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Sugar Bowl Preview and Prediction: Alabama vs. Ohio State

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It's not just another Sugar Bowl.

In fact, Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes don't even use the words Sugar Bowl. It's (finally) all about the playoffs for everyone involved.

College football fans couldn't have asked for a juicer matchup in the second of two inaugural College Football Playoff games on New Year's Day.

Meyer and his Buckeyes head South deep into SEC country to face the czar of the nation's best conference in Nick Saban and Alabama. It marks the fourth meeting between the two likely Hall of Fame coaches — the third of which will act as a national semifinal.

Meyer's Gators topped an unbeaten Alabama team in the 2008 SEC title game en route to a national title. Saban's Tide came back the next year and knocked off an unbeaten Florida team in 2009 SEC title game en route to their first national championship since 1992.

These two teams may not be as evenly matched those two meetings but that won't effect the hype leading up to massive showdown in New Orleans.

The Big Ten champs and the SEC champs will duke it out in the Superdome for the right to play in the National Championship game.

Alabama vs. Ohio State

Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Jan. 1)

TV Channel: ESPN

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Spread: Alabama -9

Three Things to Watch

1. Cardale Jones handling the pressure
It's no secret which player likely holds the key to victory in this epic North-South showdown. Ohio State's third-string-turned backup-turned starting quarterback Cardale Jones must manage the game, protect the football and make plays on third down for Ohio State to win the game. He's got some developing playmakers around him in the form of do-everything dynamo Jalin Marshall and workhorse back Ezekiel Elliott. Everyone on the Buckeyes offense must play perfectly to put the strong-armed, 250-pound signal caller in the right spots to succeed. And even then, it still comes down to the guy making his second career start to make the right play.

2. Can Ohio State's D-Line win the line of scrimmage?

One of the few areas Ohio State could have an advantage is up front along the defensive line. This isn't a vintage Saban O-Line and the Buckeyes boast arguably the best defensive line in the country. Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington must control the line of scrimmage, stop the run and pressure Jones for OSU to have a chance to win. While this isn't the most talented group of blockers Saban has had at Bama, the Tide still led the SEC in sacks allowed (13.0) and rushed for 209.5 yards per game this fall. Bosa and company have to play disruptive football right from the first whistle.

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3. What do you do with Amari Cooper?

If the Bucks defensive line is up to the task, the next question for Meyer and staff is what to do with Amari Cooper. Bracket coverage? Double team? Safety help? Press-man or zone? There are a lot of ways to attack a player of Cooper's caliber but he is capable of beating them all. So if Meyer decides to sellout on defense to stop No. 9, it falls to Lane Kiffin to use other weapons. Unfortunately for Ohio State, those other weapons are extremely capable. DeAndrew White, OJ Howard and Christion Jones have proven to be effective when forced into action. 

Final Analysis

Ohio State is technically 1-9 all-time against the SEC in bowl games and is 0-3 all-time against Alabama. If Urban Meyer wants to reverse those trends, two things must happen: Cardale Jones must play efficient football and his defensive line needs to win the battle up front. If OSU can do those two things, the game is narrowed to a few big plays. If those big plays come from Lane Kiffin and Blake Sims, then Alabama will win. If those big plays from Ezekiel Elliott or Jalin Marshall, then Ohio State has a shot. However, if the Buckeyes lose the battle along the line of scrimmage on defense and Jones makes mistakes, the Tide will roll in a big way.

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Prediction: Alabama 37, Ohio St 24