Ohio State spent most of the season on the outside looking in while other playoff contenders fell by the wayside. The Buckeyes' 59-0 victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game provided the final push to wedge them in. Now, the Buckeyes are in an unfamiliar position - as clear underdogs. The Big Ten's dominant team for more than a decade, they are playing an Alabama program that has won two of the past three national titles, and three of the past five, and is the No. 1 seed.

It's no longer theoretical. Practices have begun.

Ohio State is really in the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes are really playing Alabama.

Ohio State spent most of the season on the outside looking in while other playoff contenders fell by the wayside. The Buckeyes' 59-0 victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game provided the final push to wedge them in.

Now, the Buckeyes are in an unfamiliar position - as clear underdogs. The Big Ten's dominant team for more than a decade, they are playing an Alabama program that has won two of the past three national titles, and three of the past five, and is the No. 1 seed.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Not only are the Buckeyes playing for a championship, but they also will be playing for the reputation and prestige of both themselves and their conference.

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"This is one of the biggest games, I think, of all time in college football," sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa said. "The Ohio State vs. Alabama, who's just been killing people for more than the last few years. (It's) tradition vs. tradition, pretty much. We're super excited about playing them."

One key to beating the Crimson Tide, coach Urban Meyer said, is to not become overenthused too soon. Before his 2006 Florida team played Ohio State for the national championship, Meyer sought Lou Holtz's advice about the best way to approach the long gap between games.

"It was like 40 days," Meyer said."He kept saying, 'You don't have to play that game (today).' So, for us, there is not a lot of rah-rah going on right now. It's all about taking care of business, and we break it into three phases."

The first is working on fundamentals and conditioning. The second is game-plan installation. The last step is game week. Ohio State just finished final exams, and Buckeyes players are mentally tired.

Today, Ohio State will have meetings but not practice.

"There is too much going on," Meyer said. "It's very compartmentalized, and that came from Lou Holtz back in 2006.They don't have to play the game today. Don't even think about the game yet.There will be the right time, and that's going to be once we hit New Orleans."

The Buckeyes believe they will be ready. Quarterback Cardale Jones, who had a star-is-born debut against Wisconsin, is looking ahead, not back.

Asked what it would mean, personally, to beat Alabama, Jones replied, "They're the No. 1 team in the country. We want what they have. We want their status as the best team in the country. For me, to be that quarterback, to be part of that team to beat Alabama, that would mean a lot."

Since Meyer arrived at Ohio State, his goal has been to recreate an SEC-like team. He has cited Alabama as "top of the mountain." Even he acknowledged last summer that he thought his team was a year away from the summit.

But now he "absolutely" believes that his team can play with the Crimson Tide.

So do his players.

"It's a great opportunity to show the world that Ohio State is a top school in the nation," sophomore safety Tyvis Powell said. "I don't know where or how that got lost over the past couple years. I really can't seem to figure that out.

"But it's, basically, reassuring the world that Ohio State is a top school. We have to go out there and put on a good showing against Alabama and try to beat them to get back on top."


brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch