NCF Nation: Ohio State Buckeyes

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The exact moment Michael Bennett's mentality changed is a bit too difficult to pin down more than a month later.

Figuring out what adjustment the Ohio State defensive lineman made on the field is pretty clear cut, though.

Those two tweaks overlapped at some point leading into a huge test on the road against Michigan State. And the combination between truly committing to become a more consistent practice player, being a better leader, adopting an empty-the-tank aggression on game days, along with the No. 4 Buckeyes sticking him at defensive tackle on a full-time basis certainly worked. It finally allowed Bennett to play like the All-American he was expected to be before the season instead of the sluggish player that played the first two months.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bennett, Joel Stave
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesMichael Bennett was a terror down the stretch for Ohio State, racking up five sacks in the last month of the season.
“I don’t really know what caused the change,” Bennett said. “I think it was Michigan State week, that was probably when it was the biggest difference. I think I played good football up until Michigan State week, but I think once they moved me to just straight three-technique and said, 'Go do what we know you can do,' I think that made me a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident than playing a new position.

“I don’t know, I was able to feed off my teammates and we just started gelling and things started working out.”

That’s something of an understatement considering the tear Bennett went on for the next five weeks, a binge of big plays and embarrassing moments for opposing blockers that arguably made him one of the most disruptive defenders in the nation down the stretch.

Starting with his breakout performance in the victory over the Spartans that put Ohio State firmly in control of Big Ten East Division, Bennett racked up five sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss and forced three fumbles over the next five weeks. In the process, a program that faded on defense late in the season in 2013 instead appeared to grow stronger as it bullied its way into the College Football Playoff and Thursday’s showdown with No. 1 Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that Bennett’s emergence coincided with some of the best defense the Buckeyes have played in years, most notably the 59-0 whitewash of Wisconsin that had the senior captain’s fingerprints all over it. And while the veteran is quick to deflect attention elsewhere and steadfastly refuses to take credit for Ohio State’s recent defensive rise, there is plenty of success that can be directly traced to Bennett.

“Any time that you are playing your best up front, especially right in the heart of your defense in the middle, it’s going to help the rest of the defense,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “Michael Bennett, about six weeks ago, he flipped the switch and something changed. ... Everybody else has fed off of that.

“He’s a senior up there, he’s one of our most talented players, one of our best playmakers. When people see him doing things the right way, the investment he’s made into the game of football to help himself get better has been impressive, everybody else is following his lead.”

Obviously the standard Bennett has set as a lead and a competitor has been a boost for the Buckeyes, but he’s also not alone on a long list of defenders who have improved during the season. Darron Lee has become a game-changer at linebacker, a secondary that was picked apart last season led the Big Ten in interceptions, and Joey Bosa has rapidly developed into one of the country’s top pass-rushing threats.

But give or take a few days, Ohio State can look back to the week of the Michigan State game and see a pretty definitive turning point -- not only for Bennett, but the rest of the unit as well.

“I think the defense is starting to gel at the right time of the year,” Bennett said. “I think everybody is starting to play less selfishly. I just think my success stems from everybody on the field doing better, so I’m more free to go do what I can do. My success comes from the team doing well, and the team doing well comes from my success just like it would coming from anybody else.

“I’m never going to take credit for something like that.”

A team-first captain never would anyway. But it wasn’t hard to see who was leading the charge for the Buckeyes over the last five games right into the playoff.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Big Ten bowl predictions

December, 19, 2014
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The song is right: Bowl season is the most wonderful time of the year. Bowl season will also determine the overall champion of the season picks. Austin Ward leads the way right now, but it's still a wide-open race.

