By Dave Hershorin
January 4, 2007

WHAT: BCS National Championship Game

WHO: No.1 Ohio State vs. No.2 Florida

WHEN: Monday January 8, 2007 – 8:00 pm EST

WHERE: University of Phoenix Stadium – Glendale, Arizona


This is it. The big one for all the marbles. The grand finale. The one we’ve been waiting for all year. What college football fans live for. It’s national championship time, and you’ve come to the right place for a complete breakdown of what we will see come January 8th.

We will attempt to give you the best scouting report for what these two top BCS teams will deliver that night in Glendale. It really is a very even matchup, but there are subtle factors which we will point out that should give you the best 4-1-1 on who is likely to come out ahead and why. Still, it is too close to say that one team definitely has an outright advantage, so read into these factoids and extract the pigskin insight that you will. But once the results are in, you can bank that something you’ve read here will be the reason why the winning team prevailed.

(click on each Category for complete breakdown)

Ohio State
Running Back
Offensive Line
Defensive Line
'06 Opponents
Final Prognosis

Coaching – The differences between these two great coaches are too close to call. Many know the prolific rise of Urban Meyer (50-12 all-time as head coach). In two years at Bowling Green, Meyer set MAC records for points scored (2002) with his “spread” approach before being pulled to Utah. In his second year there, the Utes became the first mid-major to make it to a BCS bowl (as they easily beat Pitt 35-7 in the 2005 Fiesta; Meyer is 3-0 all-time in bowls). Now in his second year at Florida (21-4), Meyer has the Gators in position to win it all for the first time since 1996. He is the first Gator head coach to have beaten rivals Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State in his first two years at the helm. Meyer’s innovations on offense and strong results on defense have made him possibly the hottest coaching prospect since Nick Saban and – hello – Jim Tressel. His prowess on the pitch has even afforded him strong speculation by NFL teams for head coaching considerations.

But how many of you know that Meyer is from Ohio (Ashtabula), and that he earned his bachelors in psychology from Univ. of Cincinnati (played DB; 13th round pick in 1982 MLB amateur draft at SS) as well as his masters in sports administration from OSU? His first coaching experience came as a graduate assistant for the Buckeyes (1986 – Tight Ends; 1987 – Wide Receivers), so this game has more meaning than many realize for Meyer.

But the legend of Jim Tressel (197-70-2 all-time; 62-13 at OSU) is just as meteoric and Ohio-centric. Born in Mentor, Ohio, Tressel’s father played briefly at Ohio State before WWII. As a kid, he used to shag balls for neighbor Lou “The Toe” Groza. Earning an undergraduate degree in education at Baldwin Wallace (Berea, OH) from 1971-74, he was also an all-conference QB playing for his father (who won the Division III national title there in 1978). He then went on to Akron (masters in education) and was a graduate assistant there in his first coaching position. He was at Ohio State as an assistant from 1983-85 (QBs, WRs, and RBs) just before Meyer. In 1986, he took his first head coaching position at I-AA Youngstown State, where he would take the Penguins to the playoffs 10 times in 15 years, winning the national title four times (1991, ’93, ’94 and ’97) and placing second twice (1992, ’99). The Buckeyes came calling after they went 14-10 from 1999-2000, but more importantly had gone 4-13-1 versus arch-rival Michigan their previous 18 tries (UM providing the Buckeyes’ only regular season losses in 1993, ’94 and ’96). At a basketball game just after being hired, the school’s 22nd head coach addressed the student body at halftime, guaranteeing a victory in Ann Arbor his first year. Though 7-5 in 2001, they did win against the Wolverines 26-20 at the Big House, and his 5-1 record against UM – as well as his 4-1 bowl record – means his contract runs through (at least) 2012.

What Tressel may be most proud of is his similarity to Buckeye coaching legend Woody Hayes. The 2001 Coach of the Year set a school record - 56 of his players in 2005 finished with a GPA over 3.0 while the entire team averaged 2.81, reflecting a focus as much on education as on football just like coach Hayes. Meyer, too, has an old-school approach and has graduated 80% of his players so far, well above the national average of 65%.

Tressel is 9-2 at OSU against top 10 foes, has finished in the top five three times in five years and won the national title in his second year (2002-03), a feat Meyer is trying to now duplicate. Tressel has these Buckeyes on a 19-game tear, the nation’s current longest win streak, whereas Meyer won 20 straight from the end of 2003 (Utah) through early 2005 (Florida).

One advantage Tressel has over Meyer is that his team is made up solely of his own recruits, and the Buckeye’s dominating results reflect this. Meyer deals with Ron Zook-recruited players still getting the finer points of his schemes, though Meyer rotates true freshman and No.1 dual-threat recruit QB Tim Tebow in with exemplary results. With so many great athletes on defense, the Gator stoppers have caught on to what Meyer is preaching. It is the UF offense that still needs polish due to lacking experience in the spread.

But with five-plus weeks to prepare for OSU, wily Meyer will have a plan for victory for which Tressel won’t be fully ready. Now, that is not to say that Tressel & Co. can’t make the adjustments needed to combat Meyers’ plans, for Jimbo will have had seven-plus weeks to engineer his own unique approach for defeating UF. It comes down to adjustments, and then – even more importantly - adjustments to the other teams adjustments. And given the different levels of competition each has faced (Florida has faced a notably tougher slate and much better defenses), Meyer has done an overall better job in 2006 of figuring out opponent’s game-plans and then coming out on top.

Give Tressel the nod for his experience in a past national championship game, but give Meyer the advantage for knowing the role of the underdog so as to sneak up and snatch victory when few think he can. Meyer has also faced the SEC gauntlet and gotten this far while Tressel has beaten up on the much milder Big Ten (though OSU avoided Wisconsin (11-1) and Purdue (8-5), two of the league’s other four winning teams). Overall, this dimension is just too close to call. Most any other coach would be at a slight disadvantage against either’s unique approach, but against each other, it’s an even matchup of pigskin prowess and ability to motivate.

Quarterback – This is a much closer dimension than many may realize. With so many accolades (Davey O’Brien, Heisman), Troy Smith would seem to be the runaway favorite against Chris Leak. And then when you factor in the backups - the real game experience of fellow senior Justin Zwick over freshman role player Tim Tebow - advantage Ohio State, right? Well, it isn’t that clear cut, but OSU is better overall here.

