As Justin Fields lay on the turf at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome after a big hit to his rib area from Clemson’s James Skalski, Ohio State fans collectively held their breath. So much had gone right to that point, and the Buckeyes appeared to have a real chance at winning. But if Fields couldn’t play, could they possibly maintain their lead?

We never got the answer. C.J. Stroud came in, but Fields somehow returned one play later and threw a touchdown pass — just one of the many memorable moments of the Buckeyes’ 49-28 victory that propelled them into Monday’s national title game against Alabama.

To the surprise of no one, Fields fully expects to play. But now that he’s obviously less than 100 percent — he was also playing through a thumb injury on his throwing hand — what happens if he takes another big hit? What happens if he can’t finish the game?

Since Gunnar Hoak hasn’t played a single snap this season, the Buckeyes have 2 options, and both are true freshmen: Stroud and Jack Miller.

Ohio State at a disadvantage in terms of backup QB

In yet another example of how this wacky season has negatively impacted college teams, there hasn’t been much of an opportunity to get the backup QB much work. Thanks to the conference-only season and Ohio State only getting to play 5 games before the B1G championship, this season has been a sprint. The Buckeyes needed to use every game as a chance to impress the Selection Committee, which meant Justin Fields putting the pedal to the medal.

As a result, neither Stroud nor Miller has gotten a real look during game action like they would have if Ohio State had played a few non-conference games. Stroud has played 8 snaps this season, while Miller has played 10. Fields has played a whopping 96.6 percent of the snaps. Alabama, in comparison, gave 109 snaps to true freshman Bryce Young, while Mac Jones played 87.1 percent of the snaps. Alabama’s more expansive schedule allowed for more opportunities to get Young some experience. Once again, thank the Big Ten for that doozy of a schedule.

Young has thrown 22 passes and has 9 rushing attempts. Neither Miller nor Stroud has even thrown a pass this season, and they’ve combined for just 3 rushing attempts — 2 of which went for touchdowns.

Think back to when Fields was a freshman at Georgia, when he threw 39 passes and ran 42 times. Think back to when Tua Tagovailoa was a freshman at Alabama, when he threw 53 passes throughout the season BEFORE he came in for Jalen Hurts during the second half of the national title game. Certainly that experience helped him lead that incredible comeback against Georgia.

Stroud and Miller, through no fault of their own, will not be well prepared if either has to come in for Fields. Tagovailoa threw his first career pass against Fresno State. Fields threw his first career pass against Austin Peay. Stroud or Miller could throw their first career pass against Alabama.

Stroud’s rapid rise as a recruit

The front-runner to start in 2021 for Ohio State, Stroud is the one who would probably come in if needed in the national title game. After all, it was Stroud who unexpectedly went in for a single play in the second quarter against Clemson after Fields got hit.

As 2019 progressed, Stroud went from getting offers from Pac 12 programs such as Cal, Utah and Oregon State (and even smaller programs like Yale, Colorado State and New Mexico) to being recruited by some of the big boys — Ohio State, Georgia, Michigan and Oregon. As a 3-star recruit and the No. 25 pro-style QB, he earned MVP honors at the prestigious Elite 11 finals. That vaulted him all the way up to a high 4-star, the No. 2 pro-style QB and the No. 42 national recruit.

No one expected Stroud to deliver that type of performance then, and no one would expect it in the national championship game either. So perhaps that MVP showing is reason to believe that Stroud relishes the big stage and competing against the best players — attributes that would serve him well if he is needed to come in and perform.

Don’t forget about Miller

While Stroud didn’t commit to Ohio State until December 2019, Miller pledged to the Buckeyes in July 2018. Even as Ryan Day recruited another QB in his class, Miller didn’t waver. For one, he understood that the Buckeyes needed a fourth scholarship QB for this season. He also welcomed the chance to compete with Stroud.

After emerging as a hotshot prospect when he threw 53 TD passes as a freshman in high school, it’s been a bit of a bumpy ride. Miller dealt with a torn MCL as a junior, a separated shoulder as a senior and a back injury at Elite 11. Since he played in only 15 games over his final 2 high school seasons, his recruiting rating plummeted, though he is still a 4-star.

The toughest part for both of these guys is that they wouldn’t just come in and be game managers. The Buckeyes have a terrific receiving core, and that helps. But the bottom line is that this is a historically good Alabama offense and a subpar Ohio State pass defense. There’s a reason the over/under is set at 74.5. Ohio State will need to put up points, and it’s not feasible to have running back Trey Sermon do it all, even if he is on a serious heater.

Ohio State needs to have Justin Fields out there to have a legitimate chance to win.