It wasn’t the players' size, either, although Alabama’s starters along the front line average 6-foot-4 and 302 pounds per man. Nor was it the depth within a group that runs 10 deep.
What made Ohio State’s offensive coordinator shake his head while reviewing Alabama film was how much Alabama had of all three attributes.
That’s hardly a surprise for a program that has earned a reputation as the most effective recruiting machine in college football. In its past three recruiting classes, Alabama has signed 13 defensive linemen whom ESPN’s recruiting analysts awarded with either a four-star or five-star grade.
That volume of talent up front has helped the Crimson Tide typically shut down opposing offenses – they rank 11th nationally in total defense (312.4 yards per game) – with sheer brute force.
“We've had some of this kind of depth before, but we usually lose a guy in the season, have a guy hurt,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “… Lost guys on the defensive line in years past. This year, haven't really lost guys. Been able to rotate guys and play a lot of guys. That helps us.
“Anytime you've got depth at that position, allows you to play more guys. That's what we like to do is play a bunch of guys.”
They’ve certainly done that. Defensive end Jonathan Allen was a first-team All-SEC pick after registering 9.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Fellow end Jarran Reed and nose guard A’Shawn Robinson each earned honorable mention. But every player on the line’s two-deep depth chart – a group that also includes ends Dalvin Tomlinson and D.J. Pettway and nose Brandon Ivory – has double-digit tackles, and most have multiple sacks and tackles for loss.
“They’re really, really big up front. I mean really big,” Herman said. “They’ve got defensive ends who are 280, 290 pounds. They’ve got defensive tackles that are 320, 330 pounds and they don’t just have one group of them. They play about nine or 10 defensive linemen in what you would call competitive situations.”
That will certainly create a challenge for Ohio State’s youthful offensive line that has improved since Virginia Tech’s defense embarrassed the group in a 35-21 loss on Sept. 6. Herman said Alabama’s defense is somewhat reminiscent of the Michigan State defense the Buckeyes faced in a 49-37 victory on Nov. 8, but it’s safe to say Herman’s team hasn’t faced anything quite like what it will see on New Year’s Day.
Then again, the Buckeyes have come so far up front since the Virginia Tech game that it’s hard to even compare the line’s current state to where it was in the second game of the season.
“I watched a little bit of film earlier in the season, but that’s not who they are now. So we really can’t focus on who they were back then,” Allen said. “We’re going to look in terms of the most recent games and, like I said, they’re a good group, a lot of experience. They work well together.”
That is clearly the case, since Ohio State ranks fifth nationally in scoring at 45.2 points per game despite having to play three different quarterbacks because of injuries. But the Buckeyes are going to have difficulty getting anywhere near those kind of numbers on Thursday if they have difficulty moving Alabama’s oversized line out of the way.
“We have an idea of what they’re going to do,” Allen said. “We’ve got to do what we’ve been doing all year. It’s a little bit challenging because we didn’t have a lot of film on them, but I think we’ll be able to handle it.”
2. Florida State co-offensive coordinator Randy Sanders, on Jameis Winston and the team going hot and cold: “The thing that separates Jameis from a lot of guys is [he is] unbelievably competitive. The tougher the situation, the more competitive the game, the better he plays. We’ve talked all year about starting fast and finishing strong. That proves the team has half-listened to us because we’ve finished strong. We haven’t always started fast. We’ve been in the situation where we’ve had to come back … and the guy always plays well.” And then he said, “It scares you to death as a coach to live that way.”
3. Kentucky went 2-10 in 2012 and fired its coaching staff, including Sanders. Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher hired him. Sanders hasn’t lost a game since. “Sometimes, the best thing in the world to happen to you is to get fired,” Sanders said. “I had a great time at Kentucky. I told my wife several times, 'It’s time to move. It’s time to go.' I knew it was. But yet I had daughters in high school. It’s hard to leave. ... Sometimes God has to step in and say, ‘OK, you won’t go? I’m going to make you go.’ … The fact that I ended up at Florida State and won 27 straight games, getting to coach Jameis, proves that there was a higher power in control of this thing than me.”
As Herman helps the No. 4 Buckeyes prepare for Thursday night’s matchup against No. 1 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, he’s pulling double duty as much as he can.
