After everything college football has been through over the last 5 months, the sport is finally at the finish line. No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Ohio State, with a combined 26 5-star recruits and 110 4-star recruits, are playing for a national championship. You’d be hard pressed to find a juicier matchup.

I’ve written plenty about this matchup already, like about the fitting Big Ten vs. SEC showdown, Ohio State’s brief reprieve from being the villain, backup options behind Justin Fields, where Ohio State will have an advantage and Shaun Wade’s biggest challenge yet. Here are my final thoughts going into Monday, plus a prediction.

Justin Fields’ final college game

This will almost surely be Fields’ final college game, so let’s enjoy it. In Sports Reference’s database that goes back to 2000, there are 4 players with more than 60 career TD passes and fewer than 12 interceptions: Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (87 TDs, 11 INTs), LSU’s Joe Burrow (78, 11), Bowling Green’s Omar Jacobs (71, 11) and Fields (66, 9).

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On the one hand, it stinks that Fields has faced injury concerns going into his biggest games. Last year against Clemson, it was his knee. This year against Clemson, it was the thumb on his throwing hand. And on Monday against Alabama, it’s his thumb and his ribs. But on the other hand, it only adds to his legend. I’m sure Fields will be limited as a runner, but he’s primed for a big game. That’s what guys of his stature do.

Jaylen Waddle is trying to pull a Kyle Schwarber

The reports of Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle returning to practice were stunning. He suffered what was believed to be a season-ending ankle injury on Oct. 24 and has missed the last 8 games.

If Waddle actually does play, man, that’s not good for Ohio State (obviously). DeVonta Smith is tough enough to handle by himself, but with both of those guys against an Ohio State secondary that’s had its share of struggles, it could be big trouble. It’s fair to ask: If Waddle hadn’t gotten hurt, would he have been the guy in contention for the Heisman Trophy instead of Smith? Look at their stats through 4 games:

  • Waddle: 25 catches, 557 yards, 4 TDs
  • Smith: 38 catches, 483 yards, 4 TDs

When I heard Waddle may come back, I thought of former Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber, who was believed to have suffered a season-ending injury early in 2016, yet miraculously returned for the World Series — and delivered 7 hits in 17 at-bats.

Don’t underestimate the power of adrenaline and how that allows certain athletes to do things that just don’t make sense — even if the athlete should be rusty. That can certainly apply to Waddle. Even if he is just a decoy, he is going to command more attention than Slade Bolden.

Ohio State has churned out high-quality cornerbacks for years, with 6 first-rounders in the last 5 seasons. But the Buckeyes simply don’t have the horses this year to contend with that kind of firepower. It’s strange to say, but Ohio State’s secondary played pretty well against Clemson — and still gave up 400 passing yards.

The beleaguered unit turned to true freshman Lathan Ransom in the CFP semifinal. Ransom had played just 24 snaps all season, but he played 28 against Clemson, primarily as the nickel back. He did well in limiting Clemson’s top receiver, Amari Rodgers, to 58 receiving yards and no touchdowns. That’s an encouraging development, as Ohio State needs all the help it can get against this loaded Alabama offense — that may also include Waddle.

(Gulp.)

Shaun Wade’s comments on guarding DeVonta Smith

Speaking of Ohio State’s secondary, Shaun Wade’s comment from last week on DeVonta Smith was great.

“You already know who I want to go up against at the end of the day,” he told the media.

While many are expecting Wade to have a tough night against Smith — and I tend to agree — this is exactly the type of attitude I’d want my cornerback to have. Corners have to have short memories and look forward. When a corner loses confidence, it’s over.

Talking on Zoom and doing it on the field are completely different things, so we’ll see what actually happens on Monday night. Wade has a chance to redeem himself after a tough season, and he is taking the right attitude into this matchup — even if it looks like it could be a tough night.

Can Ohio State max out twice in a row?

There have been a ton of comparisons between this year’s Ohio State team and the 2014 squad that beat Alabama on the way to a national title. I understand why, and I agree. Both teams struggled some during the regular season, then found their rhythm.

But this year’s Ohio State team has a much taller task ahead of it. Winning against Clemson felt monumental, just as beating Alabama did in 2014. But with all due respect to 2014 Oregon, the championship game was a step down in comparison. This year’s championship game won’t be a step down — it’s a step way up.

If Ohio State is able to pull this off, it will be the most impressive title in the CFP era — and maybe ever, given the teams it will have beaten.

COVID

It’s the elephant in the room. Which Ohio State players have COVID? There were reports last week about Ohio State experiencing some COVID issues and that the Big Ten was potentially looking to postpone. Against Clemson, the Buckeyes were without defensive ends Zach Harrison and Tyler Friday, running back Master Teague and left guard Harry Miller.

The game is on as scheduled, so I’m assuming the outbreak wasn’t too bad (like when Ohio State was missing 3 starters on the offensive line against Michigan State).

Hey, I’d love to push the game back a week and let Fields get closer to full strength, let Waddle get to full strength and make sure there are no COVID-related absences. But the show must go on.

Let’s hope this is the last time we talk about COVID affecting a game, but it’s absolutely going to be a factor.

Thank you, Kristen Saban

The daughter of the Alabama head coach had an interesting take on the reports of a potential delay to the title game. She tweeted, “If you’re not confident to play then SAY IT. I call BS on the COVID cases,” she tweeted. “They’re just worried about their QB and want him to have more time to heal. If he’s hurt put in your backup. You didn’t see us postpone the rest of the season to wait for Waddle.”

She deleted it, of course, but the damage was done. Ohio State loves being doubted. It’s practically part of their identity at this point. Dabo Swinney and Clemson learned that the hard way. Nick Saban, though, isn’t one for bulletin board material, so the Buckeyes were fortunate to get an assist from his daughter. You can bet they will use it for a little extra motivation.

The Garrett Wilson game?

This feels like it’s destined to be a Garrett Wilson game. For one, he’s due. He had 4 straight 100-yard receiving games to open the season, and he has not topped 59 yards or 4 catches in a game since. In addition, Alabama shutdown corner Patrick Surtain is likely to be on Chris Olave whenever possible.

Wilson had that 66-yard run against Penn State on a jet sweep in the second game of the season, and he only has 1 rushing attempt since. Has Ohio State been saving it for a key moment? Who knows if Teague will be available and how much Fields will be able to run with his ribs. The Buckeyes have to have some sort of secondary rushing threat after Trey Sermon, don’t they?

Prediction

I picked Ohio State to win it all in the preseason, and I picked Ohio State against Clemson. But I’m not picking Ohio State against this Alabama team.

While I could certainly see a world in which Fields plays Superman once again and punctuates his outstanding career with a national title, there is just too much uncertainty regarding Ohio State’s COVID absences, Fields’ health and Alabama potentially getting one of its best players back.

Alabama 38, Ohio State 35

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