Breaking down Alabama vs. Ohio State in Monday night’s National Championship Game from Miami.

Well, we made it.

Monday night marks the official end of the longest, strangest, most disheveled college football season in ages, one that almost didn’t happen at all and occasionally – amid the postponements and cancellations, the opt-outs and badly depleted rosters, the mostly empty stadiums – felt like maybe it shouldn’t. Navigating the pandemic meant throwing schedules into disarray on a weekly basis, sacrificing many of the sport’s defining rivalries, nixing half the bowl schedule, even relocating the Rose Bowl to a location that (whatever the logo on the field said) was decidedly not the Rose Bowl. When the season kicked off in September, only four months ago, there was no guarantee exactly when it would end, or how.

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But here we are: On the cusp of a highly anticipated finale that will drop the curtain on the 2020 campaign by crowning a worthy and legitimate champion, right on schedule. And after so many months of unprecedented chaos and uncertainty, who is left standing? Alabama, of course. As if there was ever any doubt.

If anything, the trials of the Plague Year played directly into two of Bama’s most enduring strengths: Depth on the field and organization off it. Although Nick Saban himself was sidelined by a positive COVID-19 test ahead of the Iron Bowl, none of his key players were at any point – the Crimson Tide lost exactly one start to the virus, an achievement in its own right. They were one of the few programs in America that never arrived at a moment where they were merely trying to survive. And from very early on, while virtually everything else was in a weekly state of flux, there was never a moment that their eventual arrival at this stage seemed like anything less than a foregone conclusion.

That air of inevitability doesn’t quite extend to beating a very good edition of Ohio State, which transcended its COVID-ravaged résumé in a 49-28 semifinal romp over Clemson. The Buckeyes belong on this stage, too. With a win, though, the 2020 Tide will certainly stake their claim among the best Alabama teams of the Saban era, if not at the top of the list. At 13-0, they would join the 2009 champs as the only Saban outfits to run the table, with the key distinction that the current team will have done it against an all-Power 5 schedule. The vaunted 2011, ’12, and ’15 champs all suffered a loss en route to the title and came nowhere near the current team’s explosiveness on offense. The 2016 and ’18 teams, which both started 14-0 behind prolific, paradigm-shifting offenses, both came up short in the championship game as big favorites.

In some ways, the Saban era might be too narrow a scope. No team in Alabama history, and few anywhere else, has boasted a Big Three as decorated as Mac Jones, Najee Harris and the newly minted Heisman winner, DeVonta Smith, veteran cornerstones of an attack that’s on pace (pending its output vs. OSU) to set school records for yards and points per game despite losing 4 first-round draft picks from 2019. The Tide have dispatched opponents this season by an FBS-best 29.2 points per game, won 11 of 12 by double digits and haven’t trailed in the fourth quarter. In any era, and any context, that’s a season for the books.

In the context of a season that could have gone wrong in a dozen different ways that none of those past teams even had to contemplate, it’s also a logistical feat. As much as anything else he’s accomplished, keeping this team intact and operating at a high level week-in and week-out is one of the crown jewels of Saban’s tenure. The only piece missing from its place in history is the last one.

When Ohio State has the ball

In another time, Justin Fields’ performance in the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson would have been the stuff of legends. The purplest Grantland Rice-era newspaper hack couldn’t have dreamed up a better scene: 427 total yards, 6 touchdowns, a 257.6 passer rating, on the same stage where Fields’ 2019 season came to an abrupt, deflating end, against the same opponent, all while suffering through visibly excruciating pain for most of the night.

While his ribs throbbed, Fields’ 5-star arm operated at maximum capacity, driving the ball into tight windows and lofting it effortlessly over the top of an outgunned Clemson secondary. He led 6 touchdown drives on Ohio State’s first 8 possessions and generally treated the vaunted Tigers defense like a video game D set on easy – the Buckeyes racked upore yards (639) and points (49) than any opposing offense vs. Clemson in the last 7 years, including LSU in last year’s national title game. If it had been his last game, Fields would have ascended directly into college football heaven to sit at the right hand of Vince Young.