Herman, who won the Broyles Award as the country’s top assistant coach, was named Houston’s new head coach on Dec. 16. But as Herman assembles a coaching staff and lays out a recruiting plan for the Cougars, he’s mostly focused on helping the Buckeyes beat the Crimson Tide. A victory would put them in the inaugural College Football Playoff Championship Game Presented by AT&T on Jan. 12.
Herman seems so focused on the task at hand that he cut short any questions about his next job during media availability on Sunday.
“And if it's no disrespect, I’d rather stick to those questions regarding this game and our guys that have earned an opportunity to be here.”
During his introductory news conference at Houston earlier this month, Herman joked that Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer gave him a “month’s supply of No-Doz and Red Bull.”
It’s not the first time Meyer has dealt with staff changes going into a national championship game. In 2008, Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen was named Mississippi State’s coach more than a month before the Gators played Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship. Mullen was absent for about three weeks before returning to Florida after Christmas to help the Gators prepare for the Sooners.
With Mullen calling plays, the Gators defeated the Sooners 24-14 in Miami, giving Meyer his second BCS national title at Florida.
Of course, the Gators were able to rely heavily on quarterback Tim Tebow, who threw 30 passes and ran a season-high 22 times against Oklahoma.
Alabama has been down this road before, too. Former offensive coordinator Jim McElwain took the Colorado State job after the 2011 regular season, but returned to Alabama to call plays in 21-0 victory over LSU in the BCS title game.
Other coaches have pulled double duty while helping prepare their teams for national championship games in the past and had mixed results:
" Georgia hired Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt as its new head coach after the 2000 regular season, but he stayed at FSU to call plays against Oklahoma in the 2001 Orange Bowl. The Seminoles managed only 301 yards of offense – 248 below their average – in an ugly, 13-2 loss.
" Nebraska hired LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini as its new coach in December 2007, and he coached the Tigers’ defense in a 38-24 win over Ohio State in the 2008 BCS National Championship in New Orleans. The Buckeyes went 3-for-13 on third down and turned the ball over three times.
" Florida State offensive coordinator Brad Scott was named South Carolina’s new coach in December 1993, but stuck around long enough to help the Seminoles win coach Bobby Bowden his first national championship with an 18-16 victory over Nebraska in the 1994 Orange Bowl.
Herman, who is in his third season as Ohio State’s offensive coordinator, is working with his third quarterback this season. After losing Braxton Miller because of a shoulder injury in the preseason, the Buckeyes lost Heisman Trophy candidate J.T. Barrett to a fractured right ankle in a 42-28 victory over Michigan in the regular-season finale.
Herman had a week to get backup Cardale Jones ready to play Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 6. Jones completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards with three touchdowns in a 59-0 rout of the Badgers.
Now, Herman has to get Jones ready to face one of the country’s best defenses on Thursday night.
Jones hasn’t noticed much of a change, other than a few Ohio State players playfully growling like a Cougar when passing Herman in the hallways.
“There’s no difference at all,” Jones said. “He’s still preparing for the game like he’s going to be here next year.”
That doesn’t mean the past two weeks haven’t taken a toll on Herman. He didn’t miss any of the Buckeyes’ practices before they took a break for the Christmas holidays. The Cougars officially hired him as their new coach on Dec. 16, and he oversaw an Ohio State practice two days later before flying to Houston that night.
Herman met with Houston’s players and coaches on Dec. 19 and watched them practice after his introductory news conference. He flew back to Columbus, Ohio, that night and was at Ohio State’s practice the next morning.
“It looks like someone hit him with a bat when he’s walking around here,” Meyer said earlier this month. “A good bat, though. There are bad bats, and a lot goes on with college football and bad bats. … He’s handling it well. He loves Ohio State and he’s appreciative of Ohio State.”
And the Buckeyes seem genuinely appreciative that he’s here. Under Herman’s direction, Ohio State’s offense ranked fifth nationally in scoring (45.2 points), 10th in rushing (260.8 yards) and eighth in total offense (502.6 yards).
“Coach Meyer made a great hire and the guy does an unbelievable job,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “As good a job as anybody I’ve seen in all my years of being a coordinator of mixing it up, changing it up and keeping you off balance. No real tendencies, outstanding coach. Houston got them a good one.”
