THE LEAD

Offensive lineman Taylor Decker is grateful his Ohio State offense is facing Alabama on New Year’s Day, instead of previously on Aug. 30.

Decker’s proclamation has little to do with the Jan. 1 matchup being a national semifinal versus the start of the season. It’s all about the improved status of the line.

Had Decker and his offensive line faced Alabama back then, he said, the unit would not have been prepared.

“Top to bottom, at every position on the offensive line, we didn’t play well on the offensive line at the beginning of the year,” Decker said. “If we were to play Alabama within the first couple of weeks of the season, we would have gotten embarrassed, especially on the offensive line.”

Such talk is no longer an issue.

“We’re not at that point now,” added Decker, the lone returning starter this season on the Buckeyes offensive line. “We’re not that same team.”

After early struggles, highlighted by allowing seven sacks during a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech, everything changed. The offensive line improved its confidence and chemistry. If you’re not confident in what you’re doing, he said, you’re not going to be tentative and question your play instead of playing fast. And when you lack chemistry with the guy next to you on the line of scrimmage, it’s much harder to know how he plays, and how to play with him.

The Buckeyes are preparing to face an Alabama defense led by junior defensive back Landon Collins, who grew up near New Orleans. His 91 tackles and three interceptions lead the Tide defense. Xzavier Dickson has a team-high eight sacks. Overall, Alabama has held opponents to 16.6 points per game. Meanwhile, Ohio State tied a school record this season with four consecutive game of 500 or more yards total offense — albeit with a different quarterback. J.T. Barrett’s season-ending injury led to the Cardale Jones era.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Ohio State’s sack leader, Joey Bosa, has 20 tackles for loss, including his team-best 13½ sacks. Even more important: four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery by Bosa, a sophomore defensive end, have led to 37 Ohio State points.

QUOTABLE

“I’m not just going to go pick up a phone and cold call a guy at Tennessee you’ve never met: ‘This is Tom Herman at Ohio State; tell me about Alabama?’ You’ve got buddies in the business and you call, catch up with. ... ‘Merry Christmas, and by the way ... you guys scored 32 points against them two years ago. Anything you saw that might could help us?’ So, yeah, it happens.”

Tom Herman, Ohio State offensive coordinator

DID YOU KNOW?

Ohio State’s defense has 15 sacks in its past four games, the second-most in the nation during the period.

LAGNIAPPE

Watch out, JK Scott, because Urban Meyer’s teams are 22-0 since 2005 with a blocked punt. The Buckeyes blocked three punts last season, and one this season against Kansas State. Scott, Alabama’s freshman punter, has not had a punt blocked in college. ... Nine defensive players had at least one interception this season, led by cornerback Doran Grant and safety Vonn Bell with five apiece. ... Jones, Ohio State’s starting quarterback against Alabama, said LSU was his second college choice.

-- Gary Estwick