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

We want Bama! Well, sort of. 

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One - Alabama v Notre Dame Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Congratulations, Ohio State fans, because you’ve gotten a late Christmas gift of one more game this season. See? 2021 is already sort of kind of better than last year (at least on the football field).

In terms of their New Year’s resolutions, the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes (7-0) have clearly chosen to prove the doubters wrong. What the Buckeyes lack in games played, they’ve made up for in dominant wins over top teams - or at least that’s what they did to Clemson last week in the Sugar Bowl.

But things aren’t done yet for Ryan Day’s squad, as the Buckeyes are on the hunt for a national championship. To earn one, they’ll have to get through No. 1 Alabama (12-0), the perennial power from the SEC that’s been at the top of the championship conversation year in and year out for the last decade. And they’ll have to do it, once again, as challenges with COVID-19 continue to affect the program and available personnel.

It’s a battle of two of the most historic heavyweights in college football. After going 7-0 thus far this season, Ohio State is officially the winningest program all-time (0.731 win percentage), while Alabama is third in the category (0.729). The Tide have 17 claimed national titles to the Buckeyes’ eight, and Ohio State has 39 conference titles to Bama’s 32. Ohio State’s 84 first-round NFL Draft picks are the most of any program, with Alabama sitting in fourth place with 68.

Monday’s matchup will certainly be a battle of college football titans. Here it is, folks, for all the marbles. Let’s dig in.

Should old acquaintance be forgot…

Ohio State and Alabama don’t play one another often, but when they do, the stakes are high. And we’d be remiss if we neglected to describe in incredible detail what happened the last time the pair met.

There it was: the inaugural College Football Playoff. Ohio State, by most standards, barely scraped in, beating out Big 12 teams who remain bitter to this day. The Buckeyes, the four-seed, faced what seemed to be insurmountable odds, facing top-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Quarterback Blake Sims was throwing to Amari Cooper for the Tide, while hopes rested on backup quarterback Cardale Jones for the Buckeyes. Keep in mind Jones had just wholloped Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship.

*remembers we have a word limit*

The short story is that Jones played an efficient game, completing 18-of-35 passes for 243 yards, a touchdown and a pick. Running back Ezekiel Elliott was the workhorse for the Buckeyes, taking 20 carries for 230 yards and two touchdowns. The team rallied after being down 21-6 in the second quarter, heading into the half down just one point. But the moment Ohio State fans everywhere remember was Jones’ 47-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith to put the Buckeyes ahead. Or maybe it was Jones’ dive on 3rd-and-1 to keep the clock moving in the fourth quarter. Or maybe it was Elliott’s 85-yard touchdown run the very next play to put the Buckeyes up two scores. Or, maybe it was when Tyvis Powell picked off Sims on a Hail Mary to seal the victory for Ohio State and snap a 10-game losing streak against the SEC in bowl games (not counting the since vacated 2011 Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas).

The Buckeyes emerged with a 42-35 victory over the Tide, effectively slaying the giant of college football. Ohio State’s eventual 42-20 win against Oregon for the national championship felt almost like an afterthought.

While Bama fans like to point to the Tide’s 3-1 all-time record against the Buckeyes, the reality is Alabama’s last win over Ohio State came in 1995. Ohio State will certainly be looking to stay undefeated this century when they face off Monday night.

Coming up roses…

Back to this season and this Playoff. In a game that went almost entirely how analysts thought it would, Alabama effectively demolished Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semi-final game at the Rose Bowl (well, it was “at” AT&T Stadium in Arlington). The Crimson Tide jumped to a 31-14 victory over the Fighting Irish on New Year’s Day afternoon. Quarterback Mac Jones was near perfect, going 25-for-30 passing for 297 yards and four touchdowns - three of which he doled out to star receiver DeVonta Smith - while running back Najee Harris kept things moving with 125 yards on the ground.

Pour some sugar on me…

Not to be outdone, the Buckeyes opted to flip the script in their CFP semi-final matchup against the Clemson Tigers later that night, putting together a performance that did not go at all how analysts thought it would. Despite entering the game as seven-point underdogs, Ryan Day showed up with a solid game plan for getting the first win over Clemson in program history. Ultimately, the Buckeyes emerged with a 49-28 victory, sticking it to the team that knocked them out of the Playoff last season.

It was certainly easy to fear the worst after Clemson scored on its opening drive and Ohio State punted on its subsequent possession, but that was really about as bad as things would get for the Buckeyes. Running back Trey Sermon would tie things up with a 32-yard touchdown run, then quarterback Justin Fields started lighting things up with touchdown passes on four-straight possessions to end the first half. The defense, meanwhile, would force the Tigers to punt after all but one first half drive. While the second half wouldn’t be quite so smooth, the Buckeye defense stepped up, forcing a Trevor Lawrence fumble and a pick, while the offense added two more touchdowns to keep things comfortable.

