After four college football bowl games on New Year’s Day, the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (12-1, 7-1 SEC) and the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten) will end the holiday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to decide both the 2015 Sugar Bowl and the College Football Playoff semifinal.
In the first year of college football’s playoff system, both storied programs will compete for a chance to play in the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. By kick-off time in New Orleans, Alabama and Ohio State could learn their opponent when the No. 2 Oregon Ducks and No. 3 Florida State Seminoles meet in the Rose Bowl.
Las Vegas odds makers list Alabama as nine-point favorites, with an over/under of 58.5 points. The Crimson Tide enter the game on an eight-game winning streak, with the sole loss of the season coming on the road against then-No. 11 Ole Miss, 23-17. Alabama survived some close calls along the way, holding off Arkansas, LSU, and Mississippi State before closing out the season with high-scoring victories over Auburn and Missouri.
Once again, Nick Saban boasts one of the best defenses in the nation. Alabama allowed just 16.6 points per game this season (No. 4 in the nation), and shut out two teams while limiting five others to 14 points or less. Landon Collins might be the best safety in the nation, and freshman linebacker Trey DePriest has lived up to the lofty expectations he garnered out of Springfield, Ohio, a city located roughly 50 from the Ohio State campus.
New offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has helped lift the Tide by using an impressive passing attack which has produced the No. 16 scoring average in the nation (37.1 points). Quarterback Blake Sims, who had big shoes to fill with the departure of AJ McCarron, has completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 3,250 yards and 26 touchdowns, while rushing for 321 yards and six touchdowns.
The senior has benefitted from throwing to arguably the best wide receiver in the nation. Amari Cooper finished the season with 115 receptions for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns to win the Fred Biletnikoff Award for most outstanding receiver. The junior had seven games with 130 receiving yards or more.
The running game has done a fine job, as well. The combination of running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry totaled 1,827 yards and 20 touchdowns. Yeldon is expected to be at full strength after nagging ankle and hamstring injuries.
Urban Meyer will be going up against one of his old foes when he faces Saban. The two head coaches met three times in the SEC while Meyer was the head coach of Florida, with Saban edging Meyer, 2-1.
The Buckeyes have been strong on both sides of the ball this season. The offense has been led by J.T. Barrett, a redshirt freshman quarterback who exceeded most experts’ expectations when he replaced injured Braxton Miller. Barrett threw for 2,834 yards and 34 touchdowns, to go along with rushing for 938 yards and 11 touchdowns, on his way to winning the Big Ten’s Griese-Brees Quarterback of the Year award. But Barrett, who might be a top contender for the Heisman Trophy in 2015, will be sidelined with an ankle injury.
Filling in for Miller and Barrett will be Cardale Jones. The sophomore will make his second career start after a solid performance in the Big Ten Championship against the Wisconsin Badgers, throwing for three touchdowns and completing 12 of his 17 pass attempts. He won’t have a shortage of receivers to throw to, with 10 players having caught 10 or more passes this season. Wide receiver Devin Smith has led the way with 799 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
It will still be a tough act for Jones to follow. Miller and Barrett helped carry an Ohio State squad that only has three losses over the past two seasons. But the Ohio State offense was never a one-man show. Running back Ezekiel Elliot rushed for 1,402 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014. The sophomore pounded the Wisconsin Badgers for 220 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
Meanwhile, the defense boasts one of the most imposing defensive linemen in the nation. Joey Bosa is among the nation's leaders in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (20), and even forced four fumbles. The sophomore was named the Big Ten's Nagurski-Woodson Defensive Player of the Year, and even had a “walk off sack” in a double-overtime win against Penn State on Oct. 25.
Prediction: Alabama over Ohio State, 34-27