Ohio StateAP Photo/Carlos OsorioOhio State overcame the early loss of two of its star players to win a Big Ten title and a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If Ohio State were counting solely on the brightest stars to light a path to the College Football Playoff, it never would have found it.

The presumptive centerpiece of the offense, Braxton Miller, was lost during training camp and never took a snap at quarterback this season. Arguably the most touted returning defender, Noah Spence, never played a down, either, because of what turned into a permanent suspension.

Those weren't the only holes the No. 4 Buckeyes would have to fill after losing a handful of significant contributors from last year's roster. Any chance of developing into a contender was always going to include contributions from fresh faces and new leaders. Even without what appeared to be Ohio State's most important players on both sides of the ball, as it stormed to a conference title and into the Allstate Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Alabama, it morphed into the most dangerous kind of team: a complete constellation.

"Incredible year, a year that if you would have told me back in August when I saw our starting quarterback go down that this would happen, I would have said, Not yet," coach Urban Meyer said. "You just never can devalue the chemistry on a team, the closeness of a team. And then when you deal with tragedy and other things that our team has experienced throughout the year, it was a learning experience.

"I learned more from our players maybe this year than in a long time."

Those lessons were working in both directions between the coaching staff and a roster long on talent but short on experience. The trust that was cultivated clearly helped forge a strong bond among the Buckeyes as they dealt with all kinds of on-the-field adversity and the death of teammate Kosta Karageorge.

From a football perspective, the hits started coming even before the season opened. Losing Miller, a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, to a second shoulder injury seemed like enough to knock Ohio State out of the Big Ten running. The loss forced the Buckeyes to reload the entire attack on short notice. They were already breaking in four new offensive linemen and trying to replace their leading rusher and receiver.

On defense, Ohio State was also seeking to replace a pair of first-round draft picks who left early for the NFL. On top of that, the Buckeyes would soon be without another future pro when Spence failed a second drug test and was ruled permanently ineligible. This left them without the piece that was supposed to give them potentially the best overall unit in the country up front.

Difficulty filling these spots became painfully apparent in Week 2, when Virginia Tech stunned the Buckeyes by beating them in the Horseshoe. But it also proved to be an opportunity for Ohio State to rally together, close ranks and establish an us-against-the-world mentality that would fuel its rapid rise.

"I think it's the closeness of our family," running back Ezekiel Elliott said. "We're truly a family, we've been through so much together, and I mean, it's going to take a lot to tear us apart.

"We've been underdogs this season; a lot of people haven't believed in us. If it was losing Braxton or losing J.T. [Barrett], a lot of people have lost faith in us. All we have is each other, and we're going to keep this whole brotherhood together, keep grinding and keep pushing."

Singling out any one member as the engine behind Ohio State's success is almost impossible -- which is perhaps the primary reason the team is headed to the semifinal to face the Crimson Tide.

Barrett set a Big Ten record for touchdowns after replacing Miller, but he suffered his own injury. That thrust Cardale Jones into the lineup at quarterback, and the offense didn't miss a beat in a 59-0 destruction of Wisconsin.

Joey Bosa did become a bona fide star in his own right at defensive end as a finalist for a couple of major awards. Bosa had a prolific campaign that included 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. He more than eased the loss of Spence. But he also wasn't working alone, with tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington raising their games as the season progressed, combining for 21.5 tackles for loss and making it increasingly difficult for opponents to focus solely on Bosa.

And whether it was Elliott in the backfield, Michael Thomas at wide receiver or sophomore safeties Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell taking over and revitalizing the secondary, the list of young Buckeyes who stepped out of the shadows and into critical roles could keep on going.

All of them along the way turned a cliché into a simple fact for Ohio State: The team was the star.

"I think that's why this team has survived and even continued to improve and flourish through the adversity we've had," co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. "It's the high-character people on this team, the leadership of this team and then the leadership of our head coach and our staff.

"We have all those ingredients. That's what makes a team, and that's why we are where we are."

They're on the path to a possible national title, two games away, stepping into the brightest lights the game has to offer -- as a unit.

Examining four playoff coordinators

December, 26, 2014
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We all do it, if we're being honest.

With the passage of each decade, each time our ages have a zero on the end -- or even begin to creep closer to it -- we take stock.

Where are we? What have we done? Where are we going? Are we where we want to be?

Often, it's a simultaneously rewarding and harrowing exercise. Even in the celebration of accomplishment, there's recognition that the climb is never complete. The mountain continues to rise, and rise, in front of us.

With that in mind, the magic number for the upcoming College Football Playoff is 39.

That's the age of four of the coordinators coaching in the semifinals: Alabama's Lane Kiffin and Kirby Smart, Oregon's Scott Frost and Ohio State's Tom Herman.

Kiffin, Smart, Frost and Herman will turn the Big 4-0 in 2015, and each man finds himself in a different phase of the wild, weird coaching life.