 

Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl



Why Illinois will win: There has been a noticeable change in the Illini down the stretch, and Tim Beckman’s players appeared to have fully bought in to his message as they fought back to qualify for a bowl game. Across the board, this looks like the most favorable matchup for any Big Ten team, and with a motivated team playing its best football when it mattered most, expect Illinois to come away with a trophy. Illinois 31, Louisiana Tech 24. -- Austin Ward

Why Louisiana Tech will win: I suppose I should believe more in Illinois after it finished the season strong, and Louisiana Tech has some bad losses on its schedule (Northwestern State and Old Dominion … oy). But I still have a wait-and-see attitude with this Illini defense, and the one thing the Bulldogs can do is score points. They averaged 37.5 points per game this season, and I think they'll win a shootout against a group of players not accustomed to the bowl stage. Louisiana Tech 38, Illinois 35. -- Brian Bennett

 

Quick Lane Bowl



Why Rutgers will win: Rutgers has already played four of the nation's top 10 defenses and a half-dozen of the top 25 rushing attacks. So, even with dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams, North Carolina isn'’t going to throw anything at Rutgers it hasn’t already seen. The Tar Heels have one of the worst defenses in the country -- only 10 have allowed more yards -- so Rutgers shouldn’t have a problem scoring. The issue here is Rutgers' defense, but, again, Rutgers has fared OK there against middle-of-the-road teams, and that's exactly what UNC is.
Rutgers 38, North Carolina 31. -- Josh Moyer

 

New Era Pinstripe Bowl



Why Boston College will win: It's fitting this bowl is played in Yankee Stadium because the final score might look like it belongs to a baseball game. Both teams have top-five rushing defenses and middling offensive production. Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy, a former Florida Gator who transferred before this season, has been the X factor this season that helped BC beat USC and stick within a field goal of Florida State. Murphy does most of his damage on the ground, and that plays in Penn State's favor. But if he can break one or two big plays, that should be enough for a close win. Boston College 10, Penn State 6. -- Dan Murphy

Why Penn State will win: Let’s be honest: The Nittany Lions offense is lousy, and the special teams (outside of Sam Ficken) are almost just as bad. But I'm going with Penn State for the same reason it made a bowl game in the first place: defense. Only four teams in the FBS threw for fewer yards than Boston College, and no team defended the run better than Penn State. That works right into the strengths of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Plus, the Nittany Lions will be motivated in their first bowl appearance since 2011. Underestimate this team at your own peril; it ended the plast two seasons with even bigger upsets.
Penn State 16, Boston College 13. -- Josh Moyer

 

National University Holiday Bowl



Why USC will win: Because the Trojans have more offensive firepower than any team to face Nebraska this season -- and the Huskers have surrendered 475 yards per game to Miami, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota. USC, with quarterback Cody Kessler, running back Buck Allen and receiver Nelson Agholor, will torment a Nebraska team that might feel a bit lost without deposed coach Bo Pelini. The Huskers, organizationally, figure to struggle after a tumultuous month. They're stuck in turmoil as USC looks to build off a strong finish to the regular season in a win over Notre Dame. USC 38, Nebraska 24. -- Mitch Sherman

 

Foster Farms Bowl



Why Stanford will win: This is a virtual home game for the Cardinal in nearby Santa Clara, California, while the Terrapins have to travel all the way across the country. Stanford struggled earlier in the season but seemed to find its footing late, beating UCLA by 21 points in the regular-season finale. Maryland has been unpredictable most of the season and has enough big-play ability to pull off an upset. But it's a tall order. Stanford 24, Maryland 17. -- Brian Bennett

 

Outback Bowl



Why Wisconsin will win: It's been a topsy-turvy three weeks for the Badgers, between losing 59-0 in the Big Ten title game and then losing their head coach, but this group isn't one to just lie down, and I can't envision Melvin Gordon taking it easy in the last game of his college career. How you view this game is basically a reflection of how you view that Big Ten championship -- and I see that as an anomaly. It won't happen again against Auburn. I still think Wisconsin has a great defense. I still think this offensive line can overpower Auburn. And I still think these players want to win one for Barry Alvarez. Auburn has an average defense and a great offense, but the Badgers win a close one in the end. Wisconsin 31, Auburn 28. -- Josh Moyer