Herman admits the past couple of weeks haven’t been easy. And if the Buckeyes are fortunate enough to upset the Crimson Tide, he’ll have to do it again before the College Football Playoff Championship Game.
“It’s why you’re in this business,” Herman said. “Bankers don’t get to do this. For all the hours, the late nights, lack of sleep and hours of pulling your hair out from dealing with 18- and 19-year-old kids, it’s a pretty cool job.”
A year later, he and the Buckeyes will get a chance to prove that they can actually “wipe the floor” with the top-ranked Crimson Tide -- and they might even get a shot at both of them.
“I was confident in my team then and confident in them now, and I’m really glad that we get to play them,” said Spencer, whose team will face Alabama on Jan. 1 in a College Football Playoff semifinal. “Obviously being a competitor and the type of guy that I am, I want to play the best team in the country, I want to play the best athletes in the country and I want to play the best-coached teams in the country.
“And the fact that we’re in the playoffs gave me a chance to play, hypothetically, the best teams in the country. Every athlete, that’s all they can wish for. I’m confident in my guys and I think that we’ll do well.”
Spencer was joking with reporters when he made those comments last November, but the situation blew up in his face a bit. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer publicly rebuked the receiver and temporarily banned him from speaking to the media.
Spencer later tweeted an apology for showing what Meyer deemed a lack of sportsmanship.
I did not mean to disrespect any FB team today. I am confident in my team, and as is evident in the video, I was having fun ...— Evan Spencer (@E_Spencer6) November 12, 2013
...with the media answering their questions. I should have chosen my words more wisely. There was no intent to disrespect any other team.— Evan Spencer (@E_Spencer6) November 12, 2013
“I just felt that it was necessary,” Spencer said Sunday. “Maybe some people were taking it differently than the intentions that I meant it. I solely meant it in the purpose of just showing my confidence in the guys that we had and none other than that.”
Spencer said he thought back on the controversy over his comments when he learned that the Buckeyes would face Alabama in the playoff. But he has bigger concerns than validating his comments from a year ago -- namely getting a win on New Year’s Day in order to play the Florida State-Oregon winner on Jan. 12 with a national title at stake.
“[I thought about it] little bit, but I was more thinking about the fact that we get to play the No. 1 team in the country and we get to show how good a team when we are,” Spencer said.
Of course, the Buckeyes never got a shot at Alabama or Florida State last season. They were undefeated at the time of Spencer’s comments and riding a winning streak that would stretch to a school-record 24 games before Michigan State upset them in the Big Ten championship game.
Auburn, which knocked Alabama out of the mix with its own upset win, went on to play Florida State in the BCS title game instead. The Buckeyes would close the season with another loss, this time to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and Spencer learned a valuable lesson in humility.
“We did a lot of great things in that season,” Spencer said. “Granted, we didn’t finish it the way we needed to and wanted to, but I felt that last year was definitely a really great learning experience for me personally and us as a team.”
Having already taken a visit to Florida State and scheduled visits to Ohio State on Jan. 23 and Missouri Jan. 30, Beckner says he will likely take a visit to either Auburn or Oregon on Jan. 16.
The top-ranked prospect knows he is under the microscope, but doesn’t let that impact his process or decision.
The Ohio State running back shows off his stomach during games -- even those, like at Minnesota, that are played in sub-freezing temperatures -- by turning his jersey into a half shirt. The throwback look has brought comparisons to another famous Buckeye back in Eddie George. Or maybe Britney Spears.
But Elliott, who started rocking the midriff last season as a freshman, says there's not much to it.
Elliott's game really isn't about style and flashiness, anyway. He likes to block a defensive back almost as much as he enjoys carrying the ball. Yet down the stretch of the season, he started putting up some elite rushing numbers.
In Ohio State's last five games, he averaged 138.6 yards per game and 7.7 yards per carry while scoring seven touchdowns. He put an exclamation point on his sophomore campaign with a huge performance in the 59-0 win against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game, running for a career-high 220 yards on 20 carries.
Elliott has posted numbers that are similar to Heisman Trophy winner George's in each of their first seasons as a full-time starter. George had 1,442 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior in 13 games; Elliott has 1,402 yards and 12 scores.
