It’s the start of a new year and a new era in college football.
But there’s still plenty of history and tradition in the inaugural College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
No. 1 seed Alabama, which has won three of the past five national championships and a total of 15, meets No. 4 Ohio State, seven-time national champion, at approximately 7:30 p.m.
The winner of this Sugar Bowl advances to face the winner of Thursday’s other semifinal between No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State at the Rose Bowl in the national title game Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas.
And the winner hopes to become the 22nd Sugar Bowl winner to finish the season ranked No. 1.
“I think it’s the biggest game in college football history,” Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant said with perhaps a touch of hyperbole. “Look at the coaching staffs and look at the programs.”
Both teams are 12-1, and each is a champion of one of the elite conferences in the country. The Crimson Tide, coached by four-time national champion Nick Saban, has won its past eight games, including a 42-13 victory against Missouri in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. The Buckeyes, coached by two-time national champion Urban Meyer, have won their past 11 games, including a 59-0 victory against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
These SEC-Big Ten postseason matchups have tended to go the SEC’s way in recent years, including Ohio State’s losses to Florida (2006) and LSU (2007) in its last two title-game appearances, but that, too, may be changing.
Meyer, who led Florida to two of the SEC’s seven consecutive national championships between 2006-2012, has transformed his alma mater’s program.
“They look a lot like an SEC team,” Bama defensive back Cyrus Jones said.
Five of Ohio State’s national titles were won in the old “three yards and a cloud of dust” days of legendary coach Woody Hayes, but at that rate it would be awfully difficult to match these Buckeyes’ averages of 507 yards and 45 points per game.
Ohio State has continued to roll up the yards and points despite injuries forcing it to turn to its third starting quarterback since preseason camp.
Cardale Jones made his first career start in the Big Ten title game and opened lots of eyes when he threw three touchdown passes.
“He’s still a mystery,” Bama defensive back Nick Perry said.
Less of a mystery is Ezekiel Elliott, a 1,400-yard rusher who had 220 yards against Wisconsin.
“He’s probably the most underrated guy,” Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said.
One of the keys to the OSU winning streak has been the maturation of the offensive line, which struggled the first few weeks but was dominant against Wisconsin.
“It wasn’t a pretty product early in the season,” tackle Taylor Decker said, “but it has definitely grown into a really good offensive line.”
That will come in handy Thursday because, as Decker said, Bama “is without a doubt the best defensive line we will face all season. It will probably be the best defense we will face.”
The Buckeyes defense will be focused on wide receiver Amari Cooper, a Heisman Trophy finalist whom the Tide has moved around quite a bit to get the ball in his hands from a variety of positions. He has school records of 115 catches, 1,656 receiving yards as well as 14 touchdown catches.
“You’re not going to stop a guy like that,” Meyer said. “You’ve just got to know where he’s at and get him on the ground. So that’s probably challenge number one.”
Challenge number two would be the running back tandem of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, who have evenly split 20 rushing touchdowns and very nearly their combined 1,827 rushing yards.
“As a whole, I don’t know that we’ve seen an offense like this,” OSU defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said.
Buckeyes tight end Jeff Heuerman called the Big Ten title “a stepping-stone” as OSU seeks its first national title since 2002.
“I think maybe it took a few pounds off (our shoulders),” Heuerman said of the Big Ten title, “but it didn’t take all the weight off.”
Bama, on the other hand, is in a familiar situation.
“We’re kind of used to being on the big stage,” Yeldon said. “This is what we do. This is Alabama.”
And this is the Sugar Bowl, edition No. 81, but the first as part of the long-awaited College Football Playoff.
“Traditionally, the Sugar Bowl is as good a bowl as there is in college football history,” Meyer said. “I want our players to understand it is the playoff, but I’m glad there’s still the feel of the Sugar Bowl.
“But it does have a much different feel to it than the ‘this is it’ aspect, because it’s not it. Everybody knows there’s something else left.”
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.