Why Auburn will win: You can bet Auburn coach Gus Malzahn watched the Big Ten championship game with a big smile on his face. Ohio State had its way with Wisconsin's supposedly elite defense despite using a quarterback making his first career start with only one week to prepare. Auburn has as much, or more, offensive talent and speed as Ohio State, and it has a veteran quarterback in Nick Marshall. The Tigers' shaky defense could struggle with Gordon, Wisconsin's All-America running back, but it should be able to outscore the Badgers. Wisconsin can't match up with Sammie Coates in the back end and could struggle with Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne on the perimeter. Auburn 35, Wisconsin 24. -- Adam Rittenberg

 

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic



Why Michigan State will win: The fearsome Spartans defense has already allowed more than 40 points twice this season. There's a decent chance it will happen a third time against Baylor, the country's No. 1 offense, but Michigan State is no slouch on offense, either, and should be able to keep pace. While Baylor uses a breakneck tempo to get its advantage, the Spartans rely more on their instinct to grind opponents down. If Michigan State can control the pace of the game and get a couple of stops, it should be able to avoid falling to 0-3 against top-10 opponents this season. Michigan State 45, Baylor 42. -- Dan Murphy

Why Baylor will win: Michigan State faced two ranked teams this season and lost both games in unflattering fashion. Oregon and Ohio State hung 46 and 49 points, respectively, on the Spartans as Michigan State's offense just couldn't keep up. The problem for Mark Dantonio's squad? Baylor’s offense is even better. The Bears are ranked No. 1 in the country in scoring and yards, so the "No-Fly Zone" could have as much a hard time stopping Bryce Petty as it did Marcus Mariota. The Spartans are a good team, but I just don't like this matchup for them. MSU starts off strong but Baylor pulls away in the second half.
Baylor 45, Michigan State 35. -- Josh Moyer

 

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl



Why Minnesota will win: The SEC East champions were already given fits by a Big Ten team, and Indiana won only a single conference game after knocking off Missouri on the road. Minnesota, with its power rushing attack, aggressive defense and solid leadership from the coaching staff, was better than the Hoosiers in virtually every way this season. Plus, it will be fired up to end the season on a high note with a fan base excited for the destination. The Gophers claim more hardware here. Minnesota 27, Missouri 20. -- Austin Ward

 

Why Missouri will win: All the Gophers have to do is follow Indiana's game plan from the Hoosiers' 31-27 upset in Columbia, Missouri, back in September, right? It might not be that easy. While the Tigers benefited from playing in the terrible SEC East, Missouri did improve as the season went along and has a strong rush defense that allowed just 3.5 yards per carry. That means Mitch Leidner will likely have to make some plays -- and avoid the fierce pass rush of Shane Ray. Minnesota has an excellent shot here, but I like Missouri in a close one.
Missouri 27, Minnesota 24. -- Brian Bennett

 

Taxslayer Bowl



Why Tennessee will win: Bowl games are often about motivation and momentum, and Tennessee trumps Iowa in both areas. The Vols are that incredibly young, talented team that should benefit more than most from bowl practices and the chance to punctuate this season before a 2015 campaign that will carry much higher expectations. Iowa has a good track record in bowls but comes in on a down note after a very disappointing regular season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs sparked Tennessee down the stretch and should give Iowa's defense trouble. Tennessee's defense should pressure Iowa's quarterbacks into mistakes.
Tennessee 24, Iowa 17. -- Adam Rittenberg

 

Allstate Sugar Bowl



Why Ohio State will win: Urban Meyer doesn't need to call on his psychological tricks for an underdog team all that often, though the Ohio State coach did already have a couple occasions to do so this year. Look at what happened to Michigan State and Wisconsin when the Buckeyes felt slighted and Meyer pushed their buttons to bring out their best. Certainly, No. 1 Alabama is the ultimate test and is favored for a reason, but Ohio State has the personnel to match up with the SEC champions, and the Buckeyes have one more chance to shock everyone in what has been already been a stunning season. Ohio State 31, Alabama 30. -- Austin Ward

Why Alabama will win: Have you watched the Crimson Tide? They have the best talent nationally and possibly the best coaching. Ohio State is not too bad itself, with a young and fast-improving stable under Meyer, but Alabama is several steps ahead and tested against a daunting schedule in the SEC West. If it boils down to playmakers, the Buckeyes will be at a disadvantage for the first time this season -- perhaps a big disadvantage. Ohio State simply can't match Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and the Bama backs with a third-string quarterback in Cardale Jones and weapons elsewhere whose athleticism won't surprise the Alabama defense.
Alabama 31, Ohio State 17. -- Mitch Sherman

