When Alabama has the ball
1. ALABAMA RUNNING BACKS vs. OHIO STATE LINEBACKERS
The Tide’s top rusher, T.J. YELDON, has been slowed by ankle and hamstring injuries but should be the healthiest he’s been since midseason. Bama has a solid 1-2 punch as DERRICK HENRY’s 895 yards are just 37 fewer than Yeldon’s, his 10 TDs match Yeldon’s total, and he has a better average (5.6-5.1). He’s a power back, and the Tide likes to use him against weary defenses. Buckeyes LB JOSHUA PERRY (team-leading 113 tackles) will be busy chasing both running backs.
2. ALABAMA WIDE RECEIVERS vs. OHIO STATE SECONDARY
Tide WR AMARI COOPER is the most explosive receiver in the country and the most dynamic player in this game. He has caught at least 10 passes in five games, and in Bama’s last two games, against Auburn and Missouri, he totaled 25 catches for 307 yards and three touchdowns. Buckeyes CB DORAN GRANT likely will line up against Cooper as he has against the top Big Ten receivers, but an equally important factor will be the ability of All-America DE JOEY BOSA (13.5 sacks) to pressure BLAKE SIMS.
3. ALABAMA OFFENSIVE LINE vs. OHIO STATE DEFENSIVE LINE
The Tide had to shuffle its offensive line because of injuries earlier in the season, but things have stabilized in recent weeks. C RYAN KELLY is a leader among a mostly experienced group, supported by RT AUSTIN SHEPHERD and LG ARIE KOUANDJIO. Shepherd likely will be matched against Bosa, though OSU has moved Bosa around. If the Tide assigns an extra blocker to Bosa, end STEVE MILLER and tackle MICHAEL BENNETT can take advantage.
When Ohio State has the ball
1. OHIO STATE OFFENSIVE LINE vs. ALABAMA DEFENSIVE LINE
This would have been a big mismatch in September, but it’s not now, because the Buckeyes offensive line has improved greatly since the start of the season and was dominant in the Big Ten title game as EZEKIEL ELLIOTT ran for 220 yards. Left tackle TAYLOR DECKER, the only returning starter (right tackle) from last season, anchors the unit. They’ll be tested by a big, strong Tide defensive line that goes 10 deep. End JONATHAN ALLEN has been Bama’s most productive lineman.
2. OHIO STATE RECEIVERS vs. ALABAMA DEFENSIVE BACKS
The Crimson Tide secondary has been susceptible to big plays in the passing game, and the Buckeyes have receivers capable of continuing that trend. DEVIN SMITH has been the most explosive receiver, catching 11 touchdown passes and averaging 26.6 yards per catch, and MICHAEL THOMAS has been the most frequent target (43 catches). OSU had touchdown passes of 39, 44 and 42 yards against Wisconsin. Bama will count on CYRUS JONES, who has a team-leading nine pass breakups, to help contain the Buckeyes.
3. OHIO STATE OFFENSIVE STAFF vs. ALABAMA DEFENSIVE STAFF
Ohio State offensive coordinator TOM HERMAN is working with his third starting quarterback since August, and CARDALE JONES is making just his second start. Jones played very well in the Big Ten title game, and the Buckeyes presumably have used the extended preparation time to expand the playbook for him. Bama has basically one game’s worth of film on him, but Tide coach NICK SABAN and defensive coordinator KIRBY SMART have proved capable of unnerving quarterbacks who have more experience than Jones.
It’s clearly Ohio State quarterback CARDALE JONES. If he makes big plays like he did against Wisconsin, the Buckeyes have a good chance of winning. If he looks more like a guy making his second career start against the No. 1 team in the country, they won’t. If he gets hurt, next up is WR JALIN MARSHALL, a former high school QB. All OSU QBs are dual-threats. At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, Jones is bigger than his predecessors and has a strong arm, though he also appears to be a capable runner.