And there was only a little drama. But let’s talk about it.

Bruised but not broken

(Although when it comes to Fields’ actual ribs, we really don’t know). Nope, things certainly didn’t look good for a minute there. In the second quarter against Clemson, after Fields ran for 11 yards and a first down, Tigers linebacker James Skalski speared Fields straight in the ribs, forcing Fields to stay down for far longer than anyone cheering for the scarlet and gray cared to see. Skalski was ejected for targeting (mind you, for the second-straight year in the Playoff) and, in the most poetically-just way after Shaun Wade’s ejection last year versus Clemson, Fields finished the drive with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Chris Olave. He’d finish the game, looking much more comfortable in the second half as he threw two more lengthy touchdowns to his receivers to seal the Buckeyes’ win.

While Fields only missed a play (when Sermon ran for no gain on first down), he was certainly wincing on the sidelines with every practice throw he made. Though analysts reviewing the video of the hit claim Fields may have broken one or more ribs, Ohio State isn’t saying much about the status of its star quarterback, and Fields himself has indicated he will be ready to play by game time Monday night.

Speaking of which, some people have their own opinions...

One of the motivating factors for Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, as noted by a serious plurality of players’ post-game tweets, was Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney ranking the Buckeyes at No. 11 in his final Coach’s Poll ballot of the season. As previously mentioned, Ohio State went on to wreck Clemson in a way the Tigers haven’t seen since last year’s title game.

Unfortunately for Alabama, Nick Saban’s daughter didn’t learn from Swinney’s mistake. In a since deleted tweet, Kristen Saban Setas called the Buckeyes’ COVID cases “BS” after rumors emerged that the championship game might be moved due to recent virus issues in the Ohio State program. She claimed instead that the Buckeyes were motivated by giving quarterback Justin Fields more time to heal and that “If he’s hurt, put in your backup.” A point for which former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones had words. Remember? Because of that time he, as a backup quarterback, stuck it to the Tide.

Can we End this?

Sure can. Let’s get back to football. And let’s talk about those Ohio State tight ends. Ryan Day hasn’t tended to incorporate tight ends into a significant portion of his offenses in Columbus, but that certainly shifted in the game plan against Clemson. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert entered the game last week with nine catches on the season totalling less than 100 yards. He wound up with three catches for 55 yards and two touchdowns against the Tigers. Fellow tight end Luke Farrell, who’d had a mere three catches on the season, added two more receptions and another touchdown versus Clemson. The fact half of Fields touchdown passes went to tight ends was certainly something of an anomaly (it did happen against Penn State this year), but it obviously worked out as Clemson appeared unable to defend the strategy.

Take me to church. Or at least give me more Sermon.

If your resolution was to run more, you’re in good company, because it seems to be Ohio State running back Trey Sermon’s too. The transfer running back from Oklahoma has been in prime form in the postseason, going off for a single-game program record with 331 rushing yards against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship and 193 against Clemson.

Sermon’s emergence couldn’t have come at a better time. While Fields was playing lights out early in the season, it took until Indiana, when Fields struggled, for a rushing attack to gain ground, and at that point it was mostly behind Master Teague. When Teague left the Big Ten Championship early with an unspecified injury, Sermon was ready to step up.

As alluded to earlier, Sermon also played a significant role in Ohio State’s win over Clemson last week, with his triple digit yards and touchdown. Perhaps his most memorable moment, however, came after a run in which Sermon, who was clearly down during the play, continued to advance the ball before the whistle blew. During the subsequent replay, Sermon smirked directly at the camera, bringing to life one of the most memed moments of the game.

While it’s taken just a few short games for Sermon to get close to a 1,000-yard season (he is currently sitting at 868 yards, with 636 of them coming in his last three games alone), the emergent running back hasn’t been a scoring machine quite like the backs Ohio State fans have been used to in recent years. In fact, Sermon has scored four touchdowns all season, with all also coming in the last three games. That being said, Sermon has been remarkably efficient, not losing a single fumble all season long.

More on the Tide, please.

Desmond Tutu once said, “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” With that, let’s examine the elephant in the room that is Alabama’s offense.

DeVonta Smith

It’s not often that one starts talk about an offense with someone other than a quarterback, but, when it does, it’s at Alabama. Since 2000, only three non-quarterbacks have won the Heisman. All were on the Crimson Tide.

Wide out DeVonta Smith is continuing the trend in Tuscaloosa. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound senior became the first receiver since Desmond Howard to win the Heisman Trophy, and the third Heisman recipient from Alabama (Ohio State holds the record with six players and seven trophies). Later last week, Smith bagged the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver. Before the announcements last week, Smith had already earned AP College Football Player of the Year, consensus All-American and SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Smith has had a phenomenal senior season, hauling in 105 catches for 1,641 yards and 20 touchdowns - tops in every receiving category. Dubbed “the slim reaper” for his undersized frame, Smith endured through a tough work ethic, leveraging experience playing defensive back in high school to inform his receiving skills.