Our records:
1. Austin Ward: 88-25 (.779)
T-2. Brian Bennett: 85-28 (.752)
T-2. Mitch Sherman: 85-28 (.752)
4. Dan Murphy: 57-19 (.750)
5. Adam Rittenberg: 83-30 (.735)
6. Josh Moyer: 82-31 (.726)
The Allstate Sugar Bowl featuring No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State could come down to unexpected players stepping up and making big plays. Earlier we looked at who could be the offensive X factors, and now we look at who could fill that role on defense on Jan. 1.

Alabama CB Tony Brown: Nick Saban and his coaching staff seem to find a way to make the most out of the extended bowl practices. Take last year, for example, when they brought along a true freshman by the name of Derrick Henry, who went on to obliterate Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. This time, don’t be surprised if it’s the rookie cornerback, Brown. He has seen the field his fair share this season, but been kept on a short leash because of his inexperience. Well, now the five-star talent has 13 games under his belt, and he could be the answer to Alabama’s struggles at cornerback.

Ohio State: LB Darron Lee: Considering that he’s only two years removed from playing quarterback and safety in high school, it’s pretty remarkable that the redshirt freshman was able to crack the starting rotation at linebacker so quickly for the Buckeyes. But Lee has done far more than just earn playing time this season, he’s rapidly developed into one of the team’s best playmakers and looks like a perfect fit in the mold left behind by first-round draft pick Ryan Shazier. He may not be a finished product yet, but with the ability to cover the entire field thanks to his elite athleticism, Lee stuffed the stats sheet with 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and a pair of touchdowns during his first campaign as a starter. The Buckeyes may have bigger stars on the defense heading into the Sugar Bowl, but they’ll need Lee at his best to leave with a victory.
The Allstate Sugar Bowl featuring No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State could come down to unexpected players stepping up and making big plays. So who could fill that role on offense on Jan. 1? Alex Scarbrough and Austin Ward take a look:

Alabama: WR Christion Jones: Chances are that Alabama will need a receiver not named Amari Cooper to make plays. With several weeks to prepare, it stands to reason that the Ohio State staff will find a way to bracket Alabama’s Heisman Trophy finalist and force quarterback Blake Sims to look elsewhere. So pay attention to Jones. The senior has the moves to make people miss in the open field and the speed to get behind the defense. At 13.9 yards per catch, he can make Ohio State pay for focusing too much on Cooper. And for good measure, don't miss Jones on kickoffs and punt returns. Though he hasn't struck paydirt with a touchdown on special teams yet this season, someone with his athleticism is due to break free at some point.

Ohio State: WR Devin Smith: A pretty straightforward formula has emerged during the senior wideout’s career, and it hasn’t failed yet. When Smith catches a touchdown, the Buckeyes win. They are 20-0 when Smith has a TD reception. Is that any good? But this season Smith has taken it even further -- when he’s at his best, Ohio State’s already high-powered offense becomes downright unstoppable. In the two biggest matchups of the season, on the road against Michigan State and in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, Smith was a nightmare as a deep threat, unleashing his speed, incredible leaping ability and knack for making tough grabs all at once to kick the Buckeyes into their highest gear. He combined for 10 catches for 266 yards and 4 touchdowns in those wins, and Alabama’s secondary will have to account for him in New Orleans.
Nick Saban, Urban MeyerUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SportswireNick Saban and Urban Meyer agree that players' families should get assistance to offset the cost of attending playoff games.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On the surface, there may not be all that much in common between the two rivals on top of the coaching game.

Urban Meyer is the offensive guru, a master motivator with a reputation for his relationships with players. Nick Saban is the defensive genius, a notedly strong disciplinarian with an incredible attention to detail.

The lines between them may actually blur at times, with Saban also beloved by his players and Meyer not one to let his organization fall out of order. And the truth is, other than that split between offense and defense, the two might actually be more like-minded than they’re given credit for, a point that was driven home again when they took up yet another issue in lockstep to try to change college football for the better.