Their varied career stages illustrate hiring trends and the fact that most coordinators, including these four, have thought often of becoming a head coach.

One has already experienced it. And failed.

Kiffin

Clearly, Kiffin has a different perspective than the others, already having been a head coach in the NFL, the SEC and at his "dream job" -- USC.

Prior to 2014, the "stock" taken was that Kiffin won 40 and lost 36 games in those three jobs. He left Tennessee after one season, chapping fans in the process. He was fired in the middle of his second season with the Oakland Raiders and the middle of his fourth season at USC.

Even at four games over .500, arrogance and failure are words often used in coaching circles to describe those Kiffin tenures.

The silver lining: The guy knows offense. Nick Saban was aware of that, telling then-coordinator Doug Nussmeier to seek other employment so that he could open up a spot for Kiffin.


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The big guys battling up front mamight y be the ones with the most influence over the Allstate Sugar Bowl, but that’s certainly not the only matchup worth watching. And what happens when the ball is in the air could be every bit as crucial in determining which team moves on to play for a national title.

Obviously Amari Cooper is going to have something to say about who is advancing in the College Football Playoff. And the Big Ten’s most opportunistic secondary is going to have a chance to prove it’s really capable of delivering on the game’s biggest stage.

When the roles are reversed, can Ohio State’s athletic targets get the better of a secondary that has had some issues at times but traditionally ranks as one of the better units in the nation for Nick Saban’s program?

So, who has the edge in the passing game? Big Ten reporter Austin Ward and SEC reporter Alex Scarborough take a look at those matchups as the Allstate Sugar Bowl creeps ever closer.

Alabama targets: The Crimson Tide have the best receiver in college football. Cooper, for those who have been asleep at the wheel all season, is the real deal. Whether you play off coverage or press him at the line of scrimmage, he finds a way to get open. But the bigger story for Alabama might be everyone else. Outside of finding No. 9, quarterback Blake Sims has struggled to incorporate the rest of his passing targets. Wide receivers Christion Jones and DeAndrew White have gotten the ball more in recent weeks, but overall their production has been lacking. The same goes for tight end O.J. Howard, who is a freakish athlete but can’t seem to generate any consistency as a playmaker. -- Scarborough

Ohio State secondary: A new co-defensive coordinator, a more aggressive scheme and the maturation of a pair of talented young safeties have combined to turn Ohio State’s defensive backs into one of the most improved units in the nation. Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell have combined for eight interceptions as they’ve grown more comfortable and confident at safety, and with Doran Grant locking down receivers at cornerback and chipping in five picks of his own, it’s becoming a dangerous proposition to throw on the Buckeyes. Only three defenses in the nation nabbed more passes than Ohio State did this season under Chris Ash, and he’ll be expecting more of the same against the Crimson Tide. -- Ward

Advantage: Starting with one of the best players in the entire country regardless of position is a good way to gain an edge, and Cooper should push Alabama slightly ahead in this matchup. But it’s closer than might be expected considering how much talent the Buckeyes have in the secondary and how well coached they’ve been under Ash and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell.

Alabama secondary: Outside of Landon Collins, there wasn’t much expected of Alabama’s secondary entering the season. Neither cornerback spot was settled and the second safety position opposite Collins was up in the air, too. But thanks to the steady play of Nick Perry and the emergence of Cyrus Jones, the unit has held its own. That doesn’t mean it’s without faults, mind you. Against Auburn, every flaw was exposed as Nick Marshall threw for 456 yards. The most concerning issue was the way the Tigers picked on cornerback Eddie Jackson, who was helpless against Duke Williams. The next week against Missouri, it wasn’t much better as Jimmie Hunt racked up 169 yards on six catches. Whether it’s Jackson, Bradley Sylve or freshman Tony Brown, Alabama needs someone to step up and round out the secondary at cornerback. -- Scarborough

Ohio State targets: Urban Meyer needed a couple seasons to acquire the kind of talent he needed to balance his spread offense with a consistent passing attack, but he certainly has all the tools in place now. Michael Thomas bounced back from a surprising redshirt season as a sophomore to become Ohio State’s most complete receiver, leading the team with 43 receptions and becoming a reliable option to move the chains with his sharp routes and strong hands. Devin Smith had already proven more than capable of burning secondaries deep as the home-run threat for the Buckeyes, but he has taken his game to a higher level as a senior and is averaging nearly 27 yards per catch. Throw in a wildcard such as Jalin Marshall as a hybrid weapon and a future NFL tight end in Jeff Heuerman, and Ohio State makes it impossible now to focus too much on stopping its powerful ground game. -- Ward

Advantage: The Buckeyes have enough weapons to keep even the best secondaries in the country busy, and this year the Crimson Tide aren’t quite living up to the high standard the program has established against the pass. Ohio State should have the edge.

