he would expect Bell to have a similar impact if he had signed with the Crimson Tide.
“Well, we thought Vonn Bell was an outstanding player and certainly wanted him in our program,” Saban said. “I think if he was in our program right now, he would be a very productive player for us.”
Had Bell in fact chosen Saban and the Crimson Tide over Meyer and the Buckeyes, it would’ve been hard to blame him. But after making his announcement, Bell expressed his intentions of winning a national championship at OSU, and even mentioned that path could pit the Buckeyes against Alabama.
“We all on a mission, we all want to do something special ‘cause we gotta bring everything up,” Bell said on ESPN moments after his announcement. “We gonna try to beat ‘Bama and everything, so we gonna meet them at the National Championship. You know, we gonna get that crystal ball, holding it up high.”
Down to the basic details, Bell’s words came true. He and the Buckeyes are set to face the Crimson Tide with title hopes on the line, but at the time, the College Football Playoff didn’t exist. In 2014, OSU will have to go through Alabama to win a national title — but not in the title game itself.
And despite the trophy no longer being a crystal ball, Bell and the Buckeyes’ goal remains the same.
OSU and Alabama are set to meet at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans at 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 1.