Alabama-Ohio State title game is the 'challenge college football needs'
Think about the thrilling 42-35 shootout in the 2015 Sugar Bowl between Ohio State and Alabama that christened the College Football Playoff era.
Now, imagine the possibility of a rematch in this year's national title game at Levi's Stadium on Jan. 7. We know it's early. We know Nick Saban and Urban Meyer won't even entertain the thought without mentioning "rat poison" or "desert islands."
That won't cloud our imagination.
This is the matchup Sporting News has queued up in its latest bowl projections. It's the one that presumes the Buckeyes avoid Big Ten potholes against Michigan State and Michigan, and Alabama takes care of LSU and Auburn in the SEC. It's the one that supersedes the possibility of rematches with Georgia or Clemson.
And it's the matchup John Hayes, producer of "The Paul Finebaum Show" on ESPN Radio and the SEC Network, has heard about almost every single day, in some form, since that Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015.
"Alabama knows, Nick Saban knows and Alabama fans know that the last time they faced Ohio State they lost," Hayes told SN. "You know Nick Saban looks for anything to motivate his players, and I promise you that the opportunity to face Ohio State is the challenge this team wants."
Hayes pauses, then backs that up one more time.
"It's the challenge that college football needs."
When you look at those teams through five weeks — Alabama is No. 1 and Ohio State is No. 3, with Georgia in between — it's difficult not to see that challenge lining up. That includes dynamic storylines that would rile up almost everyone in Tuscaloosa and Columbus.
There’s the Heisman Trophy debate between Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins, quarterbacks at the controls of two of the most efficient offenses in the FBS. There’s the coaching matchup between Saban and Meyer, college football's only two head coaches with national titles at different schools. If both teams somehow meet as unbeatens, it could be the game that finally challenges the legendary matchup between USC and Texas in that 2006 Rose Bowl Game — the crown jewel game of the Bowl Championship Series.
The challenge for Saban, Meyer and fans of both sides, is to not look that far ahead, even if the collision course seems inevitable. It looked that way last year for much of the season, but Alabama lost its final regular-season game to Auburn.
Earlier, an inexplicable loss to Iowa kept the Buckeyes out of the Playoff. Two-loss Ohio State won the Big Ten championship, but one-loss Alabama took the No. 4 spot anyway without the SEC title.
Just another score to settle between these two teams.
"I think from Ohio State's perspective it's just getting into the Playoff, having missed it last year and two years ago having the bad experience that occurred against Clemson," Ohio State play-by-play announcer Paul Keels told SN. "I think anybody that gets in understands that in order to win it most likely you are going to have to go through Alabama."
Nobody challenged the defending national champions in September. No one has gotten within three touchdowns of Alabama, which ranks first in scoring offense (54.2 points per game) and is tied for fifth in scoring defense (13). It's evolving into what could be Saban's most terrifying team yet.
Louisiana coach Billy Napier, who served as Alabama's receivers coach from 2013 to 2016, is the latest coach to see that machine up close in a 56-14 loss. The word that tumbles out of Napier's mouth most when talking about Alabama: precision.
"It looks like they ordered all of their offensive players out of a catalog," Napier said during the Sun Belt teleconference Monday. "If you just picked whatever you wanted at each position, this is what you would order."
That starts at quarterback with Tagovailoa, who leads the FBS with a 238.3 quarterback rating and who hasn’t thrown a pass in the fourth quarter yet. He has 14 touchdowns, no interceptions and just two sacks on the year, all while completing 75 percent of his passes. But Hayes insists there’s more to Alabama’s offense than just its Heisman-caliber quarterback.
"I don't think this Alabama team has the type of player Amari Cooper is or the type of player Derrick Henry is. They're once-in-a-generation players at Alabama," Hayes said. “For me, you look at this Alabama team and they don't have that one star but they are so much deeper than they have been at the skill positions in past years. With that, Tua spreads the ball around to all those playmakers."
Ohio State for the season has at least been more battle tested than Alabama. A neutral-site game against No. 15 TCU tested the Buckeyes' mettle in the final week of Meyer's suspension. Their thrilling victory against No. 9 Penn State came during a "White Out" in Happy Valley, one of the more intimidating scenes in college football.
The week before Ohio State dashed Penn State's Big Ten championship hopes, however, it demolished Tulane in Ohio Stadium. Ohio State jumped out to a 21-0 lead, and Haskins threw five touchdown passes by halftime. The Buckeyes eventually won 49-6, but the score wasn't what left the biggest impression on Tulane coach Willie Fritz.
"I've played some pretty good teams, but that was the best-looking team I've seen," Fritz said. "They were just really big. They were long, physical. They played tough and played with great effort. That's what make them elite. Sometimes elite teams don't play with the effort that we saw against those guys."
