Alabama and Ohio State have played each other just three times in football, the last meeting coming 20 years ago.
But when the Crimson Tide and the Buckeyes meet in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year’s night, they won’t be totally unfamiliar with one another.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said he sees similarities between this Ohio State team and Florida teams that were coached by Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. Meyer was assisted by Dan Mullen, who now is coach at Mississippi State and faces the Tide annually.
Saban and Meyer, who faced each other three times in the Southeastern Conference, are well aware that neither could have reached college football’s first final four if they had any significant weaknesses, but statistics indicate the Tide is the better defensive team and the Buckeyes are the better offensive team.
“When you watch video, there is not much difference from the other Alabama teams that we’ve studied,” Meyer said. “(They are) very physical. They have the depth. They roll about eight to 10 guys on the defensive line, and it’s hard to tell one from the other. They’re well coached, big run stoppers up front. Obviously a very good defense.”
Bama ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense, 11th in yards, second against the run and 60th against the pass. Ohio State ranks 23rd in scoring, 15th in yards, 34th against the run and 17th against the pass.
The Buckeyes’ run defense finished with a flourish in the Big Ten title game, holding Heisman Trophy runner-up Melvin Gordon to 76 yards on 26 carries in a 59-0 Ohio State romp.
The Tide was susceptible to the deep pass against Auburn and Missouri in its final two games, but won both games fairly easily.
Though Bama has been the steadier of the two defenses, Ohio State has shown a greater ability to make big plays. It ranks 12th with an average of 3.08 sacks per game and Bama is tied for 64th (2.15).
The Buckeyes’ 21 interceptions are fourth most in the country and one was returned for a touchdown. Bama has just 10 interceptions, tied for 77th, and hasn’t returned any for touchdowns.
In all, Ohio State’s defense has scored five touchdowns (tied for sixth-most) and Bama’s none. Ohio State is tied for 10th in turnover margin (plus-9) and Bama is tied for 66th (minus-1).
But the Tide has been much better at red-zone defense, having allowed just 15 touchdowns on 40 visits by opponents inside the Bama 20. The Buckeyes have allowed 26 touchdowns on 37 red-zone possessions.
Bama yielded 630 yards to Auburn, but held off the Tigers (55-44) by allowing just two touchdowns in eight red-zone possessions.
On offense, Ohio State ranks fourth in the country in scoring, eighth in total offense and 10th in rushing though just 49th in passing. Alabama is 16th in scoring, 15th in total offense, 32nd in rushing and 21st in passing.
The teams have had similar red-zone success. Bama has scored 85 percent of the time and has 41 touchdowns in 60 possessions. Ohio State has scored 83.1 percent of the time and has 46 touchdowns in 65 chances.
There are a couple of wild-card factors with the Buckeyes offense. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman has accepted the head coaching position at the University of Houston and will be trying to transition to that role while still preparing Ohio State.
Herman is also quarterbacks coach, and he’ll be handing his game plan to Cardale Jones, who will be making his second start.
Jones’ first start was a smashing success in the Big Ten title game. Tailback Ezekiel Elliott ran for 220 yards and Jones completed 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards and had touchdown passes of 39, 44 and 42 yards, providing Bama with nearly all the film it has on him.
“I think the key thing is that he’s a guy that has the capabilities to play,” Saban said. “I’m not sure that we’re going to be able to see everything that he’s capable of doing, but we certainly have a lot of respect for the way he’s played when he has played.”
Meyer said Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper, like former Tide and current Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones “is tremendous” though Bama has other dangerous receivers as well. He called Cooper, who already has set the Bama single-season record for catches and receiving yards, “one of the best receivers ever to play college football” and “the best downfield threat there is in the game right now.”
On special teams, both teams are solid and neither has striking statistical edge.
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.