Tale of the tape

December, 24, 2014
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As the inaugural College Football Playoff looms, it's time to start the overanalysis ... er, I mean, analysis ... of the four combatants. Time to begin the process of measuring the four would-be national champions, head-to-head-to-head-to-head.

Exactly what factors rank most important when it comes to these comparisons is up to the person who is doing the comparing. Some might want to talk straight X's and O's. Others might want to talk game control and QBR. But when our eyes glaze over during that, it might cause us to refocus elsewhere, to the nooks and crannies of each program that will eventually add up to create the true advantages to win a team's final two games of the season.

What am I talking about? I'm not entirely sure. I'm writing this with one hand on the keyboard and the other hand on a ladle of eggnog. But as with eggnog, no one is entirely sure what will add up to the correct mixture of a College Football Playoff champion.

Here's our best guess in a too-early CFP Tale of the Tape.

Offense

Anyone who paid any attention to Alabama over the last two seasons knows that its ability to move the football received a supercharge this season, as the Tide averaged 490.5 YPG, good for a 1.3-yard advantage over high-powered archrival Auburn. Ohio State averaged an even more impressive 507.6 YPG and was one of four FBS schools to average 7-plus yards per play with 7.04. By comparison, Florida State posted 434.7 YPG, ranked 40th in the nation. So ... where's Oregon? Out ahead like the Road Runner leaving Wile E. Coyote, averaging 546.2 YPG (third in FBS), 46.3 points per game (third in FBS), and scoring 80 touchdowns (first in FBS). In fairness, Ohio State ranks just behind the Ducks in those two last categories, but Oregon's complete body of offensive work is undeniable.

Advantage: Oregon


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With all due respect to the quarterbacks and other skill position players, the Allstate Sugar Bowl will ultimately come down to who wins the battle of the trenches.

If Ohio State can’t protect Cardale Jones, his youth will show.

If Alabama can’t give Blake Sims a clean pocket, he could struggle, too.

So which team has the edge in the battle of offensive line versus defensive line? Big Ten reporter Austin Ward and SEC reporter Alex Scarborough preview the matchup.

 Alabama OL: This isn’t the Alabama offensive line of two years ago, the one that consistently moved the line of scrimmage four and five yards ahead with each snap. Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker have long since left the building. But while this season’s group hasn’t met that lofty standard, it has exceeded the nationally average. Just look at the past four games when the line surrendered only four sacks. And that was with a less-than-100-percent Cam Robinson at left tackle, who should be healthy again after a few weeks of rest. Robinson is still a true freshman, though, and starting right guard Leon Brown has been inconsistent, drawing penalties at some inopportune moments. -- Scarborough

Ohio State DL: The Buckeyes might not have lived up to the preseason hype as the best unit in the nation after losing star defensive end Noah Spence for the entire season (second failed drug test), but they’re pretty close. With three more surefire, high-round draft picks in the starting lineup, including perhaps the most disruptive pass-rusher in the country in sophomore Joey Bosa, there’s still no shortage of talent up front. Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington make life miserable on the inside, and Bosa has shown signs of becoming a more complete, even more frightening defensive end late in his second year with the program. -- Ward

Advantage: It’s awfully close, but give the slight edge to Ohio State, which might have the best lineman on the field in Bosa.

 Ohio State OL: There was plenty of growing up to do for an offensive line that was replacing four starters while also moving the only veteran with first-team experience to a new position. But the Buckeyes zipped through the learning curve. The unit is virtually unrecognizable at this point when compared to the one that struggled mightily in a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech. Left tackle Taylor Decker emerged as a cornerstone for Ohio State. He has both on-field ability and is a respected leader who helped usher those new starters through a rough patch and into players capable of keeping the highest-scoring attack in the Big Ten rolling. -- Ward

Alabama DL: Everyone who watched this team closely and followed its recruiting exploits over the past few years knew that this promised to be one of the most deep and talented D-lines in Nick Saban’s time at Alabama. Saban, of course, scoffed at the idea, and for the first few weeks of the season he looked to be right as the unit largely underperformed. But somewhere along the way things kicked it into gear. A'Shawn Robinson returned to his freshman All-American form, anchoring the interior of the line, and Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and others pitched in at defensive end. Throw in hybrid end/linebackers Ryan Anderson and Xavier Dickson, and Alabama has a wealth of options to rush the passer. -- Scarborough

Advantage: Another close call with both units steadily improving throughout the year, but we’ll give the nod to Alabama’s depth and ability to roll in fresh linemen.
Alabama and Ohio State meet in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) with a spot in the College Football Playoff national championship game on the line. So how do the two teams match up? Let's go to the tale of the tape:

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The words were zipping around the world before Cardale Jones could even leave the classroom where he tapped them into Twitter.

It only took a few seconds to fire off a 140-characters-or-less message that still has legs and follows him around more than two years later.

