The Sugar Bowl matchup between Alabama and Ohio State may not have the quarterback star power of Florida State-Oregon in the Rose Bowl, but there’s no shortage of intrigue in New Orleans. The Buckeyes hope to carry the banner for the Big Ten and score a huge win over Alabama and the SEC, while the Crimson Tide hopes to win their fourth national title in six years.
Ohio State’s playoff hopes suffered a huge setback with the loss of quarterback J.T. Barrett to a season-ending injury against Michigan. However, Cardale Jones played well against Wisconsin and has a month to get ready for Alabama’s defense. Although Jones has extra time to prepare, the Crimson Tide defense also has a month to add a few new wrinkles to the repertoire. As if a quarterback making his second career start wasn’t enough to overcome, Ohio State has to face the nation’s top receiver (Amari Cooper), along with a punishing ground attack led by T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry.
Let's take a look at the position-by-position preview for the 2015 Sugar Bowl:
Position-by-Position Sugar Bowl Preview
Blake Sims entered the year as a question mark but had a breakout year under the direction of coordinator Lane Kiffin. Sims threw for 3,250 yards and 26 scores, while completing 64.8 percent of his passes. The senior also rushed for 321 yards and six touchdowns. Sims tossed only seven picks on 355 attempts, with three of those interceptions coming against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Sims was one of the SEC's top quarterbacks in 2014.
Injuries have marred the Buckeyes’ quarterback depth chart in 2014. Braxton Miller was lost for the year with a shoulder injury in August, and J.T. Barrett was a Heisman candidate before a season-ending leg injury against Michigan. Cardale Jones completed 12 of 27 passes for 257 yards and three scores against Wisconsin in the only start of his career. Having a month to prepare for Alabama should help Jones in his second career start.
This is one of the top running back corps in the nation. T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry combined for 1,767 yards and 20 scores in the regular season, and both players will challenge an Ohio State rush defense that allowed only 3.7 yards per carry in Big Ten play. Tyren Jones (6.2 ypc) is the third back, while Jalston Fowler is a solid all-around fullback. Yeldon needs 68 yards to reach 1,000, while Henry needs 105 to hit that mark.
Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 1,402 yards and 12 scores during the regular season and headlines a talented backfield for coach Urban Meyer. Elliott also factored into the passing game (26 catches). He rushed for 6.5 yards per carry and finished the regular season with three straight 100-yard efforts. Curtis Samuel added 376 yards and six scores, while Warren Ball is slated to fill the No. 3 role.
The Crimson Tide has an edge at this position due to Amari Cooper. The junior is the best in the nation at his position and thrived under Lane Kiffin’s tutelage by recording 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 scores. Alabama may not have a standout No. 2 threat, but DeAndrew White is a solid option, and tight end O.J. Howard averages 16.5 yards per reception. Christion Jones ranks third on the team with 19 receptions.
Urban Meyer is making progress in upgrading the talent at receiver, but the Buckeyes still have a ways to go at this position. Devin Smith is a big-play threat (26.6 ypc), and Michael Thomas (43 catches) has been solid in 2014. Tight end Jeff Heuerman caught only 17 passes this season after grabbing 26 last year. H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson also factor into this position. Wilson is questionable to play with a foot injury.
This unit may not be as dominant as Alabama’s last national championship team, but the Crimson Tide has one of the nation’s top lines. Left tackle Cam Robinson had a standout freshman campaign, center Ryan Kelly is one of the best in the SEC, and right tackle Austin Shepherd has allowed only one sack in 2014. Arie Kouandjio had a standout year at guard, while senior Leon Brown rounds out the starting group. Alabama allowed only 13 sacks in 13 games this year and paved the way for rushers to average 5.1 yards per rush.
Perhaps no unit on Ohio State’s team made as much progress as the offensive line did in 2014. The Buckeyes allowed eight sacks in their first two games but gave up 16 the rest of the year. Left tackle Taylor Decker earned second-team All-Big Ten honors by the coaches, while guard Pat Elflein was a first-team selection. Rounding out the starting five will be center Jacoby Boren, right tackle Darryl Baldwin (the lone senior up front) and guard Billy Price. The same five players have started all 13 games for Ohio State’s offensive line this year.
In a 3-4 scheme, Alabama’s defensive line isn’t asked to post big numbers. However, this unit is loaded with talent and is a key cog in the success of the Crimson Tide defense. A’Shawn Robinson can play on the interior or on the edge, and the sophomore recorded 6.5 tackles for a loss this year. Starting ends Jonathan Allen (4.5 sacks) and Jarran Reed combined for 16 tackles for a loss, and there’s no shortage of depth with Dalvin Tomlinson, D.J. Pettway and Da’Shawn Hand in the mix. The Crimson Tide allowed only three rushing scores in 2014.