Since he has one more to go, though, the myth remains TBD pending reality, where there are still a few questions. There’s never been any doubt about Fields’ talent, of course – he’s easily in the Newton/Watson/Lawrence class of the most physically gifted quarterbacks Alabama has faced in the Saban era – or, until very recently, his consistency. In 21 career starts he’s accounted for at least 3 touchdowns in 18 of them and an 80+ QBR rating in all but two. He’s ranked among the nation’s most efficient passers each of the past 2 seasons and among the highest-graded according to Pro Football Focus.

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Like a lot of great players, though, Fields can be a bit streaky and, lately, prone to putting the ball at risk. He’s thrown 6 interceptions in the last 4 games – twice as many as he threw in the previous 17 – with 5 of those coming in a couple of unusually erratic outings vs. Indiana in late November and Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game. Even excluding the picks against the Wildcats (one of which was an incredible play by the Northwestern defender, the other an apparent miscommunication with the intended receiver), Fields finished 12-for-25 for 114 yards in Indy with 3 sacks and zero TDs, the worst stat line of his career, by far. Six weeks ago he was considered the obvious 1b. in a stacked 2021 draft class behind Trevor Lawrence; more recently that status has been up for debate, with some draftniks projecting a significant decline in Fields’ stock even after his dominant turn in the semifinal.

The more urgent question for Monday night concerns his health. Although Fields was nearly flawless against Clemson after taking a direct rib shot midway through the second quarter, he was also full of adrenaline and lord knows what else. And while his availability isn’t in doubt, his effectiveness after 10 very sore days on the shelf may be. Ohio State hasn’t specified the exact nature of the injury or anything else about it except that Fields is expected to play. If nothing else, his impact as a runner, especially on designed runs, is likely to be somewhat limited.

With or without Fields, OSU’s ground game poses the biggest challenge Alabama’s front seven has faced this season. The Buckeyes are more physical between the tackles than Ole Miss, which gashed Bama for 281 yards (excluding sacks) on 5.1 per carry back in October, and more comfortable playing with tempo than Georgia, which pounded out 159 yards on 5.7 per carry the following week before being forced to abandon the run in the second half. Four of the five projected o-line starters on Monday night are former top-60 prospects in their respective recruiting classes; the group as a whole has combined for 80 career starts. And in late-blooming senior running back Trey Sermon, they’ve found their workhorse.

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Fields’ volatility notwithstanding, Sermon’s emergence over the past month is the biggest on-field story of Ohio State’s season. A grad transfer from Oklahoma, he spent the October-November stretch of the schedule in a timeshare situation with superbly-named sophomore Master Teague III, the nominal starter in an attack that revolved around Fields’ arm; through 4 games, Sermon had accounted for 267 scrimmage yards and hadn’t scored. Since the calendar turned to December, though, he’s seized the feature role, racking up 696 yards and 4 TDs in the last 3 games while looking like the second coming of Ezekiel Elliott.

On some level, Sermon’s surge is evocative of Elliott’s MVP run in the 2014 postseason, a stretch that transformed Zeke from the reliable plodder he’d been in the regular season into a rising star. (A moment Alabama fans will remember all too well.) That year, Elliott was the missing piece that clicked into place for a young, relatively unsung team that peaked at exactly the right time en route to the national crown. Sermon, like Elliott, is a big, sturdy back who combines every-down size at 6-1/215 with legitimate juice at the second level and a mean streak on the finishing end. He may not be on his way to becoming a household name at the next level, but the way it’s going he might well turn out to be the piece that puts the Buckeyes over the top.

The ground game will command the Tide’s full attention up front, putting even more pressure on a secondary that has its hands full enough opposite OSU’s explosive downfield passing game. Bama’s starting corners, Patrick Surtain II and Josh Jobe, are as good a pair as any in college football – per PFF, they’ve allowed just 442 yards and 2 TDs this season on 96 combined targets (4.6 yards/target). But the same could be said for Ohio State’s primary wideouts: Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave are aspiring first-rounders with 29 touchdowns and 44 plays of 20+ yards between them the past 2 years. Along with sophomore Jameson Williams, Fields’ top three targets roasted Clemson’s highly touted corners for 246 yards on 22.4 per catch.