“I know we both committed our entirely livelihood to college football and believe in players,” Meyer said. “The players are the most important part of this whole institution of college football.

“So we've had many, many conversations about how to make sure we keep the game or do the best we can to make sure the game stays what it is.”

That previously put agents on campus and the possibility of providing stipends for players in the cross-hairs of arguably the two most famous coaches in America, and now they’re pushing for some help for families ahead of a historic meeting between Alabama and Ohio State in the semifinal of the inaugural College Football Playoff.

With expensive price tags on flights and hotels around the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the possibility of an additional game looming with a victory, families have expressed their concerns both in letters and on social media that they can’t afford to see their sons play in the most important games of their lives. Ohio State was able to offer $800 in reimbursements through the student-assistance fund, but that isn’t likely to come close to covering even one trip on relatively short notice, and Saban and Meyer are once again raising their voices to draw attention to an issue that might otherwise be overlooked.

“I just hope that because it's a first that we do the best job that we possibly can for all teams involved, all players involved, all families involved, assessing how we do this so that we can make it better for the families in the future,” Saban said. “I think that when I say make it better, I think for the travel that's involved with all the families, that maybe we should do something for the family so that they have an opportunity to get to the game so that they can see the players play.

“I think that would be something great, and I think that's something that all the coaches up here really, really support.”

Sitting right next to him at the news conference last week in Orlando, Saban already had an ally who had strongly come out in favor of assisting the extended football family, with Meyer pointing to the huge amounts of money the playoff format is expected to bring in for conferences and universities.

Figuring out exactly how to slice up the pie and make sure moms and dads are in the building moving forward surely won’t be an issue that is resolved in time for the first playoff. But just like they did back in the SEC, a pair of powerful rivals are at least making it a topic of conversation to potentially influence some change down the line.

“That was my first thought,” Meyer said. “I want to see how our families are going to be able to afford two bowl games if we’re fortunate enough to keep going. Universities and conferences are making a lot of money off the TV deals, how are we going to treat the families of the players? I still haven’t heard much about it, but I’m going to keep pushing it because I want to know.

“I’m not sure what the answer is. ... They had a room where all those people sat and selected [the teams], I wonder if they have another room where people decide on how we make sure we treat the players the right way. You talk about stress over the holidays? Watch what happens here over the next month. I’ve spoken to some of my colleagues about it.”

The conversation between long-time rivals was surely a short one this time. Once again, Saban and Meyer were already on the same page.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There was already more than enough evidence proving the sharpness of Urban Meyer's eye for talent, but add one more perfect example to the Ohio State coach's file.

Tom Herman wasn't toiling away in total anonymity while at Iowa State and building his case as one of the hottest young coordinators in the nation, but he also wasn't so well known that it was obvious Meyer would have to pursue him when he was putting together his first Buckeyes coaching staff three seasons ago. In fact, there really was no previous relationship between the two of them at all.

But Herman shared a similar philosophy with Meyer and won him over quickly despite not popping up on many coaching hot lists. The same was true for current co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, when Meyer was in the market for an assistant on that side of the ball after last season.

With a coaching tree that has sprouted yet another branch -- Herman is officially taking over as Houston's coach -- and so many Meyer protégés scattered around the country, by now it should be no secret that Meyer is as successful at spotting what he wants in his coaches as he is recruiting top-shelf talent for them to work with on the field.

Filling Herman's shoes won't be easy, not after his wild success preparing four quarterbacks in the past two seasons -- thanks to a string of injuries that almost certainly would have crippled most attacks but barely slowed down the Buckeyes -- to operate the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten. But when added to a list of former assistants -- like Dan Mullen, Charlie Strong, Steve Addazio, Doc Holliday, Tim Beckman and Gary Andersen -- who are now in charge of programs, the loss of Herman represents another chance for Meyer to add fresh ideas and continue evolving, rather than pose an insurmountable obstacle for title chances in 2015.