Smith is easily the soundest QB in all of college football. He has learned the art of being a dropback guy, even though he has the ability to run at will and run very well. He has been on the big stage and felt the pressure of being the leader of the nation’s top team all year, performing well on all levels. With all of that said, one still must look at who he has done it against. Most point to the fact that OSU beat a pair of number two’s and that means he has been tested. Not really, for Texas’ 98th-ranked and Michigan’s No.75 pass defenses were easily deciphered and conquered. Florida’s may only rank 51st, but with a ranking of sixth for all-important pass efficiency defense, their athletic depth has proven effective and they will challenge Smith like no opponent has so far. We predict Smith will have some aerial success, but he is going to have to get those feet moving with Gator pass rushers breathing quickly down his neck. This is one game where Smith’s patience needs to be shortened a notch or two – if guys aren’t open, Ohio State will pay if Smith doesn’t motor for the few yards he might have available. Realize that Smith has only had one 300+ yard passing game (316 vs. Michigan) and that this year his ground stats are the lowest of his three years as a starter. Like Vince Young showed in last year’s title game, Smith’s feet could very well be the deciding factor either way. Zwick was the OSU starter in 2004 until his inconsistency saw Smith replace him by the sixth game. Zwick saw some action in early 2005 and did better, but has thrown only 31 passes since then. Zwick would not be expected to bring to the table what Smith does if inserted. The worst case scenario for the Buckeyes is if they are behind and Zwick has to take over due to injury – that would be too much for the reserve to handle. Otherwise, Zwick can manage the game with competence as long as the Buckeyes establish the run.

Chris Leak, Florida’s all-time leading passer in a number of categories, shows more inconsistency than Smith. Though he has faced a majority of secondaries that were ranked in the upper echelons (two have been in the top 10 – No.3 LSU and No.5 Georgia), he makes good decisions about 90% of the time. But that other 10% has cost the Gators, most recently in the SEC title game (his struggles in the third quarter allowed Arkansas to take a 21-17 lead after Florida had them down 17-7). Tressel has four guys up front who need little help to put pressure on Leak, so in dropping six and seven into coverage, the Buckeyes can reproduce the circumstance(s) that messes Leak up the most – having to scramble when everyone is well covered and then panicking and forcing the ball. Now, this is not to say Leak always fails when put in such a situation. He can often nail a receiver deep when the play breaks down and improvising begins. But OSU has to try and get Leak into a funk and then capitalize. Leak only had multiple INTs in two games during the season, so his consistency is a major key for Florida to remain mistake-free and stay in this game. Meyer springs enough surprises in his spread approach so that the Buckeyes will have a hard time knowing what will occur from seeing which formations Florida lines up in. But it could be those few times they guess right that allow State to make the big defensive play and possibly get a turnover that decides the game. Leak has to refrain from forcing things and take the sack or throw it away when in trouble for Florida to (have a chance to) win. Noteworthy: Leak also only has one 300+ yard game (352 vs. UCF) but has more rushing TDs (three) than Smith (one).

Then there is the X-/Tebow-factor. This past year’s top dual-threat QB prospect, it took little time for Meyer to find Tim a place in his expansive schemes. Tebow reflects confidence beyond his years when put in on third and fourth downs, most often running for the needed yardage and more as defenders are both run past and run over by the 6’3” 230lb true freshman. With deceptive speed, Tebow has lost a mere nine yards in his 79 rushes, and his seven TDs lead all Gator ball carriers. But just when foes think he’ll run again, he has steadily passed it to wide open receivers as LBs and safeties crowd the box. Tebow is 21-of-32 for 357 yards and four TDs, making reads like a vet in the eight games he has passed. This heir-apparent has been the singular difference in quite a few of the Gator’s closest calls (LSU, Tennessee, and South Carolina). Tebow’s sporadic/poignant insertions have messed opponents up all year, and you can bet Meyer has not yet shown all the things that his team can do with the youngster behind center.

Look for Leak and Tebow to both be on the field at once sometime in the game. Also expect to see Meyer utilize an unsuspecting WR or RB as a hurler on an end around, reverse and/or outside run. Another possible wrinkle could be lining said RB/WR up behind center and sending Tebow and/or Leak into the pattern. Tressel may have seven weeks to prepare his guys for much of the Gator’s arsenal, but Urban also has over a month to add plays that the Buckeyes can’t possibly scout or expect. You at home should expect the unexpected when the Gators line up.

In comparing Smith/Zwick to Leak/Tebow, the Buckeyes just have more of a playmaker and less possible mistakes with their Heisman winner. Smith may only get 150-200 aerial yards, but in games this year where he has been held to such pedestrian totals, he has still thrown 16 TDs and only four INTs. That means that stopping his yardage production doesn’t equal a guaranteed gator victory. Though conventional compared to Florida’s spread approach, Ohio State runs the ball well, making it tough to stop their passes from stinging at just the right times. Leak’s propensity to blunder at key times means that unless he can play error-free ball all night, any fumbles and/or INTs will equal either returns for scores or eventual points by the OSU offense due to such. Ohio State has allowed only ten points to be scored off of their turnovers (all by Michigan), which means Florida has their work cut out if they are to return the favor. Florida is stacked defensively with athletes, so if anyone besides Michigan can hurt the Buckeyes this way, it will be the Gators. Still, all in all, the quarterback advantage goes to Ohio State.

Running Back – There are great differences in the way these two teams run the ball. Ohio State relies on two ball carriers to round out their conventional ground approach. Florida likes to spread the ball amongst QBs, RBs and WRs, and results have UF averaging a bit more per carry (4.8) than OSU (4.7). But the top three Gator RBs total together only 189 carries, hardly workhorses at all compared to the Buckeye RBs, who have 334 carries between the two of them. Florida runs out of their spread formations, with plenty of fakes for end-arounds and misdirection plays the Buckeyes will have to be ready for with defenders who stay home and don’t get caught out of position. Ohio State runs out of conventional sets and challenges UF to stop them even when they telegraph a handoff is coming.