[+] EnlargeCardale Jones
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesQuarterback Cardale Jones has overcome plenty of big challenges already in his young career at Ohio State -- both on and off the field.
"Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL," Jones wrote. "We ain't come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS."

The post itself would quickly be erased, followed by the entire account, but the damage was already done. The message had been passed on countless times already, embedded in stories and eventually immortalized in a textbook as a perfect example of why young college students need to think before hitting send.

It's been over 24 months since that 24-word lapse in judgment, and Jones still deals with the insults on social media, and in the locker room, the No. 4 Buckeyes still use it as an easy punch line good for a quick laugh.

But perhaps if Jones had simply followed up with some context, maybe some of the sting would have been removed from a misstep that might always be his most famous moment, even after winning MVP honors in the Big Ten championship game. Would the message have been viewed any differently if his venting would have been accompanied by an explanation of what prompted one of the most memorable tweets a redshirting freshman player who had never taken a college snap would ever blast to the social media audience?

"I remember I was in class, and I think I got, like, a B on a [sociology] exam," Jones said. "It was just something so stupid; of course I didn't feel that way about academics, and I don't. Nobody in this program feels that way, we actually take that stuff very serious around here.

"It was just a dumbass thing to do. I definitely didn't think that would happen. It was just a stupid thing to do at that time. It was something where I just got pissed because I studied my ass off."

Grinding in the classroom certainly didn't match the public perception Jones had instantly created for himself, and it formed an overnight reputation that would follow him on the field as well as he became an easy target for not living up to his potential or taking his work seriously.

And while there would still be growing pains while sitting and waiting behind a string of quarterbacks, starting with Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton and then getting jumped by J.T. Barrett during training camp in August, his ill-fated tweet and the subsequent lesson learned at least planted the seeds of maturation for Jones. And he made it quite clear in a 59-0 blowout against Wisconsin that led to the Buckeyes' earning a spot in the College Football Playoff that he must have been using that time well.

"He didn't just mature last week," his Cleveland Glenville High School coach Ted Ginn Sr. said. "It didn't just pop in his head last week. It was bred in him. That's what gets old. We can just mature in a week? We know what we need to know in a week? No. We talk about maturity, I know who he is, I know where he comes from, I know what his whole life is about.

"I don't even want to talk about that [tweet]. I think when it happened, he was misread. You know what I'm saying? Nobody ever asked that question. Everybody was talking about the tweet, nobody knew why. He was a child, and he didn't even know. That's the reason I don't ever talk about it, because we're not in position to try to get in his shoes."

Maybe the motivation doesn't make any difference anyway.

The jokes at his expense aren't going to stop, though Jones appears to have become skilled at either ignoring them or laughing along with his teammates. Deleting the message and his original account didn't erase it from his past, and regardless of what he does against No. 1 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl in just the second start of his career, he will surely continue to be better known for his biggest mistake than a résumé that already has one shiny accomplishment for the Buckeyes on it.

And when measured against the test of patience in waiting behind three quarterbacks or the challenges of learning Urban Meyer's playbook or maybe even just passing sociology, dealing with social media fallout undoubtedly pales in comparison -- and, of course, those are just football issues. But trivial or not, the tweet and what came with it are part of the overall package, and like just about everything else, Jones has grown from the experience and is doing everything he can to keep it from defining him.

"He's one of the most improved players I've ever been around," Meyer said. "The correlation between handling your business off the field and on the field, he does a good job in the classroom now. It wasn't pleasant his first year here ... but he's changed.

"Cardale is a great story, and it's still in process now."

Even if Jones isn't yet a finished product, he mistakenly gave the world a glimpse of where he was in the process two years ago.

"I don't really care about the reaction as far as I got, you know, people saying all type of stupid stuff [on social media]," Jones said. "You know, I can take the heat from people from the outside looking in. But I was more worried about the fact that I embarrassed the university, the football program and definitely my family. That's what I cared about.

"Just growing up, I'd say that was one of the steppingstones."

So just like school, maybe the tweet itself wasn't pointless either.

Ohio State's Toughness

December, 23, 2014
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Trevor Matich discusses his visit to Ohio State in April to see Urban Meyer's unusual training methods.
Urban MeyerJamie Sabau/Getty ImagesThe trip to the Sugar Bowl culminates Ohio State's return from the sanctions and probation that have clouded the program since 2011.
As the clock ticked down into the final minute of the Big Ten championship game earlier this month, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith sought out head coach Urban Meyer on the sideline.

The two men hugged. Meyer then walked several feet in each direction, pumping both fists in the air toward the elated Buckeyes cheering sections. There was joy, but also a release.

The 59-0 blowout win over Wisconsin on Dec. 6 clinched a title for Ohio State and also culminated a climb back from a dark place for the program. It's a journey that became even more poetic when the Buckeyes found out hours after that victory that they'd be returning to the Allstate Sugar Bowl for a College Football Playoff semifinal.

