NEW ORLEANS — When Urban Meyer got back into coaching at Ohio State, he made it clear what kind of program he wanted to build.
Well, he'll get a chance to see just how that plan is going when the Buckeyes take on the Southeastern Conference powerhouse everyone wants to emulate.
Top-ranked Alabama (12-1) will meet No. 5 Ohio State (12-1) in the Sugar Bowl on Thursday night, a semifinal game in college football's new playoff system. The winner advances to the Jan. 12 national championship game against either Florida State or Oregon, which play in the other semifinal at the Rose Bowl.
The Crimson Tide is going for its fourth national championship in six seasons, a stunning run of dominance in what is supposed to be an era of increased parity.
“You can have that one-shot wonder, that one-year wonder, that one year where everything goes right,” Meyer marveled at the final Sugar Bowl news conference Wednesday. “But to have it year after year, that's the model that people look for.”
No one does it better than Nick Saban and the Tide, who have gone 84-10 over the last seven seasons. Alabama captured national titles in 2009, 2011 and 2012 and came oh-so-close to winning it all two other years.
As if trying to show the Buckeyes just what they're up against, the Tide broke out a helmet with the number 15 — symbolizing the number of national titles the school claims to have won — for its photo ops leading up to the game.
It was there again Wednesday, propped on the dais as Meyer and Saban posed for pictures with the Sugar Bowl trophy.
“Our entire staff and all of our players have responded very well to the standard that we try to set for the way we want things to be done and how they need to be done so you can have success,” Saban said, methodically explaining the success of a program that seems to be on championship auto-drive.
Some of those 15 championships are highly suspect, most notably the 1973 team that lost to Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. But even when limiting the count to The Associated Press poll, Alabama still has more titles (nine) than any other school.
The formula hasn't changed much over the years: recruit the best players, put a system in place that makes it clear what is expected of them, and work harder than everyone else.
The 63-year-old Saban has turned to parables to drive home that last point, even if they're a bit mystifying to players young enough to be his grandchildren.
“He once told the team something about this, I don't know, a rock hitter or something like that,” receiver Amari Cooper said. “I don't know what the guy was hitting a rock for. But he said the guy hit the rock 100 times and the rock didn't do anything. The 101st time he hit it and the rock split.”
The point being? “Even though you may be working hard and might not be seeing the results so quick, we have to keep working hard,” Cooper said, “At the end of the day, all the results will come from your hard work.”
Here are some things to watch for when Alabama takes on Ohio State at the Superdome:
CARDALE'S SECOND START: Cardale Jones turned in quite a performance in his first college start, throwing for three touchdowns and winning the MVP award in a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin at the Big Ten championship game. Now, for the encore. Jones, who took over after injuries to Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett, certainly seemed at ease this week in the Big Easy.
STOPPING COOPER: Alabama's junior receiver turned in one of the great seasons in college football history. The Heisman Trophy finalist has 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns, even though everyone knows he's the primary passing target. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin finds ways to keep Cooper involved; in the SEC championship game, for instance, Cooper got a bunch of short throws and wound up with 12 receptions.
COACHING MATCHUP: It doesn't get much better than this. Meyer has brought his high-scoring spread offense to Ohio State and will surely be looking to hit some big plays, but that won't be easy against a defensive mastermind such as Saban.
INJURY REPORT: Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon is hampered by an ankle injury. He's gotten “better and better” in practice, but Saban said it won't be known until game time if he's healthy enough to play. If Yeldon can't go, there's shouldn't be much drop-off with Derrick Henry (895 yards, 10 touchdowns) getting the bulk of the carries.
BUCKEYES VS. SEC: Ohio State has never beaten an SEC team in a bowl. At least not officially. The Buckeyes are 0-10, having vacated a victory over Arkansas in the 2011 Sugar Bowl because of NCAA violations.