To no surprise, SEC champion Alabama is the top-seeded team in the first College Football Playoff and will host No. 4 and Big Ten champion Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. The Tide are 9.5-point favorites on NCAA football odds to beat the Buckeyes.
How They Got Here
Really, any College Football Playoff without an SEC team would have felt wrong because it's clearly the best conference in the land. Frankly, the SEC West might be better than the NFC South! However, had the Tide lost the SEC Championship Game to Missouri there wouldn't have been a team from the conference in the playoff. That was never a worry as Bama rolled 42-13. Alabama put up 504 yards on one of the best defenses in the country.
Senior QB Blake Sims was stellar, going 23 of 27 (record for completion percentage in the SEC title game) for 262 yards and two touchdowns to win game MVP honors -- not bad for a guy most thought wouldn't beat out Jacob Coker for the starting job back in August. Sims has 3,250 passing yards this season, a school record. Receiver Amari Cooper had 12 catches for 83 yards to solidify his chances of being a Heisman finalist. It's the second time this season that Cooper has had at least 12 catches in consecutive games. One other player in the FBS has had as many in one and that was Colorado's Nelson Spruce in September. Cooper's 115 catches are the SEC single-season record; it was 112 by Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews last season. Cooper is going to be the first receiver chosen in the 2015 draft, hands down.
What makes Alabama so scary is that as usual it has a great defense, but the offense is the best in school history under first-year coordinator Lane Kiffin. The Crimson Tide set school SEC title game records for first downs (28), points scored (42), offensive plays (76), rushing touchdowns (four) and pass completions (23). Running back Derrick Henry set career single-game highs for rushes, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns with 141 yards and two scores on 20 carries.
The Tide (12-1) are 5-8 against the spread at sportsbooks this season and 6-6 'over/under' on NCAA football odds.
Ohio State and Alabama don't have any common opponents this season but of course Buckeyes coach Urban Mayer and the Tide's Nick Saban know each other well from Meyer's days at Florida. Meyer last faced Saban in 2010 when the Gators traveled to Tuscaloosa and lost 31-6 to the top-ranked Tide. Alabama and Ohio State haven't played since the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 2, 1995.
Expect Meyer to play close attention to what a former Big Ten coach did against Alabama. That would be Arkansas' Bret Bielema. The Hogs probably should have beaten Alabama on Oct. 11 but lost 14-13, the fewest points the Tide have scored all season. Alabama was outgained 335-227 and trailed by six entering the fourth quarter. Alabama averaged just 2.1 yards per carry against the Razorbacks -- 32 carries for 66 yards. The Tide had seven three-and-out drives against Arkansas, its most under ever Saban.
Alabama's only loss also came to a very physical, old school opponent: Ole Miss. Meyer would love it if things came down to special teams. Of course that cost the Tide a shot at playing for last season's BCS national championship. Alabama has lost five games since 2011. In those losses, the Crimson Tide are 5-for-16 on field goals. They were only 1-for-3 in the loss to the Rebels. Saban has five-star recruits at every position but for some reason the kicking game has generally been a problem. That 2013 Iron Bowl loss is Alabama's last when leading at halftime. The Crimson Tide are 84-5 when leading at halftime under Saban. Alabama is 3-7 under Saban when trailing at halftime and 3-3 when tied at the half.
Free NCAAF Pick: When the Tide care -- i.e. so not including last year's Sugar Bowl when there wasn't anything to play for -- they generally roll in bowl games. Give the points here.