The program's last championship of note (not counting division titles) came on Jan. 4, 2011, when it beat Arkansas at the Sugar Bowl. But at least officially, that win never happened. Ohio State vacated its Sugar Bowl crown -- and all other 2010 victories -- as part of its self-imposed NCAA penalties in July 2011. In the team's media guide and around its facility where other bowl games are celebrated and acknowledged, it's like the game didn't exist.

The school thought vacating that season would be enough to placate the NCAA in the tattoo-for-memorabilia scandal, even after five players implicated in scheme -- Terrelle Pryor, Dan Herron, DeVier Posey, Mike Adams and Solomon Thomas -- were allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl while accepting five-game penalties to start the 2011 season.

Of course, little went as Ohio State planned in that ordeal. Then-coach Jim Tressel was discovered to have known more about the scandal than he had told his superiors, and he was forced to resign on Memorial Day 2011. The Buckeyes would go 6-7 in the 2011 season, their least successful campaign since 1999. The NCAA decided in December, after more infractions leaked out, to ban Ohio State from a bowl in the 2012 season while taking away nine total scholarships over a three-year period.

The stench of an NCAA scandal -- especially one that includes a bowl ban, scholarship reductions and a forced coaching change -- can set a program back for years. Yet the Buckeyes went 12-0 in their year of postseason purgatory in 2012 and are 36-3 in the three seasons since 2011, including a perfect 24-0 in regular-season Big Ten play.

"There are probably very few programs that have the level of support that allows them to come back from a challenge like that," Smith said. "Things aligned for us, and we were able to come out of that challenging time pretty well."

The No. 1 reason why the Buckeyes bounced back so quickly is obvious. They replaced one legendary coach -- Tressel -- with another one in Meyer (though Luke Fickell deserves credit for keeping things together as the interim during a trying season). Smith said the timing was fortunate for Ohio State that Meyer had taken a year off coaching in 2011, allowing Smith to put together a deal with Meyer without having to worry about luring him out of another job.

Meyer's track record all but ensured success. But it happened even more quickly than Smith imagined.

"Everybody expected him to do extremely well," Smith said. "No one expected him to do so well so fast, to have an undefeated regular-season [Big Ten record]. No one could have predicted that. He's exceeded our expectations in so many different ways."

Smith noted that even with the probation and the scholarship cuts, Meyer hardly arrived to a bare cupboard in Columbus. Ohio State, as always, had talent. But Meyer had to build depth, reshape the team for his system and add the speed that he wanted.

"Coach Tressel did a marvelous job of recruiting nationally," Smith said, "but Urban took it to another level."

In some ways, the tattoo scandal seems like a long time ago. Maybe it's how several other off-the-field controversies -- the Sandusky case at Penn State, the North Carolina academic fraud, just to name a couple -- made Ohio State's missteps seem minor by comparison. The issue of player compensation has also become a hot topic in ensuing years. At a time when players have sued to retain their image and likeness rights, when power schools are changing the very structure of the NCAA in order to give their athletes more money and benefits and when we're arguing whether a star like Georgia's Todd Gurley should be able to profit off his autograph, is anyone really offended by the notion of trading team-issued merchandise for some body ink?

Yet in reality, that dark time for the Buckeyes wasn't long ago at all. Ohio State only officially came off NCAA probation on Friday. The seniors on this year's team played during that difficult 2011 season. Starting offensive lineman Darryl Baldwin is a fifth-year senior, meaning he was around for Tressel's last season in 2010.

Smith said Meyer got emotional during a team meeting the day the playoff pairings were announced as he thanked the seniors for their perseverance.

"He knows they were the class that went through the significant trials and tribulations and got this program where it is now," Smith said. "He was so happy to get them a championship."

Now, they're taking the Buckeyes back to New Orleans, where in many ways this journey began.
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Adam Rittenberg sits down with junior defensive back Landon Collins to discuss his success this season and his thoughts on Alabama facing Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
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Name the Florida State quarterback who beat Clemson in overtime to keep the Seminoles undefeated and alive in the College Football Playoff.

Oh no.

You didn't forget Sean Maguire ... did you?

With Jameis Winston suspended, Maguire did the only thing Florida State needed him to do against the toughest opponent in the ACC -- he won. The inaugural College Football Playoff was shaped by more than Heisman Trophy winners Winston and Marcus Mariota, the Oregon quarterback. While the household names delivered the consistency that helped determine the selection committee's final ranking, the top contenders also had an X factor, like Maguire, who helped along the way.

Here's a look at the stars, ranked in order of impact, whose roles defined the playoff, their sidekicks, and whether or not they can do it one more time this season:

1. Ohio State

The name you know: J.T. Barrett. Once the second-string quarterback, Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Those three picks in the loss to Virginia Tech? Yeah, the selection committee doesn't remember those either. Barrett opened the door to the playoff for Ohio State, but his replacement knocked it down.