But the St. Louis native has done it all somewhat quietly, as the quarterbacks get most of the attention in the Buckeyes' offense. Even during Sunday's media session for the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the placard for Elliott misspelled his last name, leaving off the second 'T.'
"That happens a lot," he said. "It's something you've got to learn to deal with."
Clearly, though, Elliott has Alabama's attention. The Buckeyes like to run the ball first and foremost, and with J.T. Barrett sidelined, Elliott is their primary option on the ground.
"He's tough and he runs behind his shoulder pads," Crimson Tide safety Landon Collins said. "He's got great vision, and he hits his hole as hard as he can."
It's more than just Elliott's running that makes him special, however. Coach Urban Meyer has called him one of the best skill players he's ever had without the ball in his hands. Elliott relishes blocking downfield and is a big reason why Ohio State has sprung so many big plays.
"They run those sweeps and plays to the perimeter, and he just mows 'em down," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said.
Elliott says he likes contact and tries to "take a very unselfish approach to the game." That has, not surprisingly, made him a popular teammate.
"There will be somebody 50 yards downfield, and Zeke is going to go find him, cut him and take him out of the play," wide receiver Evan Spencer said. "He's like our Energizer bunny; he never seems to get tired. I watch film of him and am like, 'Geez, dude, how do you keep doing that?"
Ohio State will need every bit of Elliott's blocking, energy and speed on Thursday against Alabama, which leads the FBS in rushing defense by allowing just 88.7 yards per game and and 2.8 yards per carry. The Tide have given up just three rushing touchdowns all season, due mostly to their standout defensive line, which Buckeyes offensive coordinator Tom Herman said was the deepest and stoutest he's ever seen.
"They're really, really big," Herman said. "I mean, really big."
"You watch them on film," Elliott said, "and offensive lines don't really move them."
Ohio State is confident that its offensive line, which improved so much this season, can handle Alabama's size up front. But at some point, it will be up to Elliott to help counter the Tide's strength, both with his running and his blocking. If so, America may finally learn how to spell his name, while doing some rather unavoidable navel-gazing.
NEW ORLEANS -- There's an almost limitless supply of information available to Cardale Jones, more than a season of Alabama game films, anything and everything a Nick Saban defense has thrown at opponents over the last calendar year.
With just one measly game and a couple of mop-up appearances to watch as the Crimson Tide study up on Jones and Ohio State, Saban's supply is limited, to say the least.
It's almost a certainty that Alabama's defensive guru will cook up something a redshirt sophomore quarterback making just the second start of his career isn't prepared for, no matter how much footage Jones might have at his disposal. But while there is no substitute for experience and Ohio State's offensive philosophy doesn't change regardless of who is running the attack, there's at least a chance it might actually be Jones who has something of an edge leading up to Thursday's Allstate Sugar Bowl as a mystery man reading an open book, complex as it might be.
"There's been countless [hours], dating back to last year's Sugar Bowl, just trying to be prepared for any and everything," Jones said. "It's not so much exotic, but I would say they're a schematic defense. They prepare for the team they play that week, and they change their looks to defeat that team's offense.
"But we're not trying to fool anybody here. I mean, Nick Saban and Alabama's coaching staff have seen it all."
What the Crimson Tide haven't seen much of is Jones in action during many competitive situations, which might make it a challenge to put together a detailed scouting report of his tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.
What the former third-string quarterback did put on film in the 59-0 throttling of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game certainly caught Alabama's attention, though, and it proved without much doubt that he has the physical tools to pose a threat in the College Football Playoff both as a rusher and a passer. But outside of that breakout performance, there are only 18 other pass attempts on his resume, leaving little for Alabama to evaluate as it tries to formulate a plan to shut him down.
"Well, not knowing how he reacts to different things would be the toughest thing," Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. "You don't know how he's going to react in certain situations. You haven't seen enough tape to know.
"That's probably the hardest thing for us to get prepared for is we're watching one quarterback (J.T. Barrett) in a lot of games, yet we're going to face a different quarterback. So knowing what they want to do with that guy makes it harder, tougher to get ready for."
