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Column: Five things to watch for in the National Championship Game

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Can Trey Sermon approach Zeke’s 2014 total against Alabama?

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

Every game day of the 2020-21 season, I will be running through five things to watch in that day’s contest. They could be something that schematic, an opposing player, or an on-field trend. Let me know what you’ll be watching for in the comments below.

After the most tumultuous college football season in the lifetime of anyone reading this, the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes will face off against the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide tonight at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

While the Tide handled the No. 4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish as expected in a displaced Rose Bowl in one semifinal, the other saw the Buckeyes shock the world by demolishing the No. 2 Clemson Tigers in the Sugar Bowl.

As they were on Jan. 1, the Buckeyes are more than a touchdown underdog tonight with Alabama sitting at an 8.5-point favorite as of publication time. However, despite the overwhelming majority of fans and analysts siding with Nick Saban’s squad, Ryan Day and company have more than a puncher’s chance tonight.

We’ve been breaking down and analyzing this game for the past 12 days, and there are five things that I have settled on that I will be watching, because I think they could turn the game one way or the other. These obviously won’t be the only things to have an impact on the outcome, but these are the ones that I am most anxious to find out.


1) Who’s playing? Who’s healthy?

This has unfortunately become a recurring theme in the Buckeyes’ late season games as the threat of COVID-related absences have loomed like the Sword of Damocles hanging over the collective head of the Ohio State program, waiting to drop and sever their title chances at any moment.

Despite missing players against Michigan State and in the Big Ten Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl, the Buckeyes found ways to survive and advance. However, there are rumors that there was another round of positive COVID tests at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, including a handful of starters on the defensive line.

While it is in the DNA of OSU fans to freak out at the first sign of anything potentially going wrong, in my opinion, it is not worth the worry to get worked up about what we can’t control, especially when we will find out for sure at roughly 7 p.m. ET who is and is not available to take on the Tide. Either way, the Ohio State coaches have likely known who would be available and who would not be for well over a week now and have prepared accordingly. So, put your faith it that (not that we’ve got any other options).

However, COVID isn’t the only potential reason for OSU players to either be unavailable or less than 100% for tonight’s game. As you all know, in the second quarter of the Sugar Bowl, Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields took a hellacious shot from linebacker James Skalski that looked frighteningly similar to another hit that ended the career of Ohio State legend Ryan Shazier.

However, despite conspiracy theories that Ohio State was using a potential COVID postponement to buy time for Fields to heal, he took to the ping pong table in the team hotel over the weekend to prove that he is in in complete control of his athletic abilities and ready to deploy his full complement of offensive weapons.

However, there are a number of important Alabama players who also might be a bit iffy tonight. First, there is the otherworldly electric wide receiver Jaylen Waddle who broke his ankle on Oct. 24 in a game against Tennessee. Let me repeat that, he broke his freaking ankle on Oct. 24 and yet he has been practicing all week and is officially a game-time decision tonight.

Now, this could all be smoke and mirrors, and nothing but an elaborate distraction to take the OSU defense’s attention off of the players that will actually play. But, for some reason I don’t think that’s likely. If Waddle is healthy enough to practice, I’m assuming that he’s healthy enough to play, barring a setback during pregame warmups. So, the OSU secondary is going to have another absolute stud to deal with tonight alongside Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith.

It also appears that if ‘Bama middle linebacker Dylan Moses plays, he will be severely hampered by a knee injury, and there have been rumors that stud slot corner Malachi Moore won’t be on the field tonight, which leads me to my next point.


2) Can Garrett Wilson get loose?

In the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, Garrett Wilson caught a 47-yard pass from Fields to set up the game-tying touchdown, but only had one other catch for five yards on the game. However, with Moore out, and unanimous All-American Patrick Surtain II likely focusing on Chris Olave, Wilson could be a difference maker in exploiting some weaknesses in the Alabama defense.

While Wilson is obviously not the same type of player as Florida’s All-American tight end Kyle Pitts, he likely will occupy the same parts of the field that the Mackey winner did in the SEC Championship Game. In that game, Pitts went for 129 yards and one touchdown on seven catches, so if the semi-depleted ‘Bama secondary doesn’t have an answer for Wilson coming from the slot, it could be a very big game for the super sophomore. He should also be a good outlet for Fields should the coverage hold down field.