The X factor: Cardale Jones. It was his first career start. And Jones, the Buckeyes' third-string QB, was the MVP of the Big Ten championship game after throwing for 257 yards and three touchdowns. That win over Wisconsin put Ohio State in the playoff. Jones had one audition for the selection committee, and he nailed it.


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Nick Saban, Urban MeyerUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SportswireNick Saban, left, and Urban Meyer will meet Jan. 1 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
When Urban Meyer took his mini-sabbatical from coaching after the 2010 season, there were a couple of givens.

One, he wasn’t going to stay away for long.

Two, his and Nick Saban’s paths were sure to cross again on a big stage.

It’s taken four years, but here we are, and it’s only fitting that they would meet up again in such a historic setting -- the first-ever College Football Playoff.

In this era of college coaching, Meyer vs. Saban might as well be Ali vs. Frazier, Borg vs. McEnroe, Bird vs. Magic. They are the two preeminent coaches in the college football ranks and have combined to win six of the past 11 national championships.

As the Jan. 1 Alabama-Ohio State showdown in New Orleans has approached, they have both done their best to downplay what their roles will be in the game. Granted, as a rule, we probably all make too much of individual coaching matchups.

But in this case, who didn’t want to see Meyer and Saban match wits one more time?

Meyer has a keen understanding of what coaching in the SEC pressure cooker is all about. He was right in the middle of it at Florida and led the Gators to national championships in 2006 and 2008.

But it also got the best of him. Realizing that he had to make changes to his lifestyle, Meyer walked away from Florida for good at the end of the 2010 season. He tried to do it after the 2009 season but changed his mind and hung around for another year.

What Meyer has accomplished at Ohio State is staggering. The Buckeyes have won 36 of 39 games on his watch and have yet to lose a Big Ten regular-season game since he’s been in Columbus. As a recruiter, few are better than Meyer, and he has brought the SEC’s no-holds-barred style of recruiting to Ohio State.

As good a recruiter as Meyer is, he’s even better at assembling a staff. He has an eye for talent, period, both coaches and players.

Anybody who doesn’t appreciate the mark Meyer has made on college football has had his head in the sand for the past decade or so.

But it’s also true that Meyer’s last two meetings with Saban have ended badly. Alabama thrashed Florida 31-6 in 2010 in Tuscaloosa, one of the first signs that season that things might be getting away from Meyer in Gainesville.

Less than a year earlier, he ended up in the emergency room after losing to Saban and the Tide 32-13 in the 2009 SEC championship game, the second No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup between the teams in as many years. The morning after that loss, Meyer experienced chest pains.

Like so many coaches, he had placed football before his health and it caught up with him. He resigned a few weeks later to address his health problems and spend more time with his family, but he couldn’t stay away and came back for one final ill-fated season at Florida before resigning for good and spending a year in the ESPN broadcast booth.

Not lost on anybody (Meyer included) is the perception that the rigors of the SEC, and more specifically Saban getting the best of him those last two meetings, was what ultimately drove him to the Big Ten.

How true that really is probably depends on whether you look at things through SEC glasses or Big Ten glasses. Either way, it’s not like coaching at Ohio State is akin to coaching the Sunday school youth league in kickball.

In fact, in a lot of ways, Ohio State is a Midwestern version of Florida. And Meyer has held up just fine.

But to genuinely erase that stigma that the SEC and Saban sent him packing for easier football pastures, Meyer could do himself some serious favors by beating Saban on this stage. He’s done it before when Florida beat Alabama 31-20 in the 2008 SEC championship game, but that was in Saban’s second season at Alabama and before he had won the first of three national titles in Tide Town.

The fact that Ohio State is even here is a testament to the job Meyer did this season. He lost his star quarterback, two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller, in the preseason to a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett stepped in for Miller and was shaky early, but he ended the season as one of the most dynamic players in the country.

The only problem was that Barrett went down with a season-ending injury just before the Big Ten championship game. But the Buckeyes didn’t blink. They slid Cardale Jones in at quarterback and blasted Wisconsin 59-0 to secure their spot in the playoff.

Much like Meyer, Saban has also done some of his best work this season.

Alabama got here with a quarterback, Blake Sims, who nobody gave a chance to even be the starter, much less set an Alabama record for passing yards in a season. Beyond the uncertainty at quarterback, there were some serious questions about the Crimson Tide this year, particularly on the offensive line and at cornerback.

So as we embark on this unprecedented playoff era in college football, something says this won’t be the last time we see Meyer and Saban going up against each other in a playoff game.

The real question: How many times over the next few years will we see a playoff that either Meyer or Saban won’t be on the sideline?

It’s the coaching matchup we all want to see.
Sugar BowlUSA TODAY SportsUrban Meyer and Nick Saban squared off only three times when in the SEC.

