Alabama vs. Ohio State: College Football Playoff National Championship preview and predictions

Nick Bromberg
·9 min read

No. 1 Alabama (12-0) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (7-0)

Location: Miami | When: Jan. 11 (8 p.m.) | TV: ESPN | Line: Alabama -8.5 | Total: 74.5

How these teams got here

Alabama: The Crimson Tide went undefeated in the SEC’s first 10-game conference season. Alabama won every regular-season game by at least 15 points and held seven of its 10 opponents to fewer than 20 points. Only Ole Miss scored more than 24 points on Alabama during the regular season.

Alabama got its closest game of the year in the SEC title game in a 52-46 win over Florida. Though it’s important to note that the Gators never led that game — and were never tied with Alabama after the game was 7-7 in the first quarter — and scored a touchdown with just over two minutes remaining to make it a six-point game.

That set up a matchup with Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl and Alabama never had to sweat in that game. The Crimson Tide easily won their College Football Playoff semifinal 31-14 in a game where the only late drama encompassed Notre Dame’s ability to cover the three-touchdown spread.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes played five fewer games than Alabama thanks to COVID-19 cases in the Big Ten. Ohio State cancelled its game vs. Illinois because of COVID-19 positives and saw its games against Maryland and Michigan cancelled because of COVID-19 cases at each of those schools.

Those three cancellations led the Big Ten to repeal a 2020 rule that mandated a minimum number of six games played for a team to play in the Big Ten championship game. But you likely know that by now … and you know that Ohio State needed a huge performance from Trey Sermon in the Big Ten title game against Northwestern.

The grad transfer running back carried the Buckeyes to victory as Ohio State won 22-10. Sermon rushed for 331 yards as Ohio State scored 16 unanswered points in the final two quarters.

That propelled OSU into the College Football Playoff where it avenged last season’s playoff loss to Clemson. Ohio State played it’s best game of the season (by far) as Justin Fields threw for six touchdowns and Sermon rushed for 193 yards in the 49-28 win over the Tigers.

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) warms up before the first half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, in Atlanta. Heisman Trophy finalists Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith have been selected to The Associated Press All-America team, Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, leading a contingent of five Alabama players on the first-team offense. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith won the Heisman on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

How does Ohio State defend DeVonta Smith?

Alabama’s Heisman winner has been unstoppable in 2020. Especially since Jaylen Waddle was injured against Tennessee.

Smith has 105 catches for 1,641 yards and 22 total touchdowns through 12 games in 2020. Every Alabama opponent has gone into their matchup with the Crimson Tide wanting to slow down Smith. Few have succeeded. How will Ohio State try to slow him down? Double coverage? Constant safety help?

“He's just really, really gifted as a route runner,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “He's got extraordinary physical ability, which everybody understands, but it's way more than just being a guy who can run fast.

“He runs great routes. He catches the ball. He high points the ball, catches it in his hands. You know, he catches short balls and makes some big plays. He catches obviously the deep balls as well as anybody that we've gone against.”

Alabama always has an answer because the Tide has five All-Americans on its offense. When Smith had three catches for 22 yards against Arkansas (he still scored an 84-yard TD on a punt return), the Alabama running game took advantage. Alabama scored six touchdowns on the ground in that 52-3 win.

Najee Harris had two of them. The freak athlete has rushed for 24 TDs and has 27 total scores in 2020. Harris won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back on Thursday night and he’s rushed for over 100 yards in six of Alabama’s 12 games in 2020. Stop Smith, and you risk Harris running wild. Stop Harris, and you risk Smith torching your defense.

Or, worst case, both could happen.

“People have tried numerous different things against [Alabama’s offense], and they always have an answer,” Coombs said.

FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, file photo, Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, center, pulls down a reception between Missouri's Tyree Gillespie, right, and Ishmael Burdine, left, during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Columbia, Mo.  No. 2 Alabama doesn’t look like a team that lost quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and two first-round receivers. Quarterback Mac Jones still has a selection of some of the SEC’s best playmakers, including Jaylen Waddle. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson, File)
Could Jaylen Waddle return on Monday? (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson, File)

Will Jaylen Waddle be back?

Waddle has missed Alabama’s last seven games after he was injured on the opening kickoff of the Tide’s game against Tennessee in October. Before his injury there was no consensus on who Alabama’s best wide receiver was. That’s how good Waddle was in the first four games of the season.

Waddle had 25 catches for 557 yards and four scores through Alabama’s first third of the season. And his two best games came against Alabama’s two best opponents. Waddle had five catches for 142 yards and a score against No. 5 Texas A&M and had six catches for 161 yards and a touchdown against No. 8 Georgia.