3) Pressure. Pushing down on me, pressing down on you.

In my column yesterday, I discussed how the Buckeyes needed to get pressure on Alabama quarterback Mac Jones in an effort to take some stress off of OSU’s beleaguered secondary (more on them in a minute). Jones’ completion percentage drops from 79.9% when he is not pressured to 58.1% when he is. So, if the Buckeyes’ defensive line can create havoc in the backfield, that could go a long way to keeping the game within reach for Ohio State’s offense.

However, on the other side of the ball, Justin Fields has been pretty putrid this season when rushed, completing only 37.8% of his passes under pressure. However, in his near perfect game in the Sugar Bowl, Fields was 5-for-6 for 42 yards and a sack against the blitz. Of course, he was 17-for-22 for 343 yards and 1 sack when he wasn’t being blitzed. If this Justin Fields shows up against an Alabama team that only blitzes 28% of the time, that should go a long way to keeping OSU in the game.

Of course, it is increasingly difficult to blitz when the opposing offense is ahead of the chains. So, if Fields and company can get pick up substantive yardage on first and second down, that should help giving OSU’s QB a clean pocket to operate within. It also doesn’t hurt that the Ohio State offensive line has been playing out of their minds recently, and I would not be surprised if Matthew Jones gets the start at left guard, even if normal starter Harry Miller is back after missing the Sugar Bowl.


4) How can OSU keep ‘Bama from scoring half-a-hundred?

I don’t know, honestly. Alabama has the highest graded Power 5 offense in the country according to Pro Football Focus, and the highest rated passing offense amongst P5 teams as well (second in all of FBS behind BYU). But while OSU’s defense grades out as the fourth best in all of college football, they come in 32nd in coverage grades.

So, while I feel fairly comfortable that the Buckeyes can stop Najee Harris and the Tide’s running game — as OSU has practically shut down every elite-level back its faced in recent memory — I do not feel nearly as confident in the secondary, with good reason. The Buckeyes rank 116th (out of 127) FBS teams this year in pass defense, allowing 281.1 yards per game.

So, I will be watching to see how Kerry Coombs attempts to scheme his way into favorable matchups against the Tide’s prolific offense. If he is as successful as he was against Clemson, this could be a historic night for the Buckeyes. If he’s not, it will likely be a really painful evening.


5) Can Trey Sermon go for 231 yards?

When I talked to Brent Taylor, the executive editor for our Alabama sister site Roll Bama Roll, he said that the best way for OSU to attack the Tide defense was to get running back Trey Sermon off-tackle. Given the mind-boggling success that the Oklahoma transfer has had since the Michigan State game, it is likely that he will be featured heavily in the game plan tonight, even if Wally Pip Master Teague can return.

In the all-important advanced analytic of Expected Points Added, OSU ranks third nationally adding 0.215 points every time they run the ball. However, the Tide ranks 51st in EPA rushing defense as they lose 0.064 points every time a team runs against them. So, between Sermon’s recent renaissance and the Tide’s relative weakness against the run, I think it is safe to assume that he will be featured early and often by the OSU offense.

However, there is another benefit to running regularly in this game; it keeps the ball out of the hands of Alabama’s nearly unstoppable offense. While time of possession is an overrated stat in college football, the number of drives a team has is not. It stands to reason that the fewer times that ‘Bama has the ball, the fewer times that they can score.

So, if Sermon is picking up eight to 12 yards per carry and helping the Buckeyes march down the field, that means that Mac Jones, Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, et al. are stuck on the sideline — where they belong, if you ask me.

Ezekiel Elliot ran for 230 yards against Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl — including the legendary “85 yards through the heart of the south” touchdown. If Sermon can even think about approaching that number, that is a very good sign for the Buckeyes. And if he somehow eclipses it, I think that would essentially wrap up the national title for the good guys.


Predictions

With my head: Alabama 45, Ohio State 31

With my heart: Ohio State 38, Alabama 34