With all due respect to Clemson – and to a slightly lesser extent Notre Dame – this is the National Championship game that everyone wants to see as the 2020 season finishes in 2021.
By State Wright
The Alabama Crimson Tide (12-0) has been imperious this season, swatting away every would-be challenger in the SEC before taking care of the fighting Irish in the CFP Semifinal. The only squad in the country that has looked like they could hang with the Tide is Ohio State (7-0), a team that has played only just over half as many games as Alabama, but has looked awesome for most of those contests.
While ‘Bama will rightly be favorites for this one, there are several reasons that Ohio State will win the National Title:
The Buckeyes will be close to full strength
We haven’t really seen what Ohio State can do this season. While every squad has been hit to some degree by Covid-19 and the protocols surrounding it, Ohio State seems to have suffered more than most. Add in issues with injuries and you have a team that played in the Big Ten Championship game with 22 players out for one reason or another and that played most of the back end of the season without big parts of its offensive line. As far as we know – and Covid means this could change in a heartbeat – the Buckeyes are healthy and the team is as close to full strength as they have been all season. That alone will make this game one to watch and create a scenario in which Ohio State can win.
The offense is hot
Ohio State beat up Clemson in a way few saw coming. Their offensive line – one of the best units in the country – is finally healthy and playing at the level most expected coming into the season. Trey Sermon – a player that the Buckeyes rely on to set the tempo of their offense – is rolling, having accounted for 636 yards on the ground over the last three games. That workhorse role makes him just as valuable to Ohio State as Najee Harris is for Alabama, even if the overall numbers aren’t nearly as dominant.
It is, however, the play of Justin Fields in the Clemson game that took the offense to another level. Fields is a player long tipped as a star and stars take over games. Against Clemson he was on another planet, shredding the Tigers defense for 385 yards and six touchdowns while hitting almost 80% of his passes in the process. He did this all while taking shots from what is still a very good Clemson pass rush and against Alabama he has to have his most momentous game yet. The “Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl” type of game that college football fans talk about for a generation. If he does – and he has all the talent in the world to do so – then Nick Saban’s defense will be in trouble.
The ‘Bama defense isn’t elite
The Alabama defense is good – parts of it are very good – but this isn’t an Alabama defense that Fields and Ohio State should particularly fear. The run defense is as good as they come, but Kyle Trask passed for 408 yards and three touchdowns in an SEC Championship Game that Florida almost took. The secondary for the Crimson Tide is loaded with future first day NFL draft picks, but for whatever reason the sum of the parts isn’t quite what it should be,
Trask is not the only quarterback to have been able to move the ball on ‘Bama either. Kellen Mond went for 335 yards for Texas A&M. Matt Corral hit a pair of touchdown passes and 379 yards for Ole Miss. These are not quarterbacks with the pro potential, the offensive line support, or the receiving talent that Fields will be throwing to on Monday. Taking advantage of matchups – especially on the edges – is where Fields is going to be able to win this game for Ohio State. It will take some explosive plays and it will take keeping up with Alabama in a shootout, but this is a Buckeyes’ team that appears ready for those challenges.
Ohio State will control tempo
The biggest challenge when facing this Alabama team is keeping the scoring down. With DeVonta Smith – and potentially a healthy Jaylen Waddle – on the flanks the Crimson Tide will score points and they will score them in a hurry. Ohio State has to take advantage of its plus level ground game and keep the clock on their side as much as possible. Ohio State went over 200 yards rushing in every game and then put an exclamation point on that by going for 254 against Clemson ever with Fields passing the Tigers out of the stadium. It was the ground game that allowed the pass to work so well and keeping Alabama on the back foot by staying ahead of the chains and creating manageable distances to convert on third down will be massive. Sermon – along with Master Teague III – will be the cog that drives this engine as the Buckeyes shock Alabama.