Even with all those extra hours of tape, Jones doesn't exactly have it all that much easier gearing up for the Crimson Tide, who are athletic, talented and intelligent enough to throw just about anything at the Buckeyes.
And in terms of reacting to different blitzes or coverages, the obvious downside to the lack of previous game film on Jones is that it means he doesn't have much experience putting his prep work into action on the field.
"I'm sure they will have a ton that he hasn't seen," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "He hasn't seen a lot, by the way. He only played 62 plays against Wisconsin. But I don't think defenses game plan against quarterbacks. Defenses game plan against systems and plays and formations and tendencies and downs and distances.
"Will they say, this is this kid's strength or these are his weaknesses? Yes, but at the end of the day you've got to stop the entire machine."
Alabama only needed one tape to see that Jones could keep it humming along. But he hasn't left it with much else to work with to try to slow him down behind the wheel.
Do you like defense? If so, this might be the bowl game for you. As expected, Texas enjoyed a defensive revival in 2014 under first-year coach Charlie Strong. The Longhorns finished No. 1 in the Big 12 in total defense, pass defense and sacks and rank No. 8 nationally in yards per play allowed. Arkansas isn't playing in this game or any bowl without its defense, which shut out both Ole Miss and LSU to reach six wins. The Hogs also held Alabama and Mississippi State to 14 and 17 points, respectively. The odds of this matchup ending in a low-scoring brawl look pretty decent.
Do you like running backs? Arkansas and Texas do. Bret Bielema built his Arkansas team around the only duo of 1,000-yard rushers (Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins) in the FBS. Their most impressive game together? The 437-yard showing at Texas Tech. Texas thought it would have a pair of 1,000-yarders in Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray but never had the O-line to sustain such success. Getting that inexperienced line a month of bowl practices and recovery time ought to help. Expect stacked boxes all night long in Houston.
Winning season vs. losing season: The one-game stakes for Arkansas and Texas are pretty simple. One team finishes 7-6; one team ends up 6-7. The Razorbacks just survived arguably the toughest schedule in the country, with seven SEC foes that won eight-plus games (combined record of their SEC opponents: 73-25). A win Monday would be a just reward for a team that had to fight for everything. Same for Texas, a squad that has played better than its 6-6 record indicates and came close to stunning UCLA and Oklahoma at neutral sites. (Plus the Horns have this bonus motivation.) Both teams will get up for this one, but who has enough left in the tank?
As a result, the routine became rote, with Winston repeating similar comments about his love for the game, his love for his teammates, and his belief that everything would work out in the end.
The Winston we saw Sunday during an extended Rose Bowl media session was a little different. The Florida State Seminoles quarterback spoke for 40 minutes -- his longest session since the ACC media kickoff in July -- and willingly answered questions ranging from how he is perceived to how the microscope on him has made him change, keeping him home at nights instead of out with teammates.
He even showed some of his trademark confidence, telling the world he would throw on any cornerback -- even Seahawks All-Pro Richard Sherman.
While Winston's guard remains firmly up, he knows how to win a news conference the way he knows how to win games.
He makes eye contact. He provides some insight to go with his rehearsed lines. He is keenly aware of not only what to say but also how to say it, reminding us that the personality that drew raves when he first took the field for Florida State is still there.
Yet he knows that personality may never be enough to win over skeptics who have long since made up their minds about Winston after his various off-the-field incidents -- most especially sexual assault allegations that never led to criminal charges.
“Well, perception is reality today, so my only thing today is to prove that I’m a good guy,” Winston said. “I’ve got to show more of my actions. I can’t worry about the past. I can’t worry about the future. I’ve got to be where my feet are and keep working every day to become a better person and a better football player and a better teammate.”
How does he go about proving that when so many do not believe him?
“In our locker room, I’m a fun-loving guy, and people always can bring up old things but now I’m doing what I do,” he said. “I’m playing the game I love. I’m a loving person. I’m dependable, I’m accountable. I can’t show out to the world that I’m that guy because you’re not in the locker room, and a lot of people don’t know me for who I am. Perception is reality, but perceptions can also be false.”
Leading up to Florida State's College Football Playoff semifinal against Oregon in the Rose Bowl on Thursday, what has become a common theme is that the world will see a newly invigorated Winston after he was cleared in his student code of conduct hearing earlier this month.
