New Orleans, LA (SportsNetwork.com) - The second game of the inaugural College Football Playoff pits the fifth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes against the top- ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2015 Sugar Bowl on New Year's night.
The winner will advance to the National Championship Game in Arlington, Texas on Jan. 12 to face either Florida State or Oregon.
Both teams come in sporting identical 12-1 records, with Ohio State the Big Ten Conference champion, and Alabama winning the SEC.
Ohio State easily disposed of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title tilt, 59-0, running its current winning streak to 11 in a row. The only blemish on an otherwise spotless record for coach Urban Meyer's club was a perplexing 35-21 home loss to Virginia Tech back on Sept. 6.
The Buckeyes are appearing in their 45th bowl game, and they have a record of 20-24 in previous postseason ventures. OSU is hoping to stop a two-game slide in bowl games, with its most recent being a 40-35 defeat suffered at the hands of the Clemson Tigers in the 2014 Orange Bowl.
Ohio State has played in the Sugar Bowl four times previously, the last time being in 2011 when it beat Arkansas in a 31-26 final.
"It's great to be here and it's great to be representing the Big Ten Conference, the Ohio State University and a football team that is excited to be here." Meyer said. "It's been made very clear that this is history ... the College Football Playoff. And what a great place to have the game - New Orleans, and the Sugar Bowl - and we are honored to be here."
Alabama is arguably the most successful team in the FBS over the last several years, the program winning three BCS national titles (2009, 2011, 2012). The Crimson Tide suffered a 23-17 at Ole Miss back on Oct. 4, but have reeled off eight straight wins since, with a 42-13 dismantling of Missouri in the SEC Championship Game being the latest.
Alabama is 35-23-3 all-time in bowl games, and this is the second straight Sugar Bowl appearance for the Tide. Nick Saban's squad lost to Oklahoma last year, 45-31, dropping its record in the Sugar Bowl over the years to 8-6.
These two storied programs have met just three times previously, with Alabama winning each bout. The last meeting took place in the 1995 Florida Citrus Bowl, with the Tide slipping by in a 24-17 final.
Meyer is 36-3 in his three seasons at Ohio State and he is 140-26 in his 13th season as a head coach. Saban is 86-16 in eight seasons at Alabama, and he is 177-58-1 overall in 19 seasons as a head coach. This is the fourth meeting between their respective teams, with Saban's Crimson Tide topping Meyer's Florida Gators twice. The coaches split a pair of meetings against each other in the SEC Championship Game (2008-09).
Down to their third-string quarterback, the Buckeyes put a serious hurting on what was thought to be a very good Wisconsin team in the Big Ten title tilt, proving just what kind of master recruiter and coach Meyer truly is. The season began under a dark cloud as Heisman hopeful Braxton Miller was lost for the year in training camp. Freshman J.T. Barrett was entrusted with running the offense, and he didn't disappoint in completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,834 yards, 34 TDs and 10 INTs, while adding 938 yards and 11 scores on the ground. Unfortunately, he too got hurt, suffering a fractured ankle in OSU's late win over bitter rival Michigan.
That left sophomore Cardale Jones to assume the mantle, and he was superb in his first career start against the Badgers, going 12-of-17 for 257 yards, three TDs and no picks in being named the game's MVP.
For the Buckeyes to knock off Alabama, Jones will need to be an efficient game manager once again, and rely on his teammates to assume some of the pressure. In that regard, expect to see a heavy dose of RB Ezekiel Elliott, who rumbled his way to 1,402 yards and 12 TDs this season. The team's receiving corps features the talents of guys like Michael Thomas (43 rec., 680 yards, eight TDs), Devin Smith (30 rec., 799 yards, 11 TDs) and Jalin Marshall (28 rec., 392 yards, six TDs), with Smith being one of the top big-play performers in the country as evidenced by his 26.6 yards per reception average.
Ohio State moved the chains on 52 percent of its third-down conversion attempts and averaged 45.2 ppg to rank first in the conference and fifth in the nation, while the team's defensive effort yielded only 21.2 ppg to rank fourth in the Big Ten and 21st nationally.
The defense limited Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, the nation's leading rusher, to just 76 yards -- his second-worst game of the season. Ohio State handed the Badgers their first shutout loss since August of 1997, and their worst setback since a 59-0 rout, also to the Buckeyes, back in 1979.
Joshua Perry proved to be one of the more active defensive players in the Big Ten this season, finishing seventh in the league with 113 tackles. Joey Bosa was named the conference's Defensive Player of the Year after logging 13.5 sacks and 20 TFL. Vonn Bell, who finished second on the team with 78 tackles, and Doran Grant were credited with five INTs each, the Buckeyes coming up with 21 picks and a Big Ten-best 40 sacks.
Alabama enjoyed plenty of success on both sides of the ball as well this season, the team putting up 37.1 ppg while permitting only 16.6 ppg. The latter figure ranking the team second in the SEC and fourth in the nation.
The UA offense is led by senior QB Blake Sims, and he put forth a stellar campaign in hitting the mark on 64.8 percent of his passes for 3,250 yards 26 TDs and only seven INTs. Sims has the good fortune of throwing to star WR Amari Cooper, who hauled in 115 balls for 1,656 yards and 14 TDs in winning the 2014 Biletnikoff Award. Both his reception and yardage totals ranked second in the FBS this season.
The Crimson Tide also have a potent rushing attack, as the highly-productive duo of T.J. Yeldon (184 carries, 932 yards, 10 TDs) and Derrick Henry (159 carries, 895 yards, 10 TDs) keep opposing defenses honest.
The offensive line allowed only 13 sacks all season, and helped the team convert 54 percent of its third-down attempts.
"We could not be more excited to be going to New Orleans to play in the first College Football Playoff," said Sims. "We have made a couple of trips to the Sugar Bowl and it has always been a great experience. That being said, we are going there to win a football game and that has to be our mindset. I know we are looking forward to the challenge."
The 'Bama defense takes great pride in stopping opposing ball carriers at the point of attack, the unit ranking first in the FBS with only 88.7 ypg and a paltry three TDs allowed on the ground. The Tide give up 223.8 ypg and have allowed 17 TDs through the air, but that's mainly due to foes needing to throw the ball in an attempt to get back into contention.
Landon Collins has recorded a club-best 91 tackles, and he has three of the team's 10 INTs. Reggie Ragland is next with 88 stops, and he has been credited with three fumble recoveries and the second-most TFL of any player on the roster with 8.5. Xavier Dickson leads in that department with 10.5, which includes his team-high eight sacks.
In terms of a coaching matchup, it doesn't get any better than Meyer vs. Saban.
It will be interesting to see if Jones is able to keep his composure in the face of the unprecedented pressure the Crimson Tide are going to bring. Conversely, expect the Buckeyes to stand their ground as best they can when their backs are to goal line.