Those skills have emerged at the right moments for the Crimson Tide, including, most recently, in his three-touchdown performance against Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl.

Heading into Monday, it would seem Shaun Wade will bear the brunt of defending Smith. While Wade has been Ohio State’s best defensive back this season, he’s certainly struggled in some situations. He’ll need to be on his A game to contain Smith, who really hasn’t been contained this season.

Mac Jones

Someone had to throw all those passes in the direction of DeVonta Smith, and that someone is Mac Jones. Jones finished third in the Heisman voting behind his teammate and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. However, Jones did bring home the Davey O’Brien Award this season, awarded to the nation’s best quarterback. The junior quarterback has tossed 36 touchdowns to just four picks this year, and exceeded 4,000 yards passing for the season in the Tide’s matchup with Notre Dame.

Najee Harris

Of course, a hallmark of a good offense is balance, right? That’s where senior running back Najee Harris comes in. The Doak Walker Award winner (yes, if you weren’t paying attention Bama won the awards for top quarterback, running back and receiver) is sitting just shy of 1,400 yards rushing for the season, having also pounded the ball in for 24 scores.

But, as any true fan of the running game knows, it’s not just about the ball carrier. Clearing the way for Harris is one of the top offensive lines in college football, anchored by Landon Dickerson, who brought home the Rimington Award as the nation’s top center, and Alex Leatherwood, who was named the Outland Trophy winner as college football’s top interior lineman.

More on that straw hat, though.

Where would the Tide be without Nick Saban on the sidelines? Saban is no stranger to Big Ten foes, having coached at Michigan State in the late 90s before defecting to LSU under the sketchiest of circumstances before then leaving for a brief stint in the NFL and then defecting once again to LSU’s chief rival, Alabama, where he has remained since 2007. *takes deep breath.*

Since heading to Tuscaloosa, Saban has presented a formidable foe for...well...everyone. Under his guiding hand, Alabama has won seven conference titles and five national titles. Along the way, Bama’s brought in one top-five recruiting class after another while churning out NFL Draft picks at a pace matched only by the likes of Ohio State.

Bring out the noisemakers

After playing in relatively empty stadiums for their seven games up to this point, Ohio State will be playing in front of the largest crowd it has seen this season - a whopping 16,000. It’s a far cry from the 100,000-plus the Buckeyes have become accustomed to, but it certainly looks to be a boon to what’s been a quiet atmosphere.

Of course Alabama is no stranger to crowds this season. The SEC did allow reduced numbers of fans at their games this season, deferring to state and local guidelines for how many individuals could be in attendance rather than setting a limit itself. That meant that, for Alabama’s home games, Bryant-Denny Stadium sat at about 20% capacity which, for the more than 100,000-seat stadium, more than 20,000 fans could be present to cheer on the Tide.

Summary

It’s easy to compare Monday night’s matchup to the Buckeyes’ Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in 2014, and at the surface, it’s not totally invalid: An underdog Ohio State team, equipped with a big-arm quarterback and pounding running game, is facing a top-ranked Crimson Tide squad armed with the nation’s best receiver and so many others at skill positions.

But that’s where the comparison pretty much ends. The cards are on the table for Ohio State heading into Monday’s game - the Buckeyes’ strengths are all too clear after their dismantling of Clemson. Alabama, meanwhile, looks formidable as ever, having themselves razed an admittedly overrated Notre Dame squad.

Ohio State enters the game as eight-point underdogs to Bama, very near the spread the Buckeyes opened with against Clemson. While the deficit against the Tigers was clearly misjudged (that’s what a lack of non-conference matchups will do, I suppose), analysts are certainly giving a nod to what the Buckeyes did last week in their analysis, keeping things within one score of an Alabama squad that picked apart the Fighting Irish.

That being said, Alabama is the top-ranked team in the nation for a reason. While there are some questions around the defense - which hasn’t been as stout as it was, perhaps, in previous seasons - the offense is literally elite at every position. Overall, the Crimson Tide are second in the nation in scoring offense (49.2 points per game) behind Kent State, while Ohio State is coming in tied for fifth with 43.4 points per game. The Buckeye defense will certainly have its hands full - especially a secondary that’s struggled this season.

There’s also the fact that, while it certainly didn’t seem to matter last week, Alabama has played more games. Whether the Crimson Tide can capitalize on that on-field experience in ways the Tigers couldn’t remains to be seen.

It’s certainly been a strange season, but at least Ohio State has the opportunity to end it on a high note - and with a national championship, no less. In order to get there, however, the Buckeyes will have to be firing on all cylinders - and then some.

LGHL prediction: Ohio State 45, Alabama 42