The running game in Gainesville quietly ranks 36th in the nation. Florida’s DeShawn Wynn is a fifth-year senior who has a bowling ball effect as he runs over as many guys as he runs by. Soph Kestahn Moore is also a physical back who can give as much as he takes. Svelte frosh Mon Williams also contributes, giving the Gators a trio of backs who can keep legs fresh all 60 minutes against the bruising OSU front seven. The longest runs for each are 26, 28, and 25 yards, respectively. These guys just haven’t broken many big gainers and aren’t likely to against Ohio State’s No.16 rush defense that allows foes only 3.3 ypc. Florida has only seen a few dominant run defenses, and their RBs haven’t performed exemplary against any of them.

Antonio Pittman has had two consecutive years of great results, and the junior is the greatest Buckeye back since Maurice Clarett in his infamous freshman campaign that took OSU to the title in 2002-03. This is a back who can put the team on his back. Pittman forcing UF to commit eight in the box will be a major step towards victory. Then there is Chris Wells. This true freshman has lived up to the hype as the nation’s top RB prospect with his 5.8 ypc. His hulking size punishes would-be tacklers and his speed gets him around the corner for easy yards. “Beanie” also consistently grinds out enough yards to make defenses have to respect his potential, or else. Together they provide OSU with the 18th-ranked rushing attack, and Florida’s sixth-ranked run stoppers are expected to keep them somewhat in check. Due to the pounding lead blocking of FB Stan White, it will likely happen that Ohio State breaks a few big gainers (longest runs of the year - 56 yards for Pittman and 52 for Wells). Florida’s big, quick athletes up front have to realize that conceding five yards is OK so as not to over-rush and allow the Buckeye runners to easily get into the secondary.

It is not as though Ohio State has a huge advantage here in quality. It is a volume thing that allows us to think their backs are stronger as a unit. And this difference between the two team’s approaches is due to no more than the two different schemes each team uses as we’ve mentioned above. The Gator WRs get multiple carries, but they wouldn’t bolster this area when breaking down just the RBs like we are. The Buckeye RBs are therefore more valuable for their team, and they have proven that they can keep opposing offenses off the field with steady production. With Tim Tebow finishing second on the team for rushing, it is often out of the Gator RBs’ hands as to how the running game will be utilized – not a bad thing, just not a RB-reliant rushing attack for Meyer’s bunch. Advantage Buckeye’s for their capability to still get first downs in a cloud of dust with three straight handoffs to their backs.

Receiver – This is another toughie due to both sides being stacked. There are specific statistical areas that lean in favor of Florida, namely the team averages per catch (13.5 yards per catch for UF, 12.7 for OSU) and having five players with 20+ snarls compared to State only having three. But most important in distinguishing between their WR units is what we spoke of in the RB section above – the UF WRs help to power the Gator running game much more than OSU’s WRs contribute (besides in downfield blocking) to their ground efforts.

Ohio State’s group cannot be ignored for what they bring to the table each week. They are a huge reason why Troy Smith won his awards. Ted Ginn is a threat to break a big one every down, and this year he has been used less as a ball carrier and more as a conventional WR. The Cleveland native often lines up in no-man’s land (between where a slot/flanker back might be and the backfield) and will get his share of touches somehow. Florida needs to have done their homework to realize that of Ginn’s 25 carries from 2004-05, 10 of them were in the Buckeye’s two bowl games. He has a rushing score in each of the last two season-enders. Definitely look for him to be the beneficiary of coach Tressel opening up the full playbook. No.2 receiver Tony Gonzales has the team’s top average with 14.8 ypc and will pick up YAC if not played tightly by UF DBs. Sophomore Brian Robiskie cannot be ignored, or he, too, will burn Florida. TE Rory Nicol also could see poignant touches to help open up the deep middle for Ginn & Co.

Florida senior Dallas Baker has one more catch than Andre Caldwell (56 to 55) and 326 more yards than his junior compliment. Baker goes deep while Caldwell usually stays home underneath, though Caldwell has a team-longest 66-yard reception while Baker’s longest is only 33. Jemalle Cornelius also sees ample deep curls and out patterns. But it could be Meyer’s use of two freshmen – Jarred Fayson and Percy Harvin – that will have OSU swiping at air. Slash player Harvin (be warned Buckeyes – he played QB in prep) has more runs than catches (36 carries for 406 yards and two TDs; 25 catches, 14.7 ypc and two TDs) and is third on the team in rushing, while Fayson (listed as a WR) has seen his touches consist of mostly ball-carrying duties (14 carries, 126 yards with no yards lost; one catch for one yard). Caldwell even has 18 carries and he has also launched a TD in his only pass of the year. Florida WRs have a total of 73 carries, compared to Ohio State’s snarlers only compiling five so far in 2006. UF just relies more on the multiple talents of their WRs more due to their creativity, and therefore the Gator WRs are more valuable and integral in their team’s offensive approach. OSU knows they have to be aware of all of the shenanigans Meyer will pull in his three-, four- and five-WR sets, so assignments and communication for the Buckeye back-seven have to be crystal clear. Stopping Michigan and their conventional 75th-ranked passing game proved rather difficult for the Buckeyes. If Florida goes on to victory, it will be because the five sophomores in Ohio State’s back seven were exploited more by the UF WRs in the spread (and its possibilities) than Florida’s more experienced DBs and LBs were burned by State’s passing game (six out of the seven UF starters are upperclassmen). But Ohio State’s WRs might have a lower touch/yardage totals just because the Buckeye running game clicks so consistently well, making their contributions with downfield blocking just as important. Stopping Florida’s WRs in every facet will be a taller order, and that gives the Gators an advantage here when forced to choose between the two quality corps.

Offensive Line – Both teams have cohesive units with players that know each other well – the Buckeye line has had the same five starters for every 2006 game, while the Gators only had one game where one of its regular starters was missing. To measure the differences between these two OLs is finite, though certain dimensions distinguish each. It comes down to how their respective offenses utilize the units, for Florida’s spread attack is less conventional than Ohio State’s more basic sets.

Florida is led by senior first-team all-SEC center Steve Rissler. Second-team all-conference juniors Phil Trautwein and Drew Miller protect the outside well, while Carlton Medder and sophomore Jim Tartt work the intricacies in the middle with Rissler. The line’s effectiveness can seem sporadic with all of the misdirection and faking going on in the spread, but these guys have come together well in the offenses’ second year under Meyer’s unique system. Florida often leaves their big five on islands, with expectations that each can handle their assignment one-on-one, and multiple assignments on one play often occur. Inconsistencies are therefore found in their results when up against better defenses loaded with big, quick, determined athletes. The SEC is full of teams like this, a substantial reason Meyer has found it hard to dominate this conference like he did the MAC and MWC.