And that was without defensive end Nick Bosa, arguably the best player in college football, who is still recovering from core surgery. Ohio State ranks fourth in the FBS in total offense (557.0 yards per game), one spot ahead of Alabama (553.2). The Buckeyes are tied with Georgia with a plus-151 point differential, which among top-10 teams is second only to the Crimson Tide, at plus-206.
The Buckeyes have a dynamic quarterback of their own. Haskins, who ranks second in the nation with 19 passing touchdowns, leads an offense that averages 49.0 points per game and won track meets against the Horned Frogs (40-28) and Nittany Lions (27-26). J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber each average more than 5.0 yards per carry. Ohio State has rediscovered the same formula that worked the last time they saw Alabama.
"You have to compare the depth and the style to the year they won the national championship mostly because of the quarterback," Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said of Ohio State. "Haskins is a lot like Cardale (Jones). He gives them the ability to go vertical with the passing game. … Dobbins and Weber are a lot like what they had with Ezekiel Elliott at tailback."
There’s also a tangible, emotional edge with this team, considering offensive coordinator Ryan Day served as interim coach for the first three games of the season. That culminated with the escape from Happy Valley on Saturday. Tackle Isaiah Prince stood under a large beam in the bowels of Beaver Stadium in the aftermath of Ohio State's win. The senior offensive tackle offered a tempered explanation for how that happened.
"This is something we've worked for," Prince said. "That was a great team we played against, but this was something we prepared for all year. It's something we have seen on our schedule."
We know the remaining schedules for both teams. Ohio State still must face No. 20 Michigan State and No. 15 Michigan, and avoid a hiccup like last year's loss at Iowa, a 55-24 anomaly that proved the tiebreaker for Alabama. The Crimson Tide still face No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Auburn and a potential SEC championship matchup against No. 2 Georgia.
Are the Buckeyes the most logical choice to meet Alabama in the title game?
"I think they would be one of them," Keels said. "Georgia might be in that category. Oklahoma possibly. Maybe we still have to think about Notre Dame at some point."
So, why is Ohio State the challenge for Alabama that college football needs?
With these teams, it always goes back to the coaches. Saban and Meyer have split four head-to-head meetings, all of them as top-10 teams, including two No. 1-vs.-No. 2 meetings in 2008-09. The national title stage is the next logical step in this legendary coaching rivalry.
"It could be bigger because Urban Meyer would have the chance to beat Nick Saban for the second time in the College Football Playoff era and steal some of Nick Saban's thunder," Hayes said. "There's only one man in college football that can rain on Nick Saban's parade, and it's Urban Meyer."
Why would it be better than the last meeting? Just look at the talent. According to 247Sports, Ohio State has 65 players with a four-star rating or higher, including 11 five-star players. It is on par with some of the deepest teams in the country in terms of talent. Alabama has 62 players with a four-star rating or higher, including 12 players with a five-star rating.
For those counting, that’s 127 combined players with a recruiting ranking of four stars or more between the Tide and Buckeyes. When that kind of talent hits the field at the same time, everybody's watching. It’s only amplified when SEC and Big Ten teams hook up in the postseason.
The ratings follow. The 2015 semifinal between Ohio State and Alabama drew a 15.2 Nielsen rating and drew 28.27 million viewers. The 2014 title game featuring Ohio State-Oregon (18.6, 34.15) and 2017 title game between Alabama and Georgia (15.6, 28.43 million) are the only ones to draw higher ratings.
At minimum, this would allow another region outside the Southeast to have a rooting interest in the championship game for the first time in three years. It could create the same heavyweight effect that Texas-USC had in 2005. That game drew a 21.7 Nielsen rating and was watched by 35.6 million viewers. That could happen if Saban and Meyer lead 14-0 teams to the title game, especially considering no team has finished 15-0 since 1899. The buildup would certainly be comparable, even with a College Football Playoff semifinal in between.
The collision course circles back to the matchup itself.
"With the talent that plays in the game — they are both so talented — that the difference in talent can't be the difference in the game," DiNardo said. "The difference in the game, between Alabama and Ohio State, if it comes to that, will be the same old stuff. Turnovers, kick game, moving the ball, securing it, all the football adages."
That's the allure in a top-heavy season — not to mention that the entire country would be pressed for a difficult decision on a rooting interest. Do you go for Ohio State and Meyer, who would win a fourth national title after enduring an off-field scandal this summer that nearly cost him his job? Or do you root for Alabama and Saban, who would win a sixth championship at Alabama and record seventh overall?
Hayes hears that conversation all the time too — and his answer is fuel for the endless debate.
"There is one situation where the country would root for Ohio State and it's Alabama," he said. "They are the Dallas Cowboys of college football. You watch them for two reasons. You watch them because you want them to win, or you watch them to see them lose."
That's why college football needs this matchup — now, perhaps more than ever.
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