Why will the Alabama Crimson Tide beat the Ohio State Buckeyes on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game?
By Matt Zemek
Let’s not overcomplicate this.
Alabama has the best player on the field, Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. It’s true that Smith is a speed merchant and a lethal force in the open field. It’s true that Smith is hard to contain on slant routes, and that he draws a lot of attention from opposing defenses. Yet, Smith’s value goes beyond his route running and his pass catching. Smith blocks downfield for teammates. Smith gets players in the right position and is a leader and communicator on offense. Smith sets an example which keeps other Alabama players from getting complacent or distracted. He’s the perfect teammate and a presence who won’t let Alabama lose. Start there.
Alabama has Mac Jones, who might not be the best quarterback in the country, but has not made big mistakes at any point this season. Jones consistently gets the ball where it is supposed to go and doesn’t try to be the hero. Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes are incredible improvisational artists, and to be sure, their sixth sense of how to make a creative play in a bad situation has helped the Bills and Chiefs rise to the top of the AFC. Yet, most quarterbacks aren’t Allen or Mahomes, and they shouldn’t try to be. Mac Jones is exactly the kind of quarterback who knows his limitations and doesn’t think he has to be Superman. Nope. Just make the right read and get the ball out to a pass catcher. Check down to Najee Harris in the flat if needed, take the five yards, and go on to the next play. Mac Jones has the right mentality as the field general for the Alabama offense.
Najee Harris is another reason Alabama will win on Monday. He gives Alabama the balance which makes it hard to fully key in on DeVonta Smith and the passing game. Harris is a tough runner and a strong human being, but he can hurdle opponents in the open field, as he showed in spectacular fashion against Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Harris, much like Smith, can affect a game in many different ways. Alabama has complete and well-developed skill players who can perform multiple responsibilities and adapt to various situations. This versatility is a central reason the Crimson Tide’s offense should thrive against Ohio State.
Yet, as great as Alabama’s skill players are, they wouldn’t be able to run wild to the extent they do without an elite offensive line, and this is where Bama plants its flag against anyone else in the country.
You saw Ohio State’s defensive line play with anger in the College Football Playoff semifinals against Clemson. The Buckeyes’ defensive line outplayed Clemson’s offensive line over the final three quarters. Clemson’s offense got off to a great start but then steadily lost ground the rest of the way. This is truly the centerpiece of Monday’s game: Ohio State’s defensive line has to move Mac Jones off his spot and get Alabama’s quarterback out of rhythm. If the Buckeyes can’t disrupt the timing and flow of the Alabama passing game, they have only one way to win: outscoring Bama, which is a very unlikely prospect.
Alabama has lost center Landon Dickerson, and in the semis against Notre Dame, there was a legitimate worry that the absence of Dickerson would matter against a strong and tough Irish front four. Yet, Chris Owens filled in for Dickerson and Bama’s offense didn’t suffer at all. Mac Jones wasn’t touched against Notre Dame. He didn’t take any particularly hard hits. He had a comfortable and clean pocket the whole game. What is also noteworthy about that Bama semifinal is that the Crimson Tide and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian (who will depart for Texas after this game) very obviously preserved the playbook in the second half. Alabama ran vanilla running plays for much of the third and fourth quarters, thinking it didn’t need to score a lot of points to win on a day when the Bama defense had the Irish offense under wraps. The playbook is open and deep for Ohio State. Alabama should be able to save its best for last.
All of what we have discussed thus far has been Alabama-centric, but there are some Ohio State-related reasons to pick the Crimson Tide. The first and most obvious reason is the rib hit Justin Fields endured versus Clemson. Coming back from that rib hit will be hard for Fields, who has been sore all week and will have a hard time throwing the ball down the field with velocity. Ohio State clearly needs Fields at his very, very best against Alabama, and that’s highly unlikely to be the case, given Fields’ physical condition.
The other really big detail about Ohio State which points to a Bama win is that the Buckeyes’ secondary has been spotty in downfield pass coverage all season long. Ohio State had a hard time keeping up with Northwestern’s receivers for two and a half quarters in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Buckeyes were okay against Clemson, but that was mostly because Ohio State scored a ton of points and put Clemson in obvious passing situations. Alabama and Sarkisian should be able to keep Ohio State’s secondary off balance and hit several home-run plays to set the tone for a 52-35 victory which will give Nick Saban yet another national championship.