The Buckeye defense is much like the better SEC defenses in this way and will have some success penetrating and disrupting. Florida’s OL cannot allow this to happen for more than one play here and there. Arkansas and Auburn showed that consistently overloading/blitzing to one side can be effective in managing the Gator offense, so Florida will have to go deep early to keep OSU from loading the box and/or inordinate blitzing.

Meyer cannot expect his linemen to stop OSU’s quality DL and LBs every time, so the risks have to be assessed initially to then apply their findings later. Meyer would be prudent in opening the playbook slowly, keeping his H-backs and/or TEs in at first to gauge Ohio State’s formidable front seven this way. Tressel will be forced to show his hand, and then those lateral end-to-end plays can be poignantly inserted for bigger gains later on. We have always asserted that spreading teams out at the top levels of I-A ball can wind up being futile as top-level defenders are big and quick enough to compensate for such, so staying home early on will be in UF’s best interest.

Ohio State makes it somewhat easier for their OL, allowing them to concentrate on a north-south running approach and basic drop-back and/or rollout passing by Smith. All-American and Rimington finalist Doug Datish continues the high level of tradition for Buckeye centers, a cornerstone for the team’s consistent success over the years. Fellow senior and all-Big Ten RG T.J. Downing is joined on the inside by Steve Rehring, who is surprisingly agile for his 329lb size (also can play LT effectively). Super sophomore Alex Boone has been starting since last year to protect Smith’s blindside, and all-conference RT Kirk Barton should call the Horseshoe his own IHOP for all the pancakes he has made there. You might as well call FB Stan White a lineman – only eight catches and where he lines up differentiate him from the other five. Ohio State’s OL is able to show more consistency due to the way the offense runs. They pound straight ahead and force foes to play smash-mouth ball. If Florida is unable to disrupt the Buckeye OL, it will be a long night in the desert. But Florida has an athletic, hard-hitting front seven that has seen some tough OLs this season. If any foe is prepared to finally stop OSU it’s Florida.

Basic stats to compare the two lines - Ohio State has allowed less sacks (14) than Florida (22); both teams average about 4.8 ypc; Florida’s line averages about 310lbs; Ohio State’s averages 315lbs. One big difference between the two is how long each unit has been together – Florida returned only two starters this campaign while Ohio State returned four. It all adds up to a marginal advantage for OSU up front.

But if there is an area that is misrepresented due to differing levels of competition, it is here. As stated in the QB breakdown, Ohio State played against middle of the road (at best) defenses that didn’t truly test its line. Florida did a respectable job against the cream of the stingy SEC, and they are used to being in dog fights. The Buckeyes DL will give them one, but Ohio State has to realize going into the game that can’t expect to run rampant over the Gator’s like they have against most other foes. Florida probably needs a low scoring game to come out ahead, so watch to see if OSU can rule the matchups up front and put 30 or more on the Gators – a sure sign they likely win. Ostensibly, the two trench wars will be major factors in determining who goes home champs.

Defensive Line – Now let’s look at the flip side of the battles up front. These are two nasty groups, each senior laden with good depth all around. Florida’s 6th in the nation for run stopping while Ohio State ranks 10th for both sacks and TFLs (tackles for loss). This area is too close to say one team’s DL is better than the other, and as we’ve stated in the offensive line section, the team that can effectively squelch the other’s DL will likely come out ahead in the end.

Florida has seen consistency coming off of the outside as hulking Ray McDonald and Jarvis Moss have helped tame many of the best SEC running games. Rush end Moss is fourth on the team in tackles (54), second in sacks (5.5) and first in forced fumbles (3). But Moss is best remembered for his two big kick blocks against South Carolina that won it for UF 17-16. McDonald, first-team all-SEC, is immovable from his lane, forcing off-tackle runs to bounce wide outside so the quick LBs can clean up from there. Second-team all-SEC soph Derrick Harvey has proven his worth, lining up anywhere on the line and producing team bests in both TFLs (10), sacks (8) and fumble recoveries (2). Senior Joel Cohen stacks up the inside and has been double-teamed a good part of the year to free up fellow senior tackles Marcus Thomas and Steven Harris. The tackles are a huge reason the Gators allow 2.8 ypc, 74 ypg and only seven total ground scores all season.

Ohio State’s OL did well against the tougher DLs they saw, but none of their foes came from the Gator’s defensive-minded conference. Unlike Michigan and Texas, this group of Gator bigmen has seen top OLs all year and conquered all (but Auburn). The best DL OSU will face all year has to keep doing its job decisively for UF to have any chance.

State’s defensive line is a huge reason they have dominated most opponents. The biggest surprise has easily been the emergence of all-Big Ten DE Vernon Gholston. Only a sophomore, this ultra-quick rush end is the line’s top tackler (44), and he has a team-high in TFLs (14) as well as the second most sacks (7.5). Many teams tried more to stop heralded senior Jay Richardson, and the double-teams he often garnered gave way to big stops by others. Alex Barrow and Lawrence Wilson (two FFs) rotate in to keep the Buckeye legs on the outside fresh, and this will be key for OSU to disrupt the lateral plays Florida so often runs late in the game. All-American Quinn Pitcock solidified future Sunday employment by leading the team in sacks (8) from his tackle slot. This guy is in need of two OLmen to tame him on most plays. Fellow senior David Patterson has also clogged the middle consistently – the true senior has been an invaluable part of the DL his entire career in Columbus.

The cohesive play of the Buckeye line is the main reason that the back seven hasn’t skipped a beat, even with six new starters. Respectably ranked at 16th as run stoppers, OSU’s DL has much to study against Florida’s spread attack. There are just so many ways that UF can distract opponents come snap time, the Buckeyes have to know their assignments and lanes or coach Meyer will eventually exploit any over-pursuing bigmen. Tressel really hasn’t seen anything like what UF’s offense poses, so expect a conservative approach and then adjustments all night as Meyer pulls trick after trick out of the team’s collective wazoo.