The Buckeyes are loaded with talent here. End Joey Bosa creates a ton of havoc at the line of scrimmage, recording 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss in 2014. Bosa was a first-team Athlon All-American this year. Steve Miller starts opposite of Bosa at defensive end, while Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes and Rashad Frazier will also see significant snaps. The interior is stout with senior Michael Bennett and junior Adophus Washington anchoring the middle. Ohio State tied for sixth nationally with 40 sacks in 2014.
Regardless of personnel departures, Alabama continues to own one of the SEC’s top linebacker corps on a yearly basis. 2014 was no different, as Trey DePriest (82 tackles) and Reggie Ragland (88 tackles) helped to anchor a Crimson Tide front that led the nation in rush defense. Senior Xzavier Dickson led the team with eight sacks and also registered 10 quarterback hurries. There’s no shortage of depth here with Ryan Anderson (three sacks), Reuben Foster (20 tackles) and Dillon Lee each capable of playing major snaps.
The Buckeyes had to replace standout Ryan Shazier coming into 2014, but this unit performed at a high level with the emergence of Darron Lee and development of Joshua Perry. Perry and Lee ranked as two of the team’s top tacklers, with Curtis Grant (53 stops) rounding out the starting trio. True freshman Raekwon McMillan is a future star in Columbus and contributed 49 stops and 2.5 sacks in 13 games this year. Ohio State's front seven is coming off a stellar performance, holding Wisconsin to 71 rushing yards.
The biggest concern on Alabama’s defense is at the cornerback position. The Crimson Tide allowed 17 passing scores and gave up 17 passing plays of 30 yards or more this year. Junior Cyrus Jones improved as the season progressed and will start at one corner spot. Sophomore Eddie Jackson made a quick recovery from a torn ACL in the spring and will start opposite of Jones. True freshman Tony Brown, sophomore Maurice Smith and junior Bradley Sylvie are the other key contributors at cornerback. Safety Landon Collins is one of – if not the best – safety in college football. Collins led the team with 91 tackles and intercepted three passes.
The arrival of Chris Ash as Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator was also critical to the improvement in the secondary. The Buckeyes allowed 41 plays of 20 yards or more last season but cut that number to just 16 in 2014 – and that’s with cornerback Bradley Roby leaving as a first-round pick in the NFL Draft. Senior Doran Grant (five interceptions) is the top player in the Ohio State secondary and could draw the assignment of facing Amari Cooper. Vonn Bell picked off five passes this year and is joined by fellow sophomore Tyvis Powell at the other safety spot. The Buckeyes ranked fourth in the Big Ten pass efficiency defense in 2014.
Field goals have been an adventure at times for Alabama, but the rest of the special teams unit is solid for coach Nick Saban. JK Scott – a true freshman – is already one of the top punters in the nation. Scott averaged 47 yards per punt in 2014. Adam Griffith connected on 12 of 19 field goals this year, while Gunnar Raborn hit on 2 of 3 attempts. Christion Jones is a dangerous option on punt or kickoff returns.
Similar to Alabama, Ohio State has an excellent punter (Cameron Johnston, 45.1 avg.), but field goals have been an issue. Sean Nuernberger has connected on 11 of 18 attempts this year and has hit on just 5 of 10 field goals from 40 yards or more. Jalin Marshall is a dangerous punt returner (12.7 avg., 1 TD), and the Buckeyes have options (Marshall, Curtis Samuel) if Dontre Wilson is unable to play due to injury.
Nick Saban is the No. 1 coach in college football - and that's not really up for debate. In eight years at Alabama, Saban is 91-16, has three national championships and has won at least 10 games in seven consecutive years. Lane Kiffin and Kirby Smart are two of the nation’s top coordinators, with Kiffin engineering an offense that averaged 6.4 yards per play in his first season in Tuscaloosa. Saban has assembled an outstanding staff, headlined by Mario Cristobal (OL coach), Billy Napier (WR), Lance Thompson (OLB) and Burton Burns (RB).
Urban Meyer is one of the nation's top coaches and boasts an overall record of 140-26, with two national championships at Florida. Meyer is 36-3 in three seasons at Ohio State and has a perfect 24-0 record during regular season play in the Big Ten. Similar to Alabama, Meyer has assembled an outstanding staff. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman was hired to be Houston’s next head coach, but he will stay with the Buckeyes through the playoffs. The addition of Chris Ash has paid dividends for Ohio State’s defense in 2014.