As if that wasn’t enough to worry about, the Sugar Bowl was also a coming-out party for junior TE Jeremy Ruckert, another former blue-chipper whose 3 receptions vs. the Tigers yielded 2 red-zone touchdowns and a 26-yard gain on 3rd-and-10. In the 4 years that Ryan Day has overseen the offense, the tight ends have largely been an afterthought in the passing game – OSU hasn’t had a tight end drafted since 2016 – but Ruckert is a next-level athlete who poses the same potential matchup issues for Alabama as Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer in the Rose Bowl. If Bama is vulnerable anywhere, it’s covering the short passing game between the hashes, where PFF grades inside linebackers Dylan Moses (61.3) and Christian Harris (54.3) and strong safety Daniel Wright (52.2) as the Tide’s weakest defenders in coverage by a wide margin.

Key matchup: OSU OTs Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere vs. Alabama OLBs Chris Allen and Will Anderson Jr.

Munford and Petit-Frere have lived up to their billing as one of the premiere tackle combos in the country, earning first- and second-team All-Big Ten nods from opposing coaches as well as stellar grades from PFF, which rated them as the league’s two best individual pass blockers. They’ve yet to allow a sack or QB hit this season and have given up just 3 total pressures. (By contrast, the interior line has been a weak link per PFF, most notably sophomore guard Harry Miller, who posted an alarming 51.5 grade in the regular season and sat out the Sugar Bowl due COVID-19 issues. See also: Decorated right guard Wyatt Davis, a 2-time consensus All-American who has allowed a team-high 11 pressures this season and seen his overall grade plummet compared to 2019, if not his reputation.)

As elsewhere, though, elite credentials in this game just means it’s good on good. The Buckeyes have yet to face a pair of bookends on the order of Allen, a redshirt junior in his first year as a starter, and Anderson, a 5-star freshman who has wasted no time exceeding the hype in Year 1. Between the ‘backers and disruptive DL Christian Barmore, the Tide’s top pass rushers have combined for 21 sacks and 124 total pressures, with Anderson alone accounting for 56 of those — second-most among all FBS players.

It’s much too soon to anoint Anderson with a place in Bama history based on a single season in which he wasn’t even anointed as All-SEC. (Although he arguably should have been.) Still, with his rare combination of potential and production right out of the gate he has the opportunity to establish himself as the best pure edge rusher of the Saban era in short order. If he and his running mates manage to turn the heat up on Fields, it will severely limit his ability to challenge the Tide downfield and set the stage for a huge sophomore year.

When Alabama has the ball

In late October, the day after Jaylen Waddle was (apparently) ruled out for the season with a broken ankle, I wrote that even on an offense as stacked as Alabama’s a playmaker of Waddle’s caliber could not be replaced. That headline would prove to be dead wrong: In 8 games without their most explosive player, the Tide didn’t miss a beat, averaging 48 points and well north of 500 yards without sacrificing anything in the way of efficiency or explosiveness. Mac Jones kept throwing deep, DeVonta Smith absorbed most of Waddle’s downfield production by himself, Najee Harris’ production ticked up, and unsung sophomores Slade Bolden and Jahleel Billingsley emerged as steady assets. The post-Waddle product has been virtually indistinguishable from the original.

So while the prospect of Waddle’s imminent return to the lineup on Monday night has loomed large in the build-up to the game, it’s a testament to just how dominant Alabama has been in his absence that his presence feels more like a luxury at this point than a priority. Anyway, as it stands there are still more questions about Waddle’s status than answers. How much was he able to take on in practice last week after more than two months on ice? How close is he to full speed? How close is close enough to give him the green light? To what extent does he factor into the game plan if his availability remains in doubt? If he can go, will he be on a limited snap count? And the big one: Will he be back to his old, electric self?

Just as a concept, putting a functionally healthy Waddle on the field at the same time as Smith, Harris and John Metchie III is an obvious problem for any defense, even before accounting for scheme or personnel. And for all Ohio State’s talent on that side of the ball, Bama figures to stress the Buckeyes on both fronts.