The OSU DL has started pretty much the same front four all of 2006. Depending on who is double-teamed, the others have to react and help cover each other’s territory to keep UF’s efficiency down. A breakdown by the Buckeye DL – like we saw in their last game against Michigan, which ran the rock at a 4.3 ypc clip – will keep the wily Gators on the field and their offense on the bench. Watch for Tebow to be used more as a distraction than he is as a weapon, baiting OSU to show their DL schemes so Meyer can capitalize. If this Buckeye DL can do the job against Tebow and UF on its trickier plays, expect to see OSU holding up the BCS trophy by the end.

Two solid lines that are too close to differentiate in overall quality. The Buckeyes allow 3.3 ypc, .07 more than the Gators, but OSU has 15 more TFLs and eight more sacks than UF. There may be no advantage between the two DLs heading into the game, but the winner will be able to point to their superiority in this area and how it was a major key to victory.

Linebackers – We see here two teams with defensive results that were well balanced, a sure sign of good linebacking corps. The differences seem to be in experience and results against major competitors.

No one can argue that fellow sophomores James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman are about as good a tandem as found anywhere in all of I-A. Ohio State was expecting modest results since all three of last year’s starting LBs left. Laurinaitis then won this year’s Nagurski Award (top defensive player), leading the team in both tackles (100), INTs (five) and forced fumbles (three). Freeman offers the same combination of size and speed; though, he seems more comfortable in coverage. These two have made sure that any drop-off has been minimal, as has senior Antonio Smith, who has been regularly shifted from his starting spot at CB to weakside LB. Smith’s quickness has provided 10 TFLs, but his size allows linemen to overpower him one-on-one. Senior John Kerr, originally slated for the WLB slot, has underperformed in his showings. Freshman Ross Homan has been a surprise, but his inexperience will show against the spread. Juniors Curtis Terry and Larry Grant also garner reps but have not shown the superior polish needed to make the OSU middlemen shine like last year’s senior-laden group.

Florida has three steady performers in their corps, led by senior Earl Everett and junior Brandon Siler. These guys come up big at the most important times – little gets by them when the game is on the line. Senior Brian Crum has stepped into his starting role with effectiveness, and freshman backups Ryan Stamper, Brandon Spikes and Dustin Doe have played beyond their years. It has all come together here for a unit that uses athleticism and toughness against any type of offense they’ve faced.

It is at the tougher times that we judge these LB performances, not against those lesser foes which they should be beating up. Capable of making the big plays, inconsistency has just plagued much of the Buckeye reserve cache at LB in bigger games. None of the backups had key plays against Illinois and Michigan, State’s two toughest games this season. Breakdowns in underneath coverage against the Wolverines seemingly had OSU constantly chasing behind UM’s ball carriers, and you know with the variables UF is likely to throw at them, this is a bad sign. In contrast, Florida has faced the meat of the SEC and shown that their corps can hold up under such stringent circumstances. The Gators often bend but rarely break with the game on the line. Numbers comparing the two units may favor OSU overall, but with only five teams in the Big Ten over .500 and the Buckeyes missing Purdue and Wisconsin (two of those five) on their ’06 résumé, OSU’s two late season struggles prove their LB corps can falter when needed most. It basically comes down to experience and subsequent results in big games. UF has faced only three teams with losing records. Their LBs have arguably been a major reason they have been able to stay one step ahead of the rest of the SEC. They have been tested in close games and proven worthy. OSU cannot hang their hats on the game in Austin with then-No.2 Texas sporting a freshman QB, and against Michigan junior Chad Henne, we saw what a balanced offense led by an experienced QB can achieve against the Buckeyes. UF has such an offense, too, and will have plenty of tricks coming out of the spread to exploit the OSU LBs. The Buckeyes may have success against UF, but each yard will be earned the hard way and any chinks in the Gator’s hide won’t likely be found at LB.

Secondary – Just like the linebackers, the Florida secondary seems to boast a stronger unit due only to experience in big games. The talent in Ohio State’s DBs is nothing to scoff at. But with only one returning starter from ‘05, the OSU secondary was easily exploited by their best opponent, Michigan. Beating up on the soft Big Ten schedule the Buckeyes faced doesn’t numerically impress like it might seem (top passing offense faced was Iowa’s 29th-ranked unit), so OSU will have to hold UF’s No.23 passing offense for 60 minutes before anyone will believe they definitely have the stuff to stop a worthy passing opponent. UF’s starting four really has shown excellent cohesion and seems a hand better.

OSU sophomore Malcolm Jenkins has proven he deserved his status as a shutdown corner from last year’s freshman campaign. He is also a sure tackler on outside runs, an important trait to have against UF. Antonio Smith has overseen the emergence of frosh Donald Washington to take his place so Smith can play WLB and nickel-back, though Smith did start four games at CB and lines up all over. Senior Brandon Mitchell has emerged as a steady starter at strong safety, and free safety Jamario O’Neal is like the rest – he is as good in run support as he is in coverage. There are many good reserves (Russell, Amos) that rotate in early and often, keeping the Buckeye secondary fresh throughout the entire game.

Junior safeties Reggie Nelson and Tony Joiner are the backbone of the Gator’s No.6 pass efficiency defense. But they couldn’t do it without Florida’s two lockdown specialists on the outside. Reggie Lewis has started every game at corner, but it is the emergence of transfer Ryan Smith that has made this crew come together. Smith is tied for third in the nation with his eight INTs as well as first on the team with 15 passes defended and fifth with 52 tackles. Smith and Nelson form the top DB pair in the nation with 14 INTs combined. This starting four has not changed all year, giving them a tight knit unit that has seen the No.9 (Kentucky) and the No.13 (Tennessee) passing offenses and thwarted both for victories.

Many will point to how UF allows 15 more yards per game through the air than OSU, but this is an unfair comparison. Florida has dealt with 444 opponent’s passes while Ohio State has only seen 378. That’s nearly 18% more, which means using yardage totals doesn’t comparably size up which is better. They both give up 5.7 yards per pass attempt. The Gators have the sixth-best pass efficiency D compared to the Buckeye’s No.8 ranking. As stated above, it is a close call differentiating between these two secondaries. UF just has a better starting four whom know each other that much more. Florida will surely have its hands full against Troy Smith, but Smith has not seen a pass defense this good yet. Chris Leak is subtly effective, and the Meyer’s spread will test OSU like it hasn’t been tested yet. Advantage Florida…

Punting – Both clubs have strong punting games that have proven advantageous in getting each this far. In breaking down just the actual punting itself, marginally stronger statistical results favor Florida, though Ohio State is right there and could easily win the punting variable come January 8th.

