In early September, Ohio State was coming to grips with its loss to Virginia Tech and trying to break in a new quarterback, offensive line, running back and much of its defense. A Big Ten title looked unlikely, let alone a shot at the national championship. On Thursday, coach Urban Meyer paid tribute to his team of "grinders," who are in the College Football Playoff.

Urban Meyer sat next to Alabama coach Nick Saban with Oregon's Mark Helfrich and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher at the next table.

In the middle stood the College Football Playoff trophy.

The presence of Saban, Helfrich and Fisher in Orlando, Fla., for this news conference was no surprise. Their teams were near the top of the standings all year, but a few months ago, not even Meyer envisioned that his Ohio State Buckeyes would be in their company now.

In early September, Ohio State was coming to grips with its loss to Virginia Tech and trying to break in a new quarterback, offensive line, running back and much of its defense.

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A Big Ten title looked unlikely, let alone a shot at the national championship.

"If you would have told me back in August when I saw our starting quarterback go down that this would happen …," Meyer said, referring to Braxton Miller reinjuring his shoulder 12 days before the opener. "You just never can devalue the chemistry on a team, the closeness of a team."

He then referenced the death of walk-on Kosta Karageorge and how the team forged ahead against Wisconsin in a 59-0 victory in the Big Ten championship game.

"I learned more from our players maybe this year than in a long time," Meyer said. "I really want to say thank you to our players."

Ohio State will play in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day against Alabama, which won the 2011 and '12 national championships. Meyer, of course, went head-to-head against Saban while at Florida in the Southeastern Conference.

"I know Alabama very well and (have) a lot of respect for coach (Saban) and his team," Meyer said. "I got to take a sneak peek at the video already, and our players already know what they are in for. So we have to be on point, and I think it's going to be a great opportunity to go back down to the Sugar Bowl and do the best we can to represent the Big Ten Conference and Ohio State."

Saban, a one-time Ohio State assistant under Earle Bruce, had nothing but nice things to say about the Buckeyes and Meyer.

"We certainly have a lot of respect for the tradition and the great team that he has at Ohio State this year," Saban said. "I know this is going to be a fantastic matchup, and I know a very challenging matchup for our players."

Alabama is a 9 1/2-point favorite. Already Meyer seems to be working on the motivational buttons. When asked about a supposed "SEC bias," Meyer said the conference is deserving of being regarded as the best. He said that what Alabama has done in the past five to seven years shows that "they are the No. 1 program in America."

Meyer then spoke of taking over a program that went 6-7 in 2011 and reeling from NCAA sanctions and how the Buckeyes relished a chance to "take a shot and swing as hard as you possible can" against Alabama.

"It's a very exciting time in Columbus, Ohio, because our guys are competitive," Meyer said. "You never know how competitive they are until you get in the grinder with them, and they are grinders and they are competitors. Before I left, I saw them and saw a nice look in their eye. They understand the challenge that's ahead of them."



brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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