Scheme-wise, OSU is reluctant to depart from its standard 4-3 alignment, rolling with base personnel on more than 70% of its non-goal line snaps this season under first-year coordinator Kerry Coombs. Against 11 personnel — 1 back, 1 tight end, 3 receivers — the primary look is consistent: A single-high safety (either Marcus Hooker or Josh Proctor) posted deep, the second safety (Marcus Williamson) aligned in what amounts to a slot corner role, and the Sam linebacker (Baron Browning) aligned over the tight end. It’s a run-oriented, gap-sound approach that prioritizes numbers in the box, frequently leaves its corners on an island, and trusts its athletes on the back end to hold their own in man coverage against opposing wideouts.

A whole lot is riding on the last part of that equation, and after excelling in 2019, the rebuilt secondary has been an issue: The Buckeyes have plummeted from No. 1 nationally in pass efficiency defense to 57th while allowing nearly 2 full yards more per attempt. The best offenses they’ve faced, Indiana and Clemson, burned them for a combined 891 passing yards, 7 touchdowns and 10 receptions that gained 25+ — most of those coming at the expense of the starting corners, Shaun Wade and Sevyn Banks on the outside and Williamson in the slot.

Wade, in particular, has been a disappointment in his transition from the nickel role, allowing an ugly 9.5 yards per target and 6 touchdowns on the season per PFF. Against Indiana (101 yards, 1 TD allowed on 11.2 per target) and Clemson (143 yards, 2 TDs on 11.9 per target), those numbers look even worse. While Wade is still considered a strong candidate to add his name to a long list of first-round corners out of Ohio State based on his physical tools, lined up across from Smith, Metchie or Waddle, he figures to be a prime target unless Coombs gets creative.

The extent to which that will be necessary depends on the front four, which poses a much bigger problem for Bama. Inside, veterans Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai have emerged as an elite tackle duo in their first season as starters, with both grading out among the top 10 interior defenders in the country according to PFF; their massive presence is a major reason OSU ranks No. 2 nationally against the run after holding Clemson to just 44 yards on 2.0 per carry. Outside, the blue-chip rotation of Zach Harrison, Jonathon Cooper and Tyreke Smith ranks right up there, too, collectively averaging 9 pressures per game with all three turning in PFF grades of 85.0 or better as pass rushers.

Against Clemson, the starting group of Smith, Cooper, Garrett and Togiai combined with LB Pete Werner for 17 pressures and 3 forced fumbles, overwhelming the Tigers’ o-line in the second half and generally making Trevor Lawrence’s life miserable once the running game was off the table. Mac Jones has rarely found himself in the crosshairs on obvious passing downs, logging just 36 attempts on 3rd-and-7 or longer and 33 when trailing. Ohio State would badly like to break that trend.

Key matchup: Alabama C Chris Owens vs. OSU DTs Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai

Bama has to feel good about its bookend tackles, Alex Leatherwood and Evan Neal, both future pros who are as well-equipped to keep the OSU rush at bay as any opponent the Buckeyes have faced. The middle of the line is less certain. Owens was the weak link in the Tide’s Rose Bowl win over Notre Dame, allowing 2 QB hurries in pass protection and posting a 45.9 PFF grade in his first start of the season in place of the injured Landon Dickerson. The drop-off from Dickerson, a consensus All-American who won the Rimington Award as the nation’s best center, was stark.

Owens, a fifth-year senior with 6 career starts all told, has had better days, including in the Tide’s late-season win at Arkansas, where he filled in capably for Neal (the only Alabama starter to miss a game due to contact tracing) at right tackle. But if there’s any area that clearly favors the Buckeyes on paper, it’s the middle of the line, and if there’s any hope of keeping the Bama juggernaut in check neutralizing Najee Harris between the tackles is the most likely place to start.

Special teams, injuries and other vagaries

Waddle’s presence in the return game is a terrifying prospect for Ohio State. Even coming off an injury, his reputation vastly exceeds any lingering doubts about his ankle: He has 3 career touchdowns on kickoff/punt returns and earned some scattered All-America notices in 2019 after leading the nation in punt return average. Meanwhile, although OSU punter Drue Chrisman excels at keeping the ball out of harm’s way — only 3 of his 22 attempts this season have actually been returned — the Buckeyes’ coverage unit has been burned, allowing its first punt return for touchdown since 2013 on a trick play by Rutgers.