Buckeye booter A.J. Trapasso has only had to launch 43 punts, and 15 of those have come down inside opponent’s 20 yard line. The sophomore has forced eight fair catches, averages 41 yards per try and has controlled his punts well enough so that only 11 have been returned. Trapasso’s size means he is a worthy tackler if need be, but his coverage units have kept that from being necessary. With none of his attempts blocked, he has a proven motion which should maintain his flawless results.

Gator senior Eric Wilbur has a 42.2 ypp average in his 49 tries – also less than four punts per game. His big leg has landed 22 inside the opponent’s 20 and has forced 12 fair catches. Wilbur kicks high enough so that the Gator tacklers are already there. His longest try was 64 yards, but he rarely outkicks his coverage.

Both teams have return specialists who will demand that these punters have flawless efforts all game, or else. Florida gets the slight nod here due to Wilbur’s statistical edge and his senior status. Wilbur has been punting almost perfectly for four years now with solid results, though Trapasso has shown consistency in both of his campaigns. Field position battles with the game close would prove to be a major pivot for who wins. Don’t be caught getting something out of the fridge because you think punting on fourth downs isn’t important.

Kick/Punt Coverage – Whereas the kick coverages for these two titans is comparable – UF allows 18 per kick return; OSU holds foes to 18.1 – it is in the punt coverage that we see separation between them. The Buckeyes have allowed an average of 8.3 yards in their opponent’s 11 punt returns while the Gators have only given up 3.2 yards in 18 PRs. The longest punt return UF has given up was 15 yards; OSU has allowed a 34 yarder. Usually a sign of defensive depth and team speed (of which each have plenty), Florida just boasts enough of an advantage on punt coverage to give them a nod here. These are two tough-as-nails crews that have much to prove. Either team could find the winning edge due to a heads-up play via their foe’s mistake in handling a kickoff and/or punt, so don’t underestimate how important this dimension could be when all is said and done.

Kicking – We have a feeling that Ohio State’s decided advantage in this area might be the difference. The Buckeyes have two guys who can hit from 50+ at will, while UF kicker Chris Hetland is having a disastrous year in which his longest field goal is 33 yards. Hetland is 4-for-13 after dotting the Groza Award watch list at the start of the season. Coach Meyer has to be inside the red zone before he can feel confident pulling the trigger with Hetland. Coach Tressel need only break the 40 yard line before trying for three. The Buckeye regular is RS freshman Aaron Pettrey, but Ryan Pretorius is 1-for-2, both of his tries coming from 50+. Pettrey is 5-for-7 from 40+ and 8-for-11 on the year. It just looks bad for Florida if/when the whole game hinges on the kicking game. Having to get three points late for the win in a really close game isn’t a situation the Gators can afford to be in. This important detail favoring Ohio State just may be that difference late in a comeback win.

Another dimension of the kicking game that swings an advantage back to Florida is how well they have broken through for huge kick blocks (total of seven). Jarvis Moss used all of his 6’6 frame to block two South Carolina kicks (one FGA and one XPA), and fellow DE Ray McDonald also blocked a FGA to secure the Gator’s 17-16 win in the Spurrier Bowl. But inversely, Florida has also allowed four kicks to be blocked. Against Auburn, in the lone Gator loss, UF blew a 17-8 lead, notably on a botched snap and subsequent blocked punt attempt that then put the Tigers up 18-17 on Florida’s first possession of the third quarter. Ohio State has only two blocked kicks, but also has only allowed two of theirs to be blocked. This may just be number crunching, but we all know the huge pivots that come via altered kick/punt attempts, so we had to mention it here, seemingly the most appropriate place.

Returns – Though pretty close in the punt return department, Ohio State has an advantage in kickoff returns, and therefore overall, due to Ted Ginn, Jr. The junior speedster has one return TD this year and seven in his career, and is a breakaway threat every time he touches the rock. The Gators counter with true freshman Brandon James. The St. Augustine native also fills both return roles, but is not up to the expected snuff as a kick returner (17.5 ypr with a long of 38). Ginn is only earning 20.4 per kick return with a long of 37, but those three extra yards on his average are the separation between these two teams for returns. What seems like a minor area is often – like other subtle dimensions – the difference in a close game. Anthony Gonzalez could touch the ball in some returning capacity for OSU, and his deceptive speed cannot be something UF ignores if Ginn is out. Likewise, Gator Reggie Nelson is (actually more) likely to see some return duties. Freshman Jarred Fayson is another Gator burner who could make a name for himself rather quickly here if not treated with the respect his explosive speed is due. Sometimes in post-season classics like this, it is someone we never expect who is a game breaker. As we warned prior, don’t get caught ignoring changes of possession, or you might suddenly realize the score has changed and you missed it.

The other statistical advantage Ohio State has is in INT returns. This is a highly dubious fact, for numbers do not mean much when two speedy, focused back sevens like these are compared. Still, OSU has averaged 16+ per INT return, and three of their 21 have been for scores. UF has 20 INTs with a 7.5 average per return and only one for a score. And though Florida has allowed foes only 8.4 yards and no scores on their INT returns, Ohio State has given up no yards in Smith’s paltry five picks. Sure, UF could have three INTs for TDs and OSU could get none, so do not think these past numbers carry much weight. The slate is wiped clean and little can be predicted by past INT results. Just more fodder to help confuse you in this series of comparisons.

Depth/Backups – This is an area Florida seems to go across the board – position by position and unit by unit – with decisive advantages in most. These advantages are seen through on-field experience and then results, not in evaluations of talent arbitrarily. Ohio State’s reserves have just as much potential and physical talent, but UF has just gotten more out of their second- and third-teamers.

We can get specific. Take the backup QBs – in ’06, Tebow has 79 carries and 32 pass attempts compared to Zwick’s two carries and 23 passes. But this is offset by career numbers – Zwick has extensive starting experience while true frosh Tebow would be unpredictable if thrust into an every-down role. How would you compare such results? It can be daunting.