After the resolution was announced, coach Jimbo Fisher told reporters that Winston felt a sense of relief. But Winston refused to answer whether he was relieved when asked Saturday during a Rose bowl appearance at Disneyland and again Sunday, telling reporters the off-field problems were never a distraction.
“I’ve always been focusing on football only,” he said. “I was never worried about that. Football and academics have always been my main focus. I was never distracted by that.”
Co-offensive coordinator Randy Sanders did not quite know how to respond when asked whether he has seen a different Winston now that Winston has been cleared.
“I think other than having to sit in there through the process, that was probably the only real concern,” Sanders said. “He knows what happened, so I don’t think there was a whole lot of concern about how the results would turn out. I don’t think the thought of anything coming up where he couldn’t play was ever really a thought.”
Maybe not. But Winston knows his life has changed. He disclosed that he spent a lot of time with fellow senior receiver Rashad Greene in November 2013 after the sexual assault allegations against Winston were revealed. Winston would stay over at Greene’s apartment and get words of encouragement. Winston said Greene, who is also one of the team's leaders, told him, “Just relax. Keep your head up. You know you did nothing wrong. It’s more about your team. It’s about these guys.”
Winston also said he no longer goes out in Tallahassee.
“Obviously, I know I’m under a microscope,” he said. “People will tweet about you walking down the street backward, so you just gotta chill.”
Has that been difficult?
“Yeah, it has in the season, just staying in my house -- that’s not me,” Winston said. “I love being around my teammates. Only time I can be around them is in the locker room. I can’t celebrate with them. I can’t do nothing with them, but it comes with the territory.”
Winston is not the first, nor will he be the last high-profile athlete to be under a microscope made largely of his own doing. But Winston seems to know how to deal with the doubters and their questions. He may not like either, but he did answer with a smile.
Will Clemson send out its dominant senior class of defenders on a high note, or will Oklahoma turn in another breakthrough performance in a bowl game? Here are the storylines to watch in the Russell Athletic Bowl:
Stoudt back at the helm: Cole Stoudt steps in once again as the Tigers quarterback after Deshaun Watson elected to have surgery on his injured knee. Given that Stoudt’s last two games against Power 5 competition included four picks and zero touchdowns, that opens some significant questions about whether Clemson can put up points. Adding more intrigue is the coaching situation for the Tigers. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris departed for the head-coaching job at SMU, which means Tony Elliott will get his first crack at calling plays.
Healthy Oklahoma: When the Sooners fell to Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale, they were without starting QB Trevor Knight and lost star tailback Samaje Perine in the third quarter to a sprained ankle. Both players have had time to heal and should be on the field against Clemson, which certainly makes Oklahoma’s offense far more dangerous.
Perine vs. Clemson rush D: Despite sitting out the final quarter of the Oklahoma State game, Perine racked up 791 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in his final three games of the season, making Oklahoma’s ground game one of the most explosive in the nation. On the flip side, Clemson’s D surrendered just 2.8 yards per carry this season -- the best in the nation -- and allowed just 10 touchdowns all year. While it does seem like a strength-on-strength matchup, it’s worth mentioning that when the Tigers played Georgia’s prolific running game in the opener, they allowed 328 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
Getting to Knight: Clemson’s pass rush has been among the best in the nation the past two years. The Tigers had 44 sacks this season, which ranked fifth nationally, and Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett & Co. tormented opposing quarterbacks all season. To have that same success against Oklahoma won’t be easy, though. The Sooners surrendered just eight sacks all year, the second fewest in the country.
Gallman on the ground: He didn’t exactly finish the year with as much of a bang as Perine did at Oklahoma, but Wayne Gallman helped transform the Clemson offense down the stretch by finally giving the Tigers a consistent threat on the ground. Gallman had 516 yards rushing in Clemson’s last five games, and the Tigers’ ground game, which had averaged just 3.8 yards per rush in the first seven games of the season, upped that average to 4.8 over the final five. A strong game by Gallman and the rushing attack could take a lot of pressure off Stoudt.
