NEW ORLEANS - Ohio State's Devin Smith has never been one to compare himself to other receivers. But he has made a bit of an exception for Thursday's College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama.

NEW ORLEANS - Ohio State's Devin Smith has never been one to compare himself to other receivers.

But he has made a bit of an exception for Thursday's College Football Playoff semifinal against Alabama.

"Throughout our practices, a lot of the coaches were saying, 'They've got a No. 9, but we've got a No. 9, too,' " Smith said yesterday during Sugar Bowl media day. "That's made me work a little harder not only for myself, but for my teammates, to help the DBs get a little better look."

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Alabama's No. 9 is Amari Cooper, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting. Smith's season has been up and down - on and off the field - but the senior from Massillon has played brilliantly in the stretch drive. His three touchdown catches in a 59-0 victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game give him 29 for his career, ahead of Cris Carter and five behind David Boston.

The average length of those touchdown catches is a ridiculous 37.6 yards. That big-play ability could be crucial against Alabama, which is stout against the run but susceptible to breakdowns in pass coverage.

"I know I'll be left one-on-one and will get my opportunities," Smith said. "I'll just play my game like I've done all year and try to help my team get this win."

Smith has had an enigmatic career. For all of his big catches, there have been games in which he has disappeared. He went through a three-game stretch in October in which he caught only four passes and became discouraged.

"It was tough for me because I felt like all the plans they had for me coming into the year had fallen through," Smith said. "They had told me I was going to be the guy. They were going to move me all over the field and really give me the ball a lot more.

"I felt like early on it didn't happen. It kind of made me mad because I felt I was lied to. For a minute, I kind of eased myself away from the coaches and talking to them."

Conversations with his parents helped him get through that. Football disappointment is one thing, but Smith later had to cope with a real-life tragedy. On the morning of the Indiana game on Nov. 22, A'liyia Hancock, the 18-year-old sister of Smith's girlfriend, was killed in a car accident on an icy road in Minerva, Ohio.

"It was real tough on me because I was all the way down in Columbus, and it was hard to get there," Smith said. "I didn't want to miss anything from this team, but at the same time, I didn't want to be away from my family."

Smith told the Canton Repository that he has worn her initials - ARH - on the black sticker under his left eye since then.

His success on the field has eased the pain, and he hopes that Thursday's game isn't his final one as a Buckeye.

"He found a different motivation," receivers coach Zach Smith said, "something that drives him. When that happened, he became a different guy - in the meeting room, in practice and, obviously, in the games. He started turning it on, and we started going to him more, and it just kind of exponentially increased. He's on fire right now. We just have to keep him on fire."

Playing on the same field as the more decorated No. 9 will help stoke that.

"For this game, I do want to show that there is another No. 9 who can play, too," Smith said.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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