Alabama vs. Ohio State: Preview & 3 Key Matchups

Alabama's Landon Collins was a first-team All-America safety. (Getty)

Alabama’s Landon Collins was a first-team All-America safety. (Getty)

When J.T. Barrett went down with an ankle injury, Cardale Jones was forced into action as the new Ohio State quarterback. Before the Big Ten Championship Game, the sophomore had thrown all of 17 passes this season.

But into the fire he was tossed and responded with a 3-touchdown performance in a 59-0 win over Wisconsin.

When No. 4 Ohio State meets top-ranked Alabama at 8:30 p.m. Eastern in Thursday’s Sugar Bowl, the second semifinal of the inaugural College Football Playoff, all eyes will be on Jones.

Jones is going to be a key player in this game, but he won’t be the only one.

Here are the 3 key matchups for Thursday’s Sugar Bowl:

1. Alabama WR Amari Cooper vs. Ohio State’s Defensive Backs

Any time Cooper is in a game, it’s a key matchup. His receiving line of 115-1,656-14 rightfully earned him All-America honors. Teams tried single-coverage – huge mistake. But Cooper even produced when defenses rolled their coverage thanks to the superior play-calling of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

CB Doran Grant and S Vonn Bell led the Buckeyes’ secondary with 5 interceptions apiece as the defense picked off 21 passes overall. OSU ranked 5th in pass defense efficiency and allowed 188 yards through the air per game. But let’s face it, the Buckeyes play in the smashmouth style of the Big Ten and they didn’t see aerial attacks like the Tide’s very often, if at all.

Cooper was the Biletnikoff Award winner and a Heisman finalist for a reason. His best games came against the top pass defenses. In 7 games against the top 50 pass Ds, Cooper averages 9.9 receptions and 147.8 yards per game, while scoring 10 touchdowns. Versus LSU’s No. 2-rated pass defense, he caught 8 passes for 83 yards and a score.

Obviously, expect OSU to focus on shutting down Cooper. But don’t be surprised when Kiffin gets creative and finds ways to get Cooper his touches.

2. Ohio State QB Cardale Jones vs. Alabama S Landon Collins and Nick Perry

A brand-spanking new quarterback probably has defensive-minded Nick Saban licking his chops. After all, it’s only Jones’ 2nd-career start. Jones will have to stay cool in the pocket and be aware of Alabama’s average pass rush.

But Jones needs to keep his eyes downfield, because veteran safeties Landon Collins, a first-team All-American, and Nick Perry will be lurking.

Collins and Perry aren’t exactly ball-hawking safeties – they combined for only 5 interceptions – but they can certainly bait quarterbacks, especially inexperienced ones like Jones, into plenty of mistakes.

Collins and Perry are physical; they like to mix it up and are excellent run defenders. That gets them into trouble sometimes as Alabama has been exposed on big pass plays. Expect Jones to look to exploit that and take a few deep shots to play-making wideout Devin Smith, who scored 11 TDs and had an outrageous 26.6 yard per catch average on 30 receptions.

But also expect Urban Meyer to protect his QB and use a run-heavy scheme, something OSU has excelled in this year with Ezekiel Elliot.

3. Ohio State DE Joey Bosa vs. Alabama T Cam Robinson and Austin Shephard

Joey Bosa has been a one-man wrecking crew for the Buckeyes. The All-American’s 13.5 sacks are 5th in the FBS. He also added 20 tackles for loss and 4 forced fumbles. But the Tide’s offensive line will be his biggest challenge yet as they’ve allowed only 10 sacks of QB Blake Sims.

Bosa lines up on both the right and left sides (and sometimes on the interior), so left tackle Cam Robinson, Sims’ blindside protector, and right tackle Austin Shepherd have to be ready. They have been most of the season as evidenced by the 10 sacks allowed and they have faced 4 teams – Missouri, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M – ranked in the FBS top 30 for sacks.

Robinson and Shepherd aren’t going to be alone on islands with Bosa. Offensive line coach Mario Cristobal will surely have a scheme to try to limit Bosa’s effectiveness. Opposing offenses haven’t been successful so far.

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