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Five Ohio State vs. Alabama matchups that will determine who wins the National Championship

With the Buckeyes on the doorstep of college football’s top prize, let’s look at the key areas of the field that will determine which team leaves Miami victorious.

CFP Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl - Clemson v Ohio State Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Four months ago, the college football universe was set to move on without the presence of Ohio State or the rest of the Big Ten in 2020. Buckeye fans across the world had spent an offseason waiting for a shot at redemption in the College Football Playoff, but with a pandemic in full-swing, it appeared unlikely Ohio State would get to play any games at all.

However, over the course of September and October, the conference got its ducks in a row, and a week before Halloween, the Buckeyes were playing football in Columbus again. Now, after a season full of cancellations, contact tracings and involuntary roster adjustments, Ohio State is at last back in the National Championship.

Alabama presents the greatest challenge the Buckeyes have faced all season, but there is a case to be made that the Crimson Tide are not the most complete opponent Ohio State has lined up across recently (that would be Clemson). Still, despite both sides bursting at the seams with talent, each team features advantages over the other in certain areas that could end up as key determining factors in who wins the inaugural—and hopefully only—’Rona Bowl.

Here are the five matchups Ohio State fans should keep an eye on over the course of the National Championship:

DeVonta Smith (WR, ALA) vs. Shaun Wade (CB, OSU)

NCAA Football: Indiana at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most glaring concern and what could be the most visible area in which Ohio State gets exploited tonight is in their handling of Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith. Though there is unlikely to be shadow coverage, Smith will still see a healthy amount of Shaun Wade across from him tonight as the former looks to regularly connect with quarterback Mac Jones throughout the contest.

Wade entered the season as a projected first-round talent despite shifting from the slot to outside corner, but has noticeably struggled in several games this year. Wade gave up a good chunk of Jahan Dotson’s 144 receiving yards and three touchdowns against Penn State, then followed up that shortcoming nearly a month later when Ty Fryfogle brought in 218 receiving yards and three touchdowns of his own in the Indiana game.

Most recently, Wade had issues with Cornell Powell in the second half of the game against Clemson:

Wade is unquestionably the best corner on Ohio State’s roster. In fairness, he has been the unfortunate target of teams attempting to throw themselves back into games against Ohio State by feeding a No. 1 receiver, and the coaches have been messing with his pre-snap alignments all season. Wade has not had many opportunities to get comfortable in playing his usual position from a new perspective, and that is perhaps why he has not had many splash moments this year outside of his pick six against Indiana.

Smith is the first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since some washed TV analyst did the same thing for another Big Ten team in 1991. He represents an exponentially greater challenge than Fryfogle or Powell, and those two are excellent receivers in their own rights.

I expect Smith will get the better of Wade more often than not tonight, but if Wade can mitigate his mistakes and make plays in key moments—as he did against Indiana despite his struggles—it could make all the difference in a shootout.

Ohio State Offensive Line vs. Alabama Defensive Line

NCAA Football: Cincinnati at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

This Ohio State offensive line has gradually transformed into a five-man bulldozer over the course of the season. Clemson was the toughest possible test they could have faced, and Trey Sermon followed up his legendary Big Ten Championship performance by posting nearly 200 rushing yards on the Tigers’ vaunted run defense.

Don’t believe me? Check out these stats that address Ohio State’s offensive linemen play, courtesy of Football Outsiders:

  • Line Yards per Carry: 3.19 (4th overall in college football)
  • Standard Downs Line Yards per Carry: 3.18 (3rd overall)
  • Rushing Opportunity Rate: 59.8% (5th overall)
  • Stuffed Rate: 12.6% (8th overall)

Using these same stats to track the defensive line performance of Ohio State’s College Football Playoff opponents, it’s clear which team grades superior in stopping the run:

  • Line Yards per Carry: Clemson, 2.21 (13th overall); Alabama, 2.61 (56th overall)
  • Standard Downs Line Yards per Carry: Clemson, 1.96 (4th overall); Alabama, 2.49 (49th overall)
  • Rushing Opportunity Rate: Clemson, 43.4% (25th overall); Alabama, 46.8% (52nd overall)
  • Stuffed Rate: Clemson, 24.7% (10th overall); Alabama, 16.9% (80th overall)

That last stat may be the most significant, as stuffed rate indicates the percentage of time that a running play will be stopped at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield. Ohio State is one of the best teams in the country at ensuring their running plays result in gains, while Alabama is in the bottom third of college football with respect to earning negative stops on running plays. Also, keep in mind that Clemson’s stats and rankings in these areas were even more impressive prior to getting ran over by the Buckeyes.

Assuming Ohio State can avoid falling behind by multiple scores early, it’s more than fair to assume Sermon has another great performance this evening, even with the impending return of Master Teague III. The only question will be how it compares to the one that Ezekiel Elliot put up against Oregon in 2015’s National Championship.

Tuf Borland vs. Moving at a Reasonable Pace

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

If you have listened to Hangout in the Holy Land in any capacity over the last few months, then you are likely well aware of how managing LGHL editor Gene Ross and I feel about Tuf Borland playing in the middle of Ohio State’s defense. He may be one of the only three-time captains in school history, and he technically may have been the defensive MVP of the Sugar Bowl, but it’s become increasingly obvious over the last few games that Ohio State has better options for their interior linebackers.

