NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A bombardment of camera lights reflected off an ornamental silver chalice affixed to a metallic, champagne-color trophy base shaped like the Superdome.
Standing behind the hefty hardware were two sharply dressed men who’ve loomed over college football for much of the past decade: Alabama’s Nick Saban, sporting a crimson blazer, and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, wearing a grey sport coat with a red tie and matching pocket square.
Both men want more than the trophy Thursday night for winning the Sugar Bowl. Yet they seemed pleased to participate in ceremonial pregame rituals that lent their College Football Playoff semifinal showdown the kind of gravitas normally associated with a championship game.
“Now that we’re here, there’s no conversation whatsoever about the next one,” Meyer said, alluding to the first College Football Playoff title game Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas. “You can’t. It’s not fair to our players, and certainly, when you’re playing a team like Alabama, that’s all hands on deck.”
Should the fourth-seeded Buckeyes (12-1) — listed as nine-point underdogs — beat ‘Bama (12-1), Myer will have a chance to add a third national title to the two he won at Florida in the 2006 and 2008 seasons.
If the top-seeded Crimson Tide advances, there’ll be plenty of talk about Saban’s drive for five national championships — all since 2003. Just don’t bring it up in front of Alabama’s notoriously testy coach too soon.
“This is the only game that matters,” Saban said Wednesday.
Since Alabama’s lone loss at Mississippi on Oct. 4, Saban said, “We’ve sort of been in a playoff.”
“We were always one negative experience away from being out of the mix,” Saban said. “Now that we’re in the playoff, the circumstance is really no different. So everything is about this game.”
Alabama hasn’t always looked invincible, but survived several close calls.
The Buckeyes’ lone loss came in their second game, when freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett’s inexperience was exposed by Virginia Tech. Ohio State has won 11 straight since, including a 59-0 romp over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game — a result which helped persuade the College Football Playoff committee that the Buckeyes belonged in the sport’s first final four.
Here are some things to know about the match-up of the 35-time Big Ten champs and 24-time kings of the Southeastern Conference.
Meyer said if people had told him a few months back that quarterback Cardale Jones would lead the Buckeyes’ into the playoff, he would have looked at them as if they had “six heads.” In fall camp, Jones was third-string behind Braxton Miller and Barrett. But Miller hurt his shoulder in August, and Barrett injured his ankle in the regular season finale, giving the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Jones a chance.
“It’s a much different story right now,” Meyer said. “He understands the culture and expectations of the offense.”
At Alabama, it wasn’t clear last summer if Blake Sims would start ahead of Florida State transfer Jake Coker. But Sims got the nod, and under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, passed for a school-record 3,250 yards with 26 touchdowns.
Saban said Sims “deserves a tremendous amount of credit, not just for his accomplishments, but all the things that he did to become what he is, because there was a lot of people that didn’t think that Blake Sims could ever be the quarterback at Alabama.”
After winning two SEC titles with Florida, Meyer might be the right coach to end Ohio State’s postseason futility against the league that has supplied seven of the past eight national champions. Ohio State is 0-10 officially against the SEC in bowl games, vacating its lone victory against Arkansas in the 2011 Sugar Bowl because of NCAA violations. The Buckeyes are 36-3 since Meyer took over in 2012.
Only two games ago, Alabama allowed Auburn to pass for 456 yards. So Saban figures Bama’s defensive backfield will be tested by the strong-armed Jones and big-play Buckeyes receivers such as Michael Thomas and Devin Smith, who’ve combined for 19 TD catches and each have receptions longer than 75 yards this season.
“They certainly have good receivers that have made a lot of explosive plays this year. And I think that’s going to be one of the key matchups in the game for our guys to play really good technique in the back end,” Saban said. “We played against a lot of good receivers all year long. Sometimes we’ve done a good job against those guys and sometimes we’ve given up some plays that we wish we wouldn’t have.”
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