NEW ORLEANS - It was close, "really close," Joey Bosa said. As a fan of Alabama and coach Nick Saban, Bosa was flattered that the Crimson Tide recruited him out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and he nearly committed on his visit to Tuscaloosa. But something held him back.
Bosa became the rare big fish to get away from Saban, and now the sophomore defensive end -- the defensive player of the year in the Big Ten -- might come back to bite the No. 1 team in the country when Ohio State and Alabama meet in a College Football Playoff semifinal Thursday night at the Superdome in the Sugar Bowl.
"I was about to commit," Bosa said of his visit to Alabama. "I was so young, and it was getting in my head. I just took my time and went through the process, and now I'm [at OSU]. I felt like it would be the best place for me to be successful and the place I'd be the happiest."
SEC champion Alabama (12-1) is a nine-point favorite, but if the fourth-seeded Buckeyes (12-1) have a clear advantage in one area, it's a defensive line that features two All-Americans in Bosa and senior tackle Michael Bennett alongside tackle Adolphus Washington, end Steve Miller and backup Rashad Frazier.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who previously won two national titles at Florida, said SEC superiority has been based on defensive line depth. Now he has that at OSU. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said stopping Bosa, who has 20 tackles for losses, including 131/2 sacks, is a priority.
"They do a really good job of moving him around," Kiffin said. "He's inside, he's right, he's left, he's off the ball, he's on the ball. What they do with him is kind of like what people do with skilled offensive guys."
Alabama right tackle Austin Shepherd likely will see more of the 6-5, 278-pound Bosa than anyone else will. "He's a long, rangy guy with a ton of power," Shepherd said. "He can get into your chest. He has pretty good speed off the ball. Just a great player. The two inside guys are big, strong dudes, too. The key to the game is controlling their D-line."
OSU's Bennett said Alabama's offensive line is the most physical unit the Buckeyes have seen. Stopping Crimson Tide running back T.J. Yeldon is important, and Alabama's reliance on quick passes to All-American wide receiver Amari Cooper and a variety of bubble screens will make it tough for the pass rush to reach quarterback Blake Sims.
"I'd be interested to see if they sit Sims back there and kind of say, 'Go get him.' Kind of test us with it," Bennett said.
Focusing on one man poses risks for Alabama, but there's no question Bosa is the Buckeyes' catalyst. "He's one of the only people I've ever seen who can be so even-keel and then go play and just dominate like it's nothing," Bennett said. "When Joey makes a play, he gets hyped up and the whole team gets hyped up."
Bosa praised Bennett for growing into more of a leader and said the chemistry they have developed as close friends off the field has carried over. "To have somebody that close to you on your D-line is awesome," Bosa said. "We go through practice together and kind of lean on each other and feed off each other."
When he arrived at Ohio State, Bosa understood the Buckeyes and the Big Ten weren't regarded as good enough to challenge Alabama and the SEC. He relishes the opportunity to alter that view.
"It does matter," Bosa said. "So many people talk about the Big Ten not being relevant. It would be nice to silence some haters."