NEW ORLEANS - The underdog label that Ohio State wears for its College Football Playoff semifinal has always felt a bit odd. For one thing, the Buckeyes are usually the favorite. For another, they seem to wear the underdog label well. The two times they weren't favored this season, they responded with their most impressive victories.

NEW ORLEANS - The underdog label that Ohio State wears for its College Football Playoff semifinal has always felt a bit odd.

For one thing, the Buckeyes are usually the favorite. For another, they seem to wear the underdog label well. The two times they weren't favored this season, they responded with their most impressive victories.

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The Buckeyes were underdogs to Michigan State, seized control in the second quarter and rolled to a 49-37 victory. After losing quarterback J.T. Barrett to a broken ankle late in the Michigan game, Ohio State was not Las Vegas' choice in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin. The Buckeyes responded with a 59-0 victory.

It's a bit different against Alabama, the pre-eminent program in college football for several years. No one quibbles with the Crimson Tide being the favorite tonight in the Sugar Bowl. Ohio State has not made an issue of it.

Coach Urban Meyer said that preparations until the day before the game have been about X's and O's. But that changed yesterday.

Meyer was asked about being a nine-point underdog to Alabama during the final pregame Sugar Bowl news conference.

"That has really not been a big part of the conversation with our team," he said, "Probably the next two days it will be, because now the work week is done and we're getting our minds right. Up to this point, it's been preparation against a very good defense and offense and making sure we're on point."

But now it's time for Meyer to draw on the part of himself that has a psychology degree from Cincinnati. He said he will consult, as always, with his right-hand man, strength coach Mickey Marotti, to get a feel for the mood of the players. Then he will devise a speech.

Two years ago, before the season-ending game against Michigan, Meyer delivered what players would refer to as the "Golden Door" speech. He told his players, who were ineligible for the postseason because of Jim Tressel-era NCAA sanctions, that they had walked through 11 doors to reach that point. Now, against their rivals, the final door would be a golden one. They couldn't let anything prevent them from going through it and attaining Ohio State immortality.

Marotti said it was the best pregame speech he'd seen Meyer deliver. Players said afterward that they knew there was no way, after hearing that speech, that they would lose.

It will take more than a rousing speech to beat Alabama, but Meyer believes that this is a special team. It has overcome an early season loss to Virginia Tech, season-ending injuries to two Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterbacks (Barrett and Braxton Miller) and the death of teammate Kosta Karageorge.

"The great teams, coaches learn from them," Meyer said. "I've learned from this team."

He spoke of the rapid development of his 2013 recruiting class, so many of whom are starting as sophomores or redshirt freshmen.

He praised the leadership and impact of players such as seniors Curtis Grant, a middle linebacker who looked like a bust entering his final season; tight end Jeff Heuerman; and defensive tackle Michael Bennett.

"I don't feel like we're going to have to rock the boat to get them fired up to play the game," Meyer said. "This is a motivated team right now. That is something in the next 48 hours we'll evaluate because we have all day today and tomorrow."

The preparation won't end until kickoff.

"The term is insanity - how you deal with the next 48 hours, because (we put) great value in what we call working the game," Meyer said. "The physical part is done. The mental part is something we put a tremendous value on. We always say you work the game until the foot hits the ball at 8 o'clock on January 1st."

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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