What’s at stake: In the 119-season history of Texas A&M football, the Aggies have never won four consecutive bowl games. They have the opportunity to do so here, seeking a fourth straight bowl win dating back to 2011. West Virginia is appearing in its third bowl game in four seasons under Dana Holgorsen and seeks its second bowl win in that span.
Players to watch: West Virginia receiver Kevin White is worth the price of admission. The senior is one of college football’s best receivers, ranking sixth in the nation in receptions (102) and seventh in receiving yards (1,318), with nine touchdowns. He shows a knack for making big-time, highlight-worthy plays. For Texas A&M, true freshman defensive end Myles Garrett has lived up to the hype that preceded his arrival in Aggies land. He finished the regular season tied for second in the SEC in sacks (11), which broke Jadeveon Clowney’s SEC freshman sack record, Garrett had 12.5 tackles for loss, and he has been a headache for opposing offensive tackles and quarterbacks.
Familiar faces: These head coaches know each other well. Kevin Sumlin’s first offensive coordinator hire as a head coach in Houston was Holgorsen in 2008. The two won 18 games together in two seasons before Holgorsen left for the same position at Oklahoma State. He took then-graduate assistant Jake Spavital with him from Houston to Stillwater and eventually to West Virginia before Sumlin tabbed Spavital to replace Kliff Kingsbury’s spot on the Texas A&M staff when Kingsbury left his offensive coordinator post for the head-coaching job at Texas Tech.
Similar attacks: Both teams operate in a one-back spread attack rooted in Air Raid principles. Each team scores a lot (West Virginia averages 33.2 points, Texas A&M 34.4) and throws quite a bit, too; the Mountaineers average 314.6 passing yards per game, while the Aggies average 306.4.
Trickett out: West Virginia starting quarterback Clint Trickett will miss the game, announcing last week that he is hanging up his cleats because of concussions he's suffered. Sophomore Skyler Howard will start at quarterback for the Mountaineers. In three games, including a start versus Iowa State, Howard has thrown for 483 yards and five touchdowns.
Record breaker: Texas A&M sophomore receiver Josh Reynolds has emerged as one of quarterback Kyle Allen’s favorite receivers, and even when Kenny Hill was starting, Reynolds was making things happen. The unheralded junior college recruit tied the single-season school record (held by Mike Evans and Jeff Fuller) with 12 receiving touchdowns. One more would put Reynolds at the top of the list, lofty status for someone who received little buzz when he enrolled at Texas A&M in January.
Coaching attrition: Texas A&M will be without three coaches that it ended the regular season with: defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, offensive line coach B.J. Anderson and receivers coach David Beaty. Snyder was fired the day after the Aggies’ season-ending loss to LSU; linebackers coach Mark Hagen will serve as the interim defensive coordinator for the Liberty Bowl. Beaty accepted the head-coaching position at Kansas, and earlier this month Sumlin announced that Anderson won’t return next season or coach in the bowl game. The Aggies will operate with two full-time offensive assistants (Jake Spavital and Clarence McKinney), while graduate assistant Chris Smith assists with the offensive line duties for the game. West Virginia will say goodbye to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson after the Liberty Bowl, as he will become Kentucky’s offensive coordinator, but Dawson will be with the Mountaineers’ staff working Monday’s game.
Shaquelle Evans, No. 40 in 2009 class
Evans picked Notre Dame in November of 2008 coming out of Inglewood (Calif.) taking only one official visit, to South Bend, despite offers from USC, UCLA, Oklahoma and a number of others. He was a member of a Fighting Irish 2008 class that included tight end Tyler Eifert, tackle Zack Martin, running back Theo Riddick, linebacker Manti Te'o and guard Chris Watt.
Evans saw action in six games for the Fighting Irish catching seven passes for 61 yards. He elected to transfer home after the 2009 season, and enrolled at UCLA.
Evans sat out the 2010 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but made his mark quickly in 2011. He played in 13 of 14 games for the Bruins including five starts. He finished the season with 19 catches and two touchdowns.
The 2012 season was when Evans began to show that he had a future in the NFL. In 14 starts, Evans caught a team leading 60 passes for 877 yards earning All-Pac 12 honorable mention by the league coaches.
Evans again led the Bruins in receptions as a senior catching 47 passes for 709 yards and nine touchdowns earning All-Pac 12 honors for a second straight season.