More comparable would be comparing given units and how many players have reached certain statistical levels. Both teams have three TBs with over 100 yards; OSU has six players with over 140 receiving yards while UF has five with 300+. Florida has two tight ends who can go deep over the middle while Ohio State has only Rory Nicol.

Both teams have 19 defensemen with more than 10 tackles. But Florida’s D only has four freshmen listed in backup roles, whereas OSU lists five. That one’s pretty close given the strong stopping results both clubs have produced.

But with Florida much more battle tested having played the cream of the SEC crop and State playing in a conference where the overall 2006 record was a combined 77-58 and only five teams had winning records, you can decipher where we likely land in this category. We just have to give the overall depth advantage to Florida for having more true experience in their two- and three-deep player charts thanks to excellent recruiting in the sunshine state. Ohio State comparatively holds up for offensive depth to the Gators, but their defense is just too young and green overall to believe it can easily handle an unpredictable opponent like Florida that spreads the field so well/often. Florida can more easily be seen handling OSU’s offense for 60 minutes due to how deep their size-speed combos go.

Strength of Schedule (SOS) – There are many ways to break this down, but we will keep it to two basic areas. Before the season started, broke down the strength of schedule as we saw it. We thought Florida had the sixth toughest schedule based on last year’s record and Ohio State was 22nd. Now the regular season has played out and the aggregate totals of each team’s foes combined records sees the Buckeyes foes with a 73-71 record and Gator opponents at 91-66. That’s 51% to 58% in comparing foe’s winning percentages. The Gator’s schedule is now confirmed as having been the nation’s toughest. This is something that gives Florida an edge and we have been alluding to it in many areas.

The main difference will be seen in defenses. Sure, OSU beat up on most of their opponents, but against the best teams they faced, they showed signs of beat-ability. Then-No.2 (now No.18) Texas gashed State for 326 total yards. Then-No.2 Michigan, with only the 74th rated passing game, threw for 267 yards against the Buckeyes. Bowling Green, 4-8 and ranked 56th in total offense, gained 339 yards October 7th in Columbus. All one team has to do is put together a total game to beat Ohio State, and Florida has done it to top opponents all year. Ohio State may have faced No.2 twice (though neither was a true No.2 team as we can now see), but otherwise they have only faced (then-No.13 and now 6-7) Iowa, measly pickins’ compared to Florida’s slate. The Buckeyes are young on D, and if the season ender against UM didn’t expose their flaws to you, the title game against Florida will.

Florida’s résumé reads like a who’s who of solid, winning programs: won opening day against CUSA-runner-up and GMAC Bowl-bound Southern Miss (8-5); won 21-20 at Knoxville against then-No.13 Tennessee; beat Music City Bowl champions Kentucky 26-7, Alabama 28-13, and No.4 (then-No.9) LSU 23-10 - all at home in three consecutive weeks; beat both then-No.25 Georgia and FSU by the same score of 21-14 on the road; surged for the 38-28 win against then-No.8 Arkansas for the SEC crown. Only a trip to Auburn blemishes the Gator’s results, and at 12-1 coming out of the SEC, anyone who thinks Ohio State is more than just another day at the office for UF is underestimating how good Florida is. They’ve played only three teams with losing records this year while OSU has played five. The Buckeyes have only faced one team with a winning record – Michigan – since September. Florida is in prime position to grind out a tight contest (won five games by a TD or less, two by one point) due to experience in them, but betting against Troy Smith in a close game is a hard argument to make, regardless.

Intangibles – Whereas Florida may have an advantage due to their experience against a tougher schedule, Ohio State has an advantage due to their coaching experience in championship games. For all of Urban Meyer’s innovations, he has never (before now) reached the top game and doesn’t know the pressures involved with everything that goes along with reaching it. Jim Tressel does. Tressel has even gone to the championship game at two levels (six times at I-AA, won four titles; once at I-A, won title in 2002-03). This one factor alone is the first thing that will give Ohio State an edge.

Even as a team, this OSU squad is used to winning. They bring the nation’s current longest win streak (19) with them. They’ve garnered the No.1 spot now since the preseason polls, and the Buckeyes are an impressive 63-8-1 all-time when top ranked. But in six previous seasons entering the campaign atop the polls, they have never ended up as No.1 in the final tally. Moreover, they are 4-0 in No.1 vs. No.2 games, including 2-0 this year with Florida making their third No.2 opponent for the season. No team has ever been in even two No.1-No.2 matchups in one season, let alone three! State is 4-0 in past BCS appearances, including 3-0 under Tressel, but they are 18-19 all-time in bowls. Their four BCS wins are the most for any team, though USC gained their fourth in a 32-18 romp over Michigan in last Monday’s Rose Bowl.

Florida won the first Bowl Alliance championship in 1996, the precursor to the present BCS system. That is the school’s lone national title. UF has played in three BCS bowls (2-1), but hasn’t been part of this elite postseason grouping since 2002 (56-23 Orange Bowl win over Maryland). Meyer was there in 2004 (35-7 Fiesta Bowl win) with Utah when they finished undefeated, his only trip to the BCS (so he is 1-0). Meyer is looking for his fourth bowl win in as many years/tries – only Boston College’s Tom O’Brien (six) and Jim Tressel (four) have better streaks running. Meyer has outscored foes 83-38 in his three straight wins. Meyer’s teams are 20-2 all-time when given more than a week to prepare for a game. Florida has now been to 16 consecutive bowls to end their season, and this is their 13th January bowl game in the last 14 years. UF is 15-18 all-time in bowls but is 5-3 against Big Ten opponents. But UF is only 2-6 all-time when facing the top ranked team (1-1 when they were No.2 going in). Florida now has its highest ranking for the year, and being anointed to No.2 at such a late juncture can swing either way, depending upon who is breaking it down. Suffice to say, being in the limelight is new to Urban Meyer’s guys, and only this game will tell if they handled it well or not. The trends over the eight BCS title games reveal some interesting facts. No.1 beat No.2 the first four times (1999-2002), but No.2 has won three of the last four title matchups. Four of the eight have been decided by a TD or less, including last year’s 41-38 Texas win over USC. OSU won the only overtime game, a 31-24 double-OT classic against another Florida team – Miami - out there in…you guessed it, Tucson. Meyer tries to become the seventh head coach to win a national title in his first or second year at a given school. The last coach to achieve this feat? Jim Tressel.