Although we were privileged to three bouts of Nick Saban versus Urban Meyer during Meyer’s short stint at Florida, the SEC missed out on something that should have been special.

When these two first met in 2008, we saw a game for the ages in the SEC championship game, before Alabama took complete control in the next two matchups. Still, when you look at the talent and smarts these two have as coaches, Meyer’s year-long leave of absence from coaching ended a great rivalry between two elite coaches and programs.

So when No. 1 Alabama (12-1, 7-1 SEC) faces No. 4 Ohio State (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten) Jan. 1 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, hopefully we’ll get a glimpse of what we missed.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Urban,” Saban said. “I consider him a good friend and certainly have a tremendous amount of personal respect for the kind of professional he is and the kind of coach he is and the kind of programs he's had, the great teams that he's had at Florida.”

These two were the best at what they did in the SEC, and they had a mutual respect and friendship that probably fueled their competition and success.

“We always used to sit next to each other in the SEC meetings,” Meyer said of Saban.

The brief return of such a competitive chess match is a delight for college football enthusiasts. You have the offensive-minded, psychological master that is Meyer facing the defensive-minded, meticulous planner that is Saban. You have 151 combined wins at Florida and Alabama and six total national championships (including Saban’s one at LSU).

We love Saban versus Les Miles, Hugh Freeze-Dan Mullen has been fun, and the back-and-forth between Gus Malzahn and Bret Bielema has been tantalizing, but for two years, the SEC lived and breathed Meyer versus Saban.

But we still have our memories.

It all started with No. 1 Alabama facing No. 2 Florida in the 2008 SEC championship game. The winner headed to the BCS title game. Undefeated Alabama rolled in with power and a suffocating defense, while the Gators carried transcendent quarterback Tim Tebow and one of the nation’s most explosive offenses.

In his second year at Alabama, Saban was trying to imitate Meyer by winning a national championship in Year 2 with the Tide. But Alabama’s 20-17 lead entering the fourth quarter was erased by a gutsy two-sided performance by the Gators. Tebow’s powerful runs and clutch throws guided the offense to 14 points, and that hard-nosed, dominant defense pitched a shutout.

A 5-yard touchdown pass to Riley Cooper with 2:50 left was Florida’s final dagger in a 31-20 win, which sent the Gators to a BCS title game they eventually won. Heading into the game, Alabama had allowed 28 total points in its previous four games.

“The 2008 game was just one of the great games in college football history, in my opinion, where evenly matched teams were going back and forth, back and forth,” Meyer said. “And obviously we ... scored right at the end to take a twoscore lead.”

Then came 2009 and a second straight No. 1 versus No. 2 game that had a completely different outcome. Even with two teams that looked similar to the ones from 2008, No. 2 Alabama ruined the Gators’ title hopes with a commanding 32-13 win. A year after getting run down, the Tide ran over Florida, thanks to 251 rushing yards (the most allowed by an Meyer-coached Florida team) and a stifling defense that held Florida’s running game to fewer than 100 yards for the first and only time all season.

Alabama running back Mark Ingram clinched the Heisman Trophy with 183 total yards and three touchdowns. There was a beautiful tip-toeing first-down run by quarterback Greg McElroy, and there was no hint of a national title contender on the other sideline.

“I think maybe the two best teams might have been playing in the SEC Championship Game in 2009,” Saban said. “We played a phenomenal game. So it was a playoff game in a sense, and they won one [in 2008], and we won one.”

The 2010 game was utter domination by the Tide and another thorn in Meyer’s side, but those first two matchups were special on the national landscape. Yes, the second one was a blowout, but the amount of talent on both sides was something special and something those two incredibly gifted coaches constructed.

“I have a hard time remembering our address or phone number, but I could tell you every play in those games,” Meyer said. “It was classic -- 2008 was a classic game.

“But what was it, 2009 Alabama team, arguably the best team I can remember going against or getting ready to prepare, very well balanced, very well coached. ... When you face a team like any of these four teams, you're going to see all three phases. You have to be on point. When you get to this level of competition, whether it's a punt team, whether it's a punt block or obviously offense and defense, you'd better be on it.”

We don’t know what would have happened had Meyer stayed after 2010, but the Sugar Bowl could present a good glimpse of what the SEC might have missed the past four years.
1. Ohio State concluded its pre-Christmas playoff workouts Sunday. While the rest of the Buckeyes enjoy holiday time, offensive coordinator Tom Herman will spend Monday and Tuesday at Houston watching the team he will coach next year prepare for the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl against Pittsburgh on Jan. 2. While interim coach David Gibbs and the lame-duck staff gets the Cougars ready, Herman will watch practices without hovering, as he described it to me Saturday. He also said he expects it will be awkward. How could it be anything but?