Borland has gradually seen fewer snaps as Ohio State has advanced beyond the regular season, as the eye-opening play of Justin Hilliard has become impossible for the Buckeyes to ignore. Additionally, Pete Werner has been seeing more and more snaps at interior rather than outside linebacker, with his speed and coverage ability becoming unexpendable for Ohio State’s short-range passing defense.

However, Borland continues to see consistent snaps on early downs because of his great run-stopping ability. Unfortunately, when teams—often playing catch-up against Ohio State—opt to pass on these early downs rather than run, Borland is left out to dry. Look no further than the first drive Clemson had against Ohio State in the previous round, when Borland helplessly spent the opening minutes of the game pursuing Travis Etienne in man coverage towards the sideline.

Borland should see a lot of early action and absolutely deserves a central spot in this team’s goal line defense, but anything more than that would be a detriment to the Buckeyes’ odds to win this game. If Ohio State is going to stop arguably the most stacked offense they have ever faced, Coombs and the defensive staff will have to accept that with Borland, less is more.

Chris Owens (C, ALA) vs. Haskell Garrett (DT, OSU)

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

This is a pairing that does not require much analysis. One of Alabama’s key late-season losses was starting center Landon Dickerson to a knee injury in the SEC Championship. Dickerson had a case as the best lineman in Alabama’s offense and holds a significant locker room presence with the Crimson Tide, as evidenced by the multiple players in full tears watching him receive on-field treatment for his injury.

However, Dickerson’s replacement—Chris Owens—is hardly a slouch. Though he hasn’t started a game since against Ole Miss in 2019, Owens came into this season actually projected as Alabama’s first-team center. He also played a crucial role for the Crimson Tide last year as the team’s sixth offensive lineman/run-blocking tight end in power rushing sets.

Haskell Garrett, meanwhile, is having one of the best stories of the entire college football season. After receiving a gunshot wound in the face less than two months prior to the Nebraska game, Garrett not only made a remarkably quick recovery, but even earned a starting spot in Ohio State’s season opener. He would go on to become a 2nd team All-American and 3rd-Team All-Big Ten player this season (no, that’s not a typo, I don’t get it either).

Owens can hold his own, but the early returns on Alabama’s run game against Notre Dame with him at center weren’t great. He’ll have the benefit of excellent linemen talent around him, a smart quarterback, and the best running back in college football to take some stress off as he focuses on his own assignments.

However, his own assignments are very often going to be facing off against an All-American, and potentially Tommy Togiai as well depending on the latter’s availability. If Owens is getting bull-rushed up front on a consistent basis, it could make it very difficult for Alabama to have any sort of interior run game. Furthermore, if Garrett/Togiai are helping to generate a pass rush as well, the Buckeyes should be in remarkably good shape to win.

Justin Fields vs. Himself

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The national perception of Justin Fields’ career as a Buckeye hanged firmly in the balance during the most recent game against Clemson. Winning was the ultimate vindication for an excellent quarterback that had spent nearly his entire football career growing up alongside or in the shadow of Trevor Lawrence. A loss would have lent credibility to the idea that Fields buckles under pressure situations, can’t process the blitz, and is too confident in his own talent for his own good.

Thankfully, Fields and the Ohio State faithful likely won’t have to deal with that noise. Fields not only threw for six TDs and nearly 400 yards against Clemson, he also did so while playing with a cringe-inducing rib injury for well over half of the contest. It was a gritty and immensely impressive performance that fans above the Mason-Dixon line in college football will remember for a very long time.

Fields is one of the most fascinating Ohio State football players I can remember watching, if only because I have never seen a guy with such transcendent ability make so many silly mistakes. Last season, these were hardly on display—as Fields only threw one interception during the regular season. However, there have been a handful of moments this year where Fields has done too much to try to keep a play alive, and most of them ended up having a significant impact on the momentum of the game.

Against Indiana, there were numerous instances where Fields should have elected to throw the ball away. Each of his three picks were worse than the last one, and it’s easy to argue that they were all self-forced as well.

In the Northwestern game, Fields clearly had the worst game of his college career, struggling with many of the same issues that he did against Indiana. Fields cleaned up his game significantly for Clemson—often electing to throw the ball away when necessary or escape the pocket while heading downfield, but still threw a very careless red-zone interception into triple coverage on the team’s opening drive of the second half.

In a National Championship that figures to be a shootout from start to finish, one mistake could ultimately be the difference in the final score for either team. Even if Fields throws another six touchdown passes tonight, one interception that was otherwise totally preventable could prove to be what keeps Ohio State off of the victor’s podium at the end of the evening. Worse yet, Mac Jones is an excellent decision maker that has only thrown four INTs all season against Fields’ six, so the turnover margin tonight figures to be slim.

Fields winning this game would cement his legacy as the most impressive Ohio State quarterback ever, or at the very least give him a legitimate argument against J.T. Barrett. It would be a shame if a self-inflicted mistake were to be the one thing standing between him and that honor at the end of the evening.

In the semifinal, Fields saved his legacy. In the National Championship, he will have the chance to leave no doubt about it.

Go Bucks!