Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer.
Sure, players win games. But the coaches will be center stage at the Sugar Bowl in college football’s inaugural playoff.
Saban’s top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1) faces Meyer’s fourth-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes (12-1) on New Year’s Day, a semifinal matchup between two of the nation’s most storied programs.
Saban has established himself as perhaps the greatest coach of this generation, winning three national titles at Alabama after taking a BCS title during his time at LSU.
Meyer captured a pair of national titles at Florida, and now he’s two wins away from landing another with the Buckeyes.
These two are hardly strangers, their history framed by a pair of classic Southeastern Conference championship games.
“I probably can’t remember my address or my phone number, but I can tell you every play in those two games,” Meyer said Sunday.
In 2008, Saban guided Alabama to a 12-0 record and No. 1 ranking during the regular season. The Tide led heading to the fourth quarter, but Tim Tebow led No. 2 Florida to a pair of touchdowns and a 31-20 victory. The Gators went on to beat Oklahoma in the BCS championship game.
“One of the greatest games in college football history,” Meyer called it. “Very evenly matched teams going back and forth, back and forth.”
The roles were reversed the following year, another 1-2 matchup with Florida on top. The game was a reversal, too, as No. 2 Alabama blew open a close game at halftime for a 32-13 victory that left Tebow in tears. The Tide defeated Texas for the first national title of the Saban era.
It wouldn’t be the last.
“They handled us pretty good,” Meyer recalled.
Alabama won back-to-back titles after the 2011 and 2012 seasons. This year, the Tide overcame a loss at Ole Miss, won the brutal SEC West, and routed Missouri 42-13 in the conference championship game.
Saban described this as one of his favorite teams because of the progress they made from the start of the season.
“We were not a very good team. We ended up being SEC champs,” he said. “That’s a real tribute to team chemistry, hard work and perseverance.”
Meyer’s bunch persevered, too. The Buckeyes lost star quarterback Braxton Miller before the season began and were stunned at home by Virginia Tech, which struggled to a 6-6 record this season.
But Miller’s replacement, redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, led the Buckeyes to a perfect record in the Big Ten. Then, in the regular-season finale against Michigan, he went down with a season-ending broken ankle.
Enter the third QB, sophomore Cardale Jones. In his first college start, the Buckeyes romped to a stunning 59-0 victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, vaulting Ohio State into the four-team playoff.
“Ohio State demonstrated they were a total team,” said Jeff Long, head of the selection committee.
Some things to watch for when the Crimson Tide takes on the Buckeyes:
QUARTERBACK DUEL: Alabama has plenty of experience at this crucial position, though fifth-year senior Blake Sims had to wait until his final year to start. The Buckeyes, of course, will be sending out Jones for his second start on an even bigger stage than he faced Saturday night. On the other hand, Jones has a lot more time to prepare for this start than he did the first one.
DYNAMIC COOPER: The most dangerous player on either team is Alabama receiver Amari Cooper. A leading contender for the Heisman Trophy, he has 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns. He will surely face double coverage, but Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin showed in the SEC championship game that he still knows how to get Cooper the ball. Hauling in a variety of screens and short passes, he set a title game record with 12 receptions.
SEC VS BIG TEN: The SEC has won seven of the last eight national titles, and Alabama undoubtedly endured a tougher road to the title game than the Buckeyes. When Meyer took over at Ohio State, he acknowledged a talent gap had to be bridged between the leagues. It will be interesting to see how much progress the Big Ten has made since Meyer brought his spread offense to Columbus. For now, Ohio State is 0-9 against the SEC in bowls, its lone victory in the 2011 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas vacated by NCAA rules violations.
BUCKEYES D: The Buckeyes surrendered more than 24 points a game in the Big Ten during the regular season. But they turned in their best performance of the season in the conference championship, shutting out Wisconsin and shutting down the nation’s leading rusher. Melvin Gordon was held to 76 yards on 26 carries.
CHASING THE BEAR: Saban is moving into Bear Bryant territory. If Alabama wins two more games, the coach will be match the five Associated Press titles that the man in the houndstooth hat won during his long career with the Tide.
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