The Gators are the sixth team to reach the title game with one loss, and (as already stated) they faced five top 25 defenses to get here (OSU will make six). Nebraska (2001) had faced the most (four) top 25 defenses out of those previous five one-loss qualifiers. But to tell you just how daunting the Gator’s slate has been in 2006, consider this - USC and Texas faced a combined total of only three top 25 defenses last year, and USC and Oklahoma faced a combined total of four in ’04.

In a related area, UF has reeled off 74 offensive plays of 20-or-more yards in ’06 while OSU has only produced 55. But the Buckeyes have been in control of most of their games (won first halves 244-57) while UF has thrived on closer tilts that require struggle (93-58 for aggregate first half points). Both teams have the ability to be slow and methodical offensively, but either can pounce at any moment and score points lightning quick for a spurt. Holding each other to less big plays seems like a viable path to winning, but as long as the ball keeps moving for each, big plays won’t be as big of a factor. Keeping the opposing offense off the field and tiring down the other’s defense then becomes the tact, and Florida’s depth on that side of the ball would then pay dividends. Ohio State couldn’t stop Michigan late (15 fourth quarter points), and with all of Florida’s variables in the spread, a UF defensive stand in the last stanza will be another difference if they go on to win.

One final funny fact is that no team has ever simultaneously held the national crown in both men’s basketball and football. Most of us remember how Florida quietly scaled the brackets for their first roundball title just nine months ago, so taking the BCS title home would make the Gators the first to do this. But if OSU wins, look out for the Buckeye’s on the hard court – their (currently) No.6 squad could easily make them the first to do this come early April.

It all adds up to lots of number crunching and few conclusive ends. But when all the factoids and strategies are considered, Ohio State can rely on their coach and the innate traits of Troy Smith to get to the No.1 spot in the final polls. Smith has won big games his entire career and can carry his team and create momentum to get by any foe. If Florida does win it, it will be via a group effort, a savvy coach and some poignant breaks, for that is how they’ve been doing it all year against tougher foes than OSU has seen.

The Final Prognosis – Who will win this one? How will it play out? Well, whereas some big games are rather transparent before they are played (like last year’s Texas win over USC – we all knew it would be a close shootout, and we at knew Texas and ‘X’ factor Vince Young would put the Longhorns over the top), this one has way too many possible outcomes (the same way Ohio State’s 2003 Fiesta Bowl title game against Miami did) to say how it will all sort out. But we can break a few of the scenarios down.

One scenario is a low scoring affair, a defensive struggle that sees the first team to reach 20 points the victor. In this type of game, we thing Florida has the advantage due to how many of these they have been in this season. The Gators scored 28 points or less in nine games, winning eight. Foes only broke through the 20 point barrier three times on UF’s D, so realize that Florida has the stopping power to stifle even a juggernaut offense like the Buckeyes. Three teams held OSU to under 30 points, and though none came out ahead, Illinois’ 17-10 loss showed all that this was the most viable way to beat the Buckeyes. But this doesn’t mean much if Troy Smith can have one good drive late in the game when it is needed most. Also factor in the two kicking games (OSU’s is tops while UF’s is struggling outside of 30 yards) and you may realize that Ohio State could still surge ahead right at the end, even if it is tight and low scoring. Florida needs to be ahead two scores late in the fourth quarter to be assured victory, and that is not so unrealistic for an Urban Meyer squad to achieve. Florida has a 60% chance of winning if both teams wind up scoring under 20 points.

Another breakdown sees a higher scoring affair where the wills of both offenses will eventually supercede quality defensive showings. This one is within 10 points all night as the team ahead at the half may have only 17. But then the locker room adjustments for the last 30 minutes mean more offensive success and that the winner is the first team to 40. Look for OSU to run the ball well if this occurs and for Florida to utilize a defensive and/or special teams score to try and keep pace. But just like how the Michigan game played out, Florida is likely a score or two behind most of the way, and State stays just far enough out of reach to have the game in hand by midway through the fourth quarter. If the points are coming quickly, banking on Leak/Tebow to score at the same rate as Smith becomes a tall order. Huge comebacks are not in this year’s bag for the Gators. OK, so they were down 17-7 to Tennessee late in the third quarter before winning 21-20 and trailing 16-10 halfway through the fourth before taking it from South Carolina 17-16…but, noting the lower point totals, both of those were won as much due to defensive efforts as they were via offensive heroics. Sure, UF has it in them to utilize the spread for baiting defenses all game long one way only to then throw in a couple of well-rehearsed trick plays for optimum results late. But even more likely is OSU, with proven success on offense, continuing to plow ahead well into the fourth quarter and outscoring/out-dueling UF in this type of game. Ohio State, with Troy Smith’s knack for winning, has what Texas had last year in Vince Young – that extra ability on reserve which can carry them at critical times. Florida can rely on Leak to pull it out of his wazoo, too, but in a tit-for-tat scoring affair, look for Smith to have the edge here. Ohio State wins a higher scoring result (where both teams go over 30 points) 70% of the time.

But what is most likely to happen is some scenario that has both teams hovering around 20-25 points by the end, and it comes down to one drive and/or kick to win it. This scenario has to favor Ohio State due to their edge at QB and their kicking game. Florida wins this kind of game with some kind of huge defensive play late to stop Smith. The Gators could win due to a well-earned score that puts them ahead in the last moments, but it will most likely then be a TD that does the trick.

Enough of the possible sequences…how will it actually go down? Well, we will go out on a limb and say that Florida smacks the Buckeyes in the mouth right off and takes an early lead. It will be within 6-9 points by halftime, and OSU then comes out of the locker room attacking and scoring on their first few third quarter drives to take the lead. UF then adjusts and scores early in the fourth to tie it or take the lead back. But Smith, Tressel and the kicking game carry the Buckeyes to eventual victory in a 27-23 final. State wins this game 60 out of a hundred times, which means Florida, too, has a pretty good chance of aligning the stars for an eventual win.

Just remember, anything goes in this title game. We suggest you either put the kids to bed early or let them stay up to see the entire game as college football history waits for no one (well, ESPN Classic has changed that, huh). Still, stick and stay to make sure you catch every play - bathroom breaks, trips to the fridge, calls from friends and other distractions cannot be entertained, or you will miss major events that determine the outcome of this fabulous matchup.