The junior has returned to practice ahead of the national title game and there’s a chance that he could see some playing time though Alabama coach Nick Saban was non-committal about Waddle’s status.

“Sometimes if a guy practices one day and gets sore the next, you can't practice him the next day, so you just keep sort of trying to build up his workload to where he might be able to play,” Saban said.

“So that's a work in progress right now, so you really can't predict where he might be. And then other guys seem to get stronger as they — every day they practice they get a little bit better. This is something that we're trying to evaluate but not anything that we can make any kind of prediction on at this point.”

If Waddle plays, Alabama’s extraordinary offense will have a dimension it has been missing over the last eight games. And even if he doesn’t — or is simply used as a decoy — his return to practice will have at least affected Ohio State’s preparations. The Buckeyes are now forced to think about Waddle being on the field Monday night.

“I think you absolutely have to prepare like he's going to play, and I would promise you that he's an extraordinary athlete, extraordinary receiver,” Coombs said.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields gets hit by Clemson linebacker James Skalski during the first half of the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. Skalski was ejected from the game for targeting.(AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields returned to the game after this hit and immediately threw a TD pass. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

What does Justin Fields have in store for a sequel?

Fields played the best game of his college career against Clemson even as he suffered a midsection injury after a brutal hit from Clemson linebacker James Skalski.

In addition to throwing six touchdowns, Fields was 22-of-28 passing for 385 yards and also rushed for 42 yards. Yes, he had as many incompletions as he did touchdown passes.

Fields’ abbreviated 2020 has been colored by the three interceptions he threw against Indiana and the two interceptions he tossed against Northwestern in the Big Ten title game as Ohio State’s passing game struggled without Chris Olave. But he quickly reminded everyone why he entered the season as the second-best quarterback in the country on Jan. 1 and has the chance to (likely) end his Ohio State career with an exclamation point with a win and a strong performance on Monday.

“I think he's come a long way obviously of understanding coverages and fronts and the how they fit together,” Alabama coordinator Pete Golding said. “He does a really nice job of getting them in and out of plays. Obviously I think he's got a really good arm, a really strong arm, another one. He threw on his back foot 68 yards last week for the touchdown, but I think his accuracy has improved.

“I think he's done a better job of keeping his feet in the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield, but he still has the ability to be able to hurt you and tuck it and run. So I really think he's become a complete quarterback, not labeled as an athlete.”

There’s no doubt about Fields’ availability for Monday after that Skalski hit either. He wasn’t too inclined to talk about how he was feeling on Thursday and promised he’ll be ready.

“I'll be good by Monday night,” Fields said.

Ohio State running back Trey Sermon runs past Clemson safety Lannden Zanders during the first half of the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Ohio State running back Trey Sermon has been indispensable for the Buckeyes over the last two weeks. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Could this be the highest-scoring title game in CFP history?

The over/under of 74.5 is the biggest championship game points total in the College Football Playoff era. The only other game with a total over 70 was the first title game. That total closed at 72.5 before Ohio State’s 42-20 win over Oregon.

That game was the only time the under has hit in a CFP title game too. The last five games have gone over, though last year’s points total involving a record-breaking LSU offense against Clemson closed at 66.5 ahead of LSU’s 42-25 win.

Will the streak of overs extend to six? Alabama games have gone over seven times in 2020 while Ohio State games have gone over four times. That’s a winning record if you bet the over in each team’s games this year. But it’s not overwhelming either.

Day was asked Thursday about how offenses have become more and more important in college football in recent years. He noted how a defense’s focus isn’t necessarily about the opponent’s yardage total any longer. There will likely be lots of yards on Monday night. The over will only be challenged if those yards turn into touchdowns.

“Fundamentally it hasn't changed, but just the way the game is being played has, and it's all about getting stops,” Day said. “I mean, it isn't really about how many yards you give up. I think controlling the game does matter, but at the end of the day it's about getting stops, forcing field goals, and getting turnovers.

“You can let them drive the entire length of the field, but if they kick field goals or you get turnovers along the way, good things are going to happen.

“I think that really is where it's at. It depends on how strong your offense is and I think both sides have to play off of each other. I think that's really, really important.”

Picks

Nick Bromberg: Alabama 45, Ohio State 36

Sam Cooper: Alabama 41, Ohio State 37

Pat Forde (from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast): Alabama 49, Ohio State 38

Pete Thamel (from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast): Alabama 41, Ohio State 31

Dan Wetzel (from the Yahoo Sports College Podcast): Alabama 48, Ohio State 40

(Picks were made when Alabama was favored by 7.5)

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