He capped his career catching a pass in his last 28 games, and made 32 career starts. In total he had 126 receptions for 1,895 yards for UCLA.
Evans was selected in the fourth round, No. 115 overall, in the 2014 NFL draft by the New York Jets.
Honorable mention: Byron Maxwell, No. 40 in 2006 and Travis Rudolph, No. 40 in 2014. Maxwell currently plays for the Seattle Seahawks after a standout career at Clemson. Rudolph has emerged as a key receiver for Florida State headed into the College Football playoff. He played like a player with an NFL future during the last half of the 2014 season.
While the Allstate Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will bring an exciting and much-anticipated coaching matchup between Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer, it also brings us an intriguing player vs. coaches matchup.
That would be Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones facing a pair of defensive gurus in Saban and his coordinating partner in crime, Kirby Smart. On paper, you have a redshirt sophomore, third-string-quarterback-turned-starter taking on two guys who eat, sleep and breathe defense and preparedness. What you have is Jones making his second start, following a fantastic showing in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, battling two brilliant football minds who got nearly a month to prepare for their relatively inexperienced opponent.
But you also have those two X's and O's brainiacs taking on a lumbering yet deceptively agile gunslinger who went from being defined by an infamous tweet to piling up 257 passing yards and three touchdowns in the Buckeyes' 59-0 pounding of Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago.
While Ohio State trying to perfect the ideal game plan for a new quarterback -- for the second time this season -- against a tag team that feasts off inexperience and relishes the notion of extra time to think and scheme sounds daunting, Alabama has to be ready for a 6-foot-5, 250-pound quarterback who coaches and players really don't know a ton about. The factor of the relative unknown complicates things a little for Alabama as well.
"This guy is very, very capable," Saban said of Jones. "He's a very good passer. Big strong, athletic guy who can do all the things the other guy (J.T. Barrett) could do in terms of the quarterback runs. It's just a little different style, that's all. We did see him play almost a game and a half. And he pretty must did what the other guy did. The one thing he did really well was pass the ball. He made some really good throws in the Wisconsin game, big plays down the field. Which the other guy did, too, so we have a tremendous amount of respect what this guy can do."
Saban and Smart have kind of been down this path before. They adjusted on the fly in-game to Garrett Gilbert in the BCS title win over Texas in 2009 and prepared for a completely different quarterback -- and scheme -- against Jordan Jefferson and LSU in their 2011 national championship win.
So for the moment, this battle is a little bit of a chess match. While Saban and Smart, who watched their defense rank third in the SEC (312.4 yards allowed per game) and have combined to win four of their last five bowl games together, pose the threat of unleashing some new and threatening exotic looks to confuse Ohio State's green QB, Jones and his coaches have limited film and a plethora of offensive knowledge working in their favor as well.
See, while Jones is one obstacle Alabama's defensive brain trust must overcome, there's also the issue of preparing for any potential wrinkles from Meyer and Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who won this year's Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant. The Buckeyes have been down this path before. After star quarterback Braxton Miller was lost for the season with a shoulder injury, Herman helped develop Barrett into one of the nation's elite players.
In his first season of work, Barrett threw for 2,834 yards (more than Miller has in a single season) and a school-record 34 touchdowns while rushing for another 938 yards and 11 more scores. This was all before a season-ending ankle injury in the season finale against Michigan gave way to Jones.
Whether it was Barrett for so long or Jones for so little, Ohio State hasn't had to change much to help its quarterbacks.
"Most of their quarterbacks are kind of similar," Alabama safety Landon Collins said. "They run the same scheme offense. We’re just gonna have to watch film on what they do because, I mean, they’re not gonna change the whole offense for one player."
Ohio State isn't, and it doesn't have to. The Buckeyes arrived in New Orleans leading the Big Ten in total offense (507.6 yards per game) and scoring (45.2) and ranking third in passing (246.8 yards per game). That's all without Miller and mostly thanks to some masterful play calling by Herman to put Barrett in the right situations. Now, it's time for Herman to use a little bit of that magic on Jones to thwart Alabama's suffocating defense.
"We feel philosophically, they are going to run their offense," Saban said. "It's just what part of it they might feature a little different. That's the part we are not sure about."