Ohio State’s own efforts in the return game have been limited to just 9 attempts on punts and 7 on kickoffs, and Alabama hasn’t allowed a return TD in either phase since 2015. Still, on the off chance the Tide are caught napping in coverage, Garrett Wilson and Demario McCall are certainly the kind of athletes who can make them regret it.

On the place-kicking front, Tide fans are split between a) griping about sophomore Will Reichard getting snubbed on the postseason awards circuit despite a perfect record this season on both field goals (13-for-13) and PATs (77-for-77); and b) praying that his success is not merely the prelude to another soul-crushing iteration of the Alabama kicking jinx.

Reichard hasn’t missed, but he has just 1 attempt beyond 45 yards (a 52-yarder vs. Georgia) and none in what could be considered a high-pressure situation. His Ohio State counterpart, junior Blake Haubeil, also has never attempted a field goal of the second half of a game with the Buckeyes tied or trailing, much less with the game on the line. He’s just 5-for-7 on field goals this season with a long of 43, but does have a 55-yarder to his name in 2019.

Injury-wise, OSU has more question marks but none nearly as consequential as Alabama’s. Besides Waddle, the Tide are also waiting on the status of two would-be starters on defense: Senior DE LaBryan Ray, who has been in and out of the lineup (mostly out) since September with a lingering elbow injury, and freshman DB Malachi Moore, who was a surprise scratch for the Rose Bowl due to an unspecified injury and remains “questionable” according to Saban. Moore has been a revelation for Bama in the “Star” role, logging more than 700 snaps through the first 11 games and recording a team-high 3 interceptions. Plan B in the nickel spot is another freshman, Brian Branch, who has 2 starts this season, a pair of INTs of his own, and a solid track record as an open-field tackler; on the other hand, he’s also given up 8 catches for 132 yards and a touchdown on 11 targets in the last 2 games. If Moore can’t go, don’t be surprised if Justin Fields is looking Branch’s way early and often.

Bottom line

If Nick Saban isn’t the GOAT of college football coaches already, a win tonight will be another milestone on the path to the title. A 6th national championship at Alabama would match Bear Bryant’s record for championships at the same school, a mark it took the Bear 19 years to reach. (Bryant’s total also includes a couple of highly dubious crowns in 1964 and ’73, in the days when national championship claims were staked and largely settled prior to the bowl games.) Saban can earn his 6th in just 12 years, none of them disputed. Add his 2003 championship at LSU, and No. 7 overall will elevate him into sole possession of first place on the all-time list.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to see that Ohio State coach Ryan Day‘s time is coming. Day, 41, was Urban Meyer’s hand-picked successor in Columbus despite a relatively thin résumé for such a high-stakes position. Two years in, he’s more than justified the promotion with 20 wins in his first 21 games at the helm, 18 of them by double digits. The Buckeyes avenged his only loss in the Sugar Bowl beatdown of Clemson, and after years of top-shelf recruiting classes, the roster is built to win now. Even at Ohio State, Heisman-caliber quarterbacks like Justin Fields don’t just emerge fully formed from the transfer portal on cue. But clearly, the championship window is not closing anytime soon.

Now down to business. If the Buckeyes’ time is now, it will be due to the pass rush: Sooner or later, the ferocious d-line must disrupt Mac Jones’ rhythm in the pocket to have any realistic chance of covering for an outgunned secondary. Bring the heat, and the offense has enough firepower to set the pace in a mid-range shootout. Leave Jones with the space he has enjoyed all season, and you may as well have the fire extinguishers ready.

To some extent, Alabama’s willingness and capacity to establish the run will dictate how effectively Ohio State’s pass rush is able to tee off. Clemson failed in that respect; its o-line was overrun and Trevor Lawrence was pounded. In the end, though, the Tide got to this point on the strength of the connection between Jones and DeVonta Smith, the most consistently unstoppable force in college football this season, and that connection has only gotten stronger as the weeks have gone by. Theoretically, selling out to keep Smith under wraps is supposed to be an invitation for Bama to exploit its many other weapons. In reality, the next team that actually pulls off step one of that plan will be the first.
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Alabama 38, Ohio State 34

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