2. Let’s go ahead and declare 2014 the best college football season in the history of the Mountain time zone. Utah State and Air Force won their 10th games Saturday. Utah finished 9-4 by defeating a 10-win Colorado State team in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, and CSU-Pueblo won the NCAA Division II championship on Saturday. All of this makes the continued struggles of Colorado stand out even more. The Buffs are 4-32 in four seasons of Pac-12 play. I still think Mike MacIntyre can turn around Colorado’s fortunes. The Buffs have some catching up to do.

3. January enrollees have been around long enough that they are no longer a novelty – except at Clemson, where head coach Dabo Swinney has made them the rule instead of the exception. The Tigers expect 14 freshmen to enroll next month and be available for spring practice. The advantages are significant for the team. For the enrollees? I don’t know. Signees who stick to the traditional calendar can begin in June and ease into the routines of college life at the half-speed of summer. January enrollees hit the ground running and join a freshman class in which bonds began to form four months earlier.
Amari Cooper and Marcus MariotaGetty Images, AP PhotoRoughly two-thirds of the coaches in the country believe Amari Cooper and Alabama will meet Marcus Mariota and Oregon in the championship game.

No. 1 Alabama was the overwhelming favorite to win the College Football Playoff in ESPN’s weekly poll of the FBS head coaches, #1QFor128.

Also, nearly one-third of the coaches who voted believed the selection committee did not pick the best four teams for the inaugural playoff.

Of the 128 FBS head coaches, 107 participated in the poll, conducted by ESPN’s Brett McMurphy.

Alabama was picked by 60 percent of the coaches to win the playoff, followed by No. 2 Oregon (28 percent). No. 3 Florida State and No. 4 Ohio State each received 6 percent of the votes to win the national title.

In the semifinal matchups, Alabama was chosen over Ohio State by a 90-10 percent margin in the Sugar Bowl, while Oregon was selected over Florida State by 73-27 percent margin.

Of the possible title matchups in Arlington, Texas, on Jan. 12, Alabama-Oregon was picked by 67 percent of the coaches, followed by Alabama-Florida State (24 percent), Oregon-Ohio State (5 percent) and Florida State-Ohio State (4 percent).

The coaches who voted believed the selection committee correctly picked the best four teams (69 percent yes, 31 percent no).

The voting among the coaches from the Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences were fairly similar for the most part.

Despite Big 12 co-champion TCU falling from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final ranking, a higher percentage of Power 5 coaches believed the selection committee picked the correct four teams (72 percent yes, 28 percent no) compared to the Group of 5 coaches (67 percent yes, 33 percent no).

The biggest discrepancy was picking the Oregon-Florida State semifinal winner. Only 67 percent of the coaches from the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12) who voted chose Oregon to beat FSU, compared to 77 percent of the coaches from the Group of 5 conferences (American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt).

Another significant difference between the Power 5 and Group of 5 coaches was picking the national champion. Alabama was picked to win by more of the Group of 5 coaches (62 percent) than the Power 5 coaches (58 percent). Oregon had a higher percentage of Power 5 coaches (32 percent) picking the Ducks than the Group of 5 coaches (24 percent).

Also among the Group of 5 coaches, No. 4 Ohio State (8 percent) actually received more votes to win the title than No. 3 Florida State (6 percent). Of the Power 5 coaches, 7 percent picked Ohio State to win the title and 3 percent Florida State.

Vote breakdown

Did the selection committee pick the best four teams?
Yes: 69 percent
No: 31 percent

How the Power 5 coaches voted:
Yes: 72 percent
No: 28 percent

How the Group of 5 coaches voted:
Yes: 67 percent
No: 33 percent

Who will win the College Football Playoff?
Alabama: 60 percent
Oregon: 28 percent
Florida State: 6 percent
Ohio State: 6 percent

How the Power 5 coaches voted:
Alabama: 58 percent
Oregon: 32 percent
Florida State: 7 percent
Ohio State: 3 percent

How the Group of 5 coaches voted:
Alabama: 62 percent
Oregon: 24 percent
Ohio State: 8 percent
Florida State: 6 percent

Who will win the Rose Bowl semifinal?
Oregon: 73 percent
Florida State: 27 percent

How the Power 5 coaches voted:
Oregon: 67 percent
Florida State: 33 percent

How the Group of 5 coaches voted:
Oregon: 77 percent
Florida State: 23 percent

Who will win the Sugar Bowl semifinal?
Alabama: 90 percent
Ohio State: 10 percent

How the Power 5 coaches voted:
Alabama: 91 percent
Ohio State: 9 percent

How the Group of 5 coaches voted:
Alabama: 89 percent
Ohio State: 11 percent

Who will meet in the College Football Playoff final?
Alabama-Oregon: 67 percent
Alabama-Florida State: 24 percent
Oregon-Ohio State: 5 percent
Ohio State-Florida State: 4 percent

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