The hiring of Herman by the Cougars also offers a fantastic fit for both parties. Herman's ties to recruiting Texas, his knowledge of quarterback play and the spread offense, and his personality will be smash hits with fans and boosters of his new program. It's a victory for the Buckeyes in that they'll keep him around for as long as they're alive in the College Football Playoff.

So even though there's always uncertainty when a job this critical to a major program like Ohio State comes open, Meyer has earned the benefit of the doubt that he'll get his hire right, probably by nabbing an up-and-comer who wasn't widely considered an option when the process began. And given the somewhat unusual way Meyer operates with his offensive staff, he's already working from ahead because he doesn't have to also replace his invaluable offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner, who like Herman is destined to run his own program at some point in the near future.

"Like on offense right now, we have two coordinators -- Ed Warinner, Tom Herman -- and myself," Meyer said recently. "It’s not one guy calling plays, that’s not the way how we do business. At some places, that’s maybe how they do it.

"But we script each play, everybody is involved in the game plan and that’s the only way I’m going to have it. I don’t want that dictator in there, that’s not the way we do business."

Losing another coordinator, even the reigning Broyles Award winner as the best assistant in the nation, isn't going to run the Buckeyes out of business.

It's probably going to provide a major boost for Houston and it sets Herman on the path to prove himself and potentially land a bigger job down the road, while leaving Meyer to do a bit of professional recruiting again this offseason. In the end, the odds look good that everybody gets what they want.

Play that changed the Big Ten race

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
10:30
AM ET
Michigan State was in the driver’s seat. For a few brief moments the scoreboard at Spartan Stadium showed the home team with a two-touchdown lead over East Division rival Ohio State late in the first half.

A holding penalty eliminated what at first looked like a rushing touchdown for Spartans running back Jeremy Langford. Not long after, the Buckeyes wiped clean the rest of Michigan State’s lead and its chance at a second consecutive Big Ten title, making the holding call a pivotal play in the race for a conference championship.

Langford’s run would have given his Spartans a 28-14 lead with under four minutes to play in the second quarter and their second touchdown in less than 60 seconds. The drive, which started inside the red zone thanks to a fumbled kickoff, was a chance to dump a truckload of pressure on the Buckeyes and their rookie quarterback J.T. Barrett.

Instead, All-American center Jack Allen hooked his arm around an Ohio State defender and dragged him down to open the lane for Langford. It was a clear penalty, which set up a third-and-long Michigan State couldn’t convert. Michael Geiger missed a field goal on the following play, and the Spartans missed a great chance to push Ohio State’s back to the wall.

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“All of the sudden momentum just flipped,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said following the game. “If we go in at 28-14 there's a different feel, there's a little bit more like, 'OK, we've got them.' But they hit two big plays in that three minutes. So you deal with it."

Barrett connected with Michael Thomas on the next play for a 79-yard, game-tying touchdown. He would throw another deep ball for another score before the end of the half to complete a 21-point swing in the final minutes of the second quarter. Ohio State took its touchdown lead into the locker room and never looked back en route to a 49-37 win.

If Michigan State doesn’t get caught for holding, it could have pressed the Buckeyes and perhaps taken a two-score lead into the second half. To push the hypothetical further, maybe Barrett doesn’t play as loose without those two late scores and perhaps the Spartans hang on to win. They would be the one-loss team playing an overmatched Wisconsin squad in Indianapolis. With their only loss coming on the road to No. 2 Oregon, perhaps the selection committee sees them as worthy of one of four playoff spots.

On the other side, Urban Meyer is pinned with his first regular-season conference loss in the Big Ten and his third year without a conference title. A second loss kills the Buckeyes' chance of a playoff berth. Meyer is suddenly human, and the perception of the league’s top two teams is flipped.

Instead, the referee threw a flag between Allen and left tackle Jack Conklin and potentially altered the Big Ten season.

"Who knows what could have happened,” Conklin said after the game, “if we could have come out and finished that drive.”
The addition of No. 1 2016 TE Isaac Nauta shows that the Florida State recruiting machine shows no signs of slowing down. Plus, Tennessee continues to impress with its 2015 defensive class.

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