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Ohio St., Alabama Bring in Mixed Feelings : Citrus Bowl: Defenses should be key as Crimson Tide still aches from lone loss while Buckeyes happy after saving Cooper.

TIMES DEPUTY SPORTS EDITOR

All things being equal, neither Alabama nor Ohio State wanted to be here today. But, all things based in reality, the Buckeyes are pretty happy about it.

Today’s 49th Florida Citrus Bowl is the consolation trip for the teams that weren’t good enough to play in the Rose or Sugar bowls. Here, in the last season of the current bowl coalition, it matches the second-place teams from the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences.

Sixth-ranked Alabama (11-1) was spoiling an already muddled national title picture by being both undefeated and unimpressive going into the SEC championship game. Florida took care of that with a 24-23 victory.

No. 13 Ohio State (9-3) shook off an embarrassing 63-14 loss to Penn State and beat Michigan, 22-6, in the last game of the season to save Coach John Cooper’s job.

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Alabama is favored but on emotion and expectations, Ohio State stands a good chance at an upset.

Cooper’s victory over Michigan, his first, and a job feeler from Louisiana State convinced the school to give Cooper a five-year contract that is incentive-filled and with extensions could keep him in Columbus until 2002.

“It has given me peace of mind,” Cooper said of his contract. “It’s a good feeling to know I will finish my coaching career at Ohio State.”

But there is still pressure.

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“In coaching, and I don’t care where, in my case Tulsa, Arizona State and Ohio State, I don’t think there is anywhere where they don’t expect you to win games,” Cooper said. “At our place, we have the largest school in the country and certainly the most alums. We have a large following and the expectation level might be higher. As a coach I try not to worry about it. I just want my football team to do the very best it can and I don’t worry about what the fans say.”

One thing that fans at both schools were talking about this season is the quality of the defenses. Ohio State’s ranked 15th in the nation, giving up an average of 300.3 total yards, and Alabama’s was 16th, giving up an average of 302. With effective but unexciting offenses, the ability of the defenses to adjust should be the key to the game.

“Ohio State plays defense not unlike Alabama’s up to a point,” said Homer Smith, late of UCLA and currently offensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide. “Then, all hell will break loose. They look very organized and exude good coaching.”

Joe Hollis, the Buckeye offensive coordinator who is an Auburn grad, sees it this way: “They always seem to have a different defensive package, one you haven’t seen before. They play a lot of people and keep them fresh.”

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Cooper backs him up.

“I don’t think we’ve played a team that gives you the variety and multitude of defenses that Alabama does,” Cooper said. “I was glad to see (quarterback) Bobby (Hoying) complete a couple of passes at (a midweek) luncheon, so maybe Alabama won’t play us in a nine-man front. If we can complete some passes, maybe they won’t have so many men on the line of scrimmage.”

The marquee matchup, albeit without the usual sparkle, is Hoying and Alabama’s Jay Barker.

Hoying had a decent season, passing for 2,155 yards and 17 touchdowns. He became only the fourth quarterback at Ohio State to pass for more than 2,000 yards. Hoying is 19-4-1 as a starter.

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Barker, who finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting, has a 44-2-1 record as a starter and set most of the Alabama passing records. However, it is somewhat deceiving because he was a four-year starter and past quarterbacks such as Joe Namath, Ken Stabler and Bart Starr started only two or three years.

Barker passed for 1,996 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.

“I think we’re ready to play,” Cooper said. “We’re going as to form.”

Cooper is making his second trip to the Citrus Bowl after losing two years ago to Georgia, 21-14. But he seems to be taking the busy non-football part of this trip in stride.

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“I’d rather have the distraction of the attractions than to hear the players complain about not having anything to do. Now it’s time for the main attraction--the football game.”

CITRUS BOWL

TODAY’S GAME

* Teams: Alabama vs. Ohio State.

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* Site: Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.

* Time: 10 a.m. PST

* Records: Alabama 11-1, Ohio St. 9-3.

* TV: Ch. 7.

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* Radio: None.


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