A few things to watch for in Alabama's playoff semifinal game against Ohio State Thursday:
1) Crimson Cover sources indicate Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson's physical condition in vastly improved from the end of the regular season, when he was nursing injuries. That could be the single most important factor of the bowl-prep period for the UA offense, given that Robinson will be assigned to block Buckeyes super-soph Joey Bosa for most of the game. Bosa has the talent to make life miserable for not only T.J. Yeldon in the running game, but Blake Sims, as well. A healthy Robinson (pictured) gives Alabama its best chance to slow Bosa down and stem his presence in the UA backfield. Also, Bosa moves around quite a bit, so right tackle Austin Shepherd should get his chances against him as well.
2) While Robinson and Bosa represent one key matchup, another won't be far away -- Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett is the Buckeyes' top draft-eligible pro prospect. He could give Alabama guards Arie Kouandjio and Leon Brown all kinds of problems, particularly Brown, who has been the less consistent of the two this season. Center Ryan Kelly's experience with line calls and recognition of Bennett's presence will be a key factor there as well.
3) Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper faces a cornerback in Doran Grant who has been timed at sub-4.4 in the 40-yard dash. But he doesn't have Cooper's ability to play the 50-50 ball downfield, so Lane Kiffin could take advantage of that matchup by giving Cooper some jump-ball chances.
4) Defensively, the Alabama game plan will be relatively simple: shut down RB Ezekiel Elliott, who ran for over 200 yards against Wisconsin three weeks ago, and put the pressure of the outcome squarely on the shoulders of inexperienced quarterback Cardale Jones. Jones played well against the Badgers in his only start of the season, but was never under much pressure to make key plays in a 59-0 Ohio State win. Thursday night, he'll learn what pressure feels like.
5) A major concern for the Alabama defense is WR Devin Smith, who averages an incredible 26.6 yards per catch for the Buckeyes. Alabama's cornerbacks have struggled mightily defending the deep pass over the last two games, and Smith has more than enough speed to get behind the secondary. Alabama safety Landon Collins will have to be in the right position all night in order to provide some help against OSU's deep threat.
6) Crimson Cover is told the UA staff has been very pleased with what Jalston Fowler has shown with more extensive playing time in the latter part of the season, and nothing about that will change Thursday night. Fowler's blocking has given the Alabama rushing attack more of an edge when he has been in the game, and because Fowler is a trusted receiver, he doesn't always have to be subbed out of the game on third downs.
7) Finally on a draft note -- Crimson Cover has learned running back Kenyan Drake is fully committed to return next season rather than enter the NFL draft. Given the serious injury Drake had against Ole Miss, it wouldn't have been surprising to see Drake go ahead and take his shot at the pros, a la Vinnie Sunseri. Instead, he'll be back as a fourth-year junior in 2015 to try and show NFL scouts that his leg is fully recovered.
Photo credit: al.com