As much as it pains me to admit, I’m old enough to remember when the Big Ten was the most prestigious conference in college sports. Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State – at least one of them and sometimes all three – were consistently among the top-ranked teams.
But now we see Big Ten champion Ohio State as a 9-point underdog to No. 1 Alabama in the New Year’s Day Allstate Sugar Bowl, one of the two Conference Playoff semifinals. Even with one of the most successful coaches of this era, Urban Meyer, and a roster loaded with NFL talent, the Vegas oddsmakers give the Buckeyes little chance.
Frankly, I don’t understand it.
No doubt it has a lot to do with Ohio State being down to its No. 3 quarterback. But Cardale Jones is not your everyday third stringer. He’s 6-5, 250 pounds, a strong runner and an even stronger passer. He can heave the ball 85 yards. And if many fans haven’t heard of him, the NFL scouts know all about him.
Jones threw three touchdowns in a 59-0 destruction of Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. Although occasionally off target, the sophomore completed 12 of 17 for 257 yards, no picks.
Until his unexpected blossoming in that game, the Buckeyes quarterback was best known for an unfortunate tweet he issued as a freshman: “Why should we have to go to class when we came here to play football?”
Immediately, he regretted his lapse of judgment: “I embarrassed the university, the program and definitely my family.”
He also gave the impression that he’s a blockhead, when the truth is he’s a bright kid who takes his schoolwork seriously. What prompted the viral tweet was frustration over receiving a “B” on a sociology exam when he thought he deserved an “A.”
As Meyer recently told ESPN.com, “He does a good job in the classroom now. It wasn’t pleasant his first year. . . but he’s changed.”
While his offense will test an Alabama secondary that’s proved vulnerable to the bomb, Meyer has hardly abandoned the Woody Hayes “3-yards-and-a-cloud of dust” philosophy traditional at Columbus. Ezekial Elliott has rushed for 1402 yards averaging 6.5 per carry and scoring 12 touchdowns. He’s not as famous as Bama’s T.J. Yeldon, but he’s been more effective.
And many scouts feel Ohio State has an edge in the offensive and defensive lines. Perhaps in this age of speed-oriented, high-tech offense, controlling the trenches is not as vital as it used to be. But it still matters. The Crimson Tide O-line is not as dominant as it has been in recent years and may be unable to contain defensive end Joey Bosa, who has 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss.
Keep in mind, Bosa and mates limited the country’s best running back, Heisman Trophy runnerup Melvin Gordon, to 76 yards on 26 carries.
The Vegas crowd apparently feels the Southeastern Conference is so superior to anything else that it doesn’t matter that Ohio State and Alabama are both 12-1. It doesn’t matter that the Tide beat Arkansas by just one point, Mississippi State by 5, LSU by 7, and that that they lost by 6 to Ole Miss.
Hey, those were all SEC teams – far tougher than the creampuffs of the Big Ten.
I’m not saying Ohio State will beat Alabama. Blake Sims throwing to Amari Cooper (115 catches, 14 TD, 1,656 yards) deserves the edge over Jones to Devin Smith (30 catches, 26.6 yards per reception, 11 TD). As well as Meyer has recruited, Nick Saban by all accounts has accumulated slightly more talent at Tuscaloosa.
But this is likely to be a close game, with two brilliant coaches, fine quarterbacks, solid defenses and extraordinary speed everywhere. A reasonable line would be Alabama -4. Not Alabama -9.