After enacting the sweetest revenge on Dabo Swinney and Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, Ohio State is now on to the national title game, where they will face off against the No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. Nick Saban, as is usually the case, has put together a supremely talented roster, and it will be a tough matchup for the Buckeyes coming off of their most impressive performance of the season.
We’ve talked all week long about this battle between two of college football’s blue bloods, but who better to tell us more about what Alabama has to offer than those who cover the team? This weekend, we teamed up with our SB Nation sister site Roll ‘Bama Roll for a little Q&A session. I got a chance to fire some questions at the site’s editor, Brent Taylor, to get a little bit more in-depth information about the Crimson Tide. Be sure to follow him on Twitter, and check out Roll ‘Bama Roll for more Alabama coverage.
Gene: People had concerns about the Alabama defense to begin the year after they let up a ton of yards to a not very good Ole Miss team. Obviously they have gotten much better since then, allowing just 14 points to Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl. What changes have they made to improve on that side of the ball and turn things around after their early-season struggles?
Brent: Schematically, Alabama’s stuck to a fairly aggressive pattern-matching coverage scheme for much of Saban’s tenure. After that Ole Miss game, he and Pete Golding backed off a little, started playing a lot of soft shell simple zone coverages, and just let Alabama swarm and gang tackle short passes. That led to us not seeing a linebacker chasing a tight end or running back 30 yards down the field quite so often.
At the same time, the defensive line just straight up started playing better and turning pressures into sacks. They’re a young group, and it just took a while for that to start happening.
Gene: While they played well against the Fighting Irish, the Tide did allow 46 points to Florida in the SEC title game. What happened that allowed the Gators to put up those big numbers on offense, and how will Alabama look to avoid a similar shootout with Ohio State?
Brent: Honestly, Kadarius Toney was just straight up faster than Alabama’s freshman All-American slot corner, Malachi Moore... and Mackey Award winner TE Kyle Pitts made four HUGE catches that were all inches away from being intercepted by guys in great coverage. They’re two of the best receiving weapons in the country, and there’s only so much a defense can do. You just tip your hat and move on.
The other issue was something that’s kind of crept up all season: Alabama’s front seven has had some struggles all season with diagnosing off-tackle run plays that involve a QB fake (whether it’s a QB keeper or the running back). And against Florida, I think they gave up five different 3rd and short conversions on QB keepers by the human statue, Kyle Trask.
Gene: It is my belief that Alabama and Ohio State have two of the best wide receiver cores in the country. Patrick Surtain II is obviously an incredibly talented DB, and will likely be the No. 1 corner off the board in the 2021 Draft. Jordan Battle is a name Buckeye fans should know well, as he was once committed to OSU before Urban Meyer left. How important have those guys been to the defense this season, and how will those guys look to slow down the likes of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson?
Brent: Surtain has been absolutely phenomenal this season, outside of a single brain fart where he forgot to intercept a ball against Florida. On the other side, Josh Jobe has been nearly as good. He’s not quite the technician that Surtain is, but he’s scrappy and contests every single ball (though he does get a few PI calls for being too handsy), and both guys have really made some devastating tackles on short outside passes. At safety, Battle has been mostly solid in a first year as a starter, though he seems to lack the long speed to be a pure single-high safety.
I’ll go ahead and throw in info on the other safety position while we’re here as well. Daniel Wright has been one of the most maligned players by fans this year. He’s fast and aggressive, but that unfortunately more often leads to him flying off screen while whiffing a tackle or undercutting a route that’s actually going over his head. His backup, DeMarcco Hellams has been really, really good and is a big dude with an enforcer mentality as a tackler, and it’s been mystifying seeing him play off the bench all season... Until he got the start at Notre Dame. We’re all hoping that holds up for the season finale.
But I don’t look for Alabama to really change their secondary scheme. Jobe and Surtain will cover the sidelines, no matter who the receiver is, and Alabama will have hope that they win the battles against Olave and Wilson more often than not.
Gene: Before DeVonta Smith burst onto the scene this season, he had previously caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime of the national title game against Georgia as a freshman in 2017. There have been a ton of talented wideouts to come through that program in recent years, and he was stuck behind some future NFL prospects his first few years. Did Alabama fans see him eventually becoming this elite of a wide receiver right from the start, or did this Heisman campaign he put together come as a bit of a surprise?
Brent: The funny thing is, Smith never really was stuck behind those other guys. As a sophomore, he was keeping pace in stats with both Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy as a trio of playmakers, up until he pulled a hamstring and missed most of the second half of the season. As a junior, Jeudy and Ruggs again got all the media hype, but Smith was always known as the one with the best hands, and he led the team in catches and yards. Which, when you think about it, is kind of nutty that Alabama’s No. 2 and No. 3 receivers in 2019 were both drafted in the top-15.
I’d say that after his two game-winning catches as a freshman in 2017, pretty much every Alabama fan knew he was destined to be an elite receiver. He just sometimes got a little forgotten because Ruggs ran a 4.3-forty and Jeudy could pull off the human joystick jukes. But I don’t think anyone ever imagined he’d be the first receiver to win a Heisman in 30 years.
Gene: Outside of the obvious names like Smith and Najee Harris, who are some under-the-radar offensive players on Alabama that Ohio State fans should keep an eye on? Who could make big plays in the title game, whether they’ve been doing it quietly all season or you think a specific matchup in this game would allow for it?
Brent: TE Jahleel Billingsley is the guy to watch. The sophomore didn’t really play much as a freshman or early in the season, but has blasted onto the scene in the final third of this year. The dude is crazy athletic for a tight end, so much so that he actually won the starting kick return job the last two weeks. (I’m still not sure that’s been a positive experiment, but it definitely shows what the coaches think about his athleticism). He’s been good for one long touchdown every single week for the last four or five games.
Gene: What, in your opinion, is the strongest aspect of this year’s Alabama team? This team is tremendously talented across the board, but what have the Tide done this season specifically that has really caught your eye? By contrast, what do you think is the weakest area on the team?
Brent: The strength has to be the offensive philosophy and play design. Every run play has Mac Jones faking a quick slant or screen after handing it off. Most passes involve play action. Fake screens, fake wheels, and decoy motions abound on every play.... and all of them always build into other plays later in the game that look the exact same, except the ball goes somewhere else. But despite all that eye candy, the passing game is actually a fairly nuanced one that attacks all three levels of the field, rather than some rinky-dink high school offense that’s all fakes and screens.
Of course, the only reason that all works so effectively is the offensive line. Personally, I think this has been the best offensive line in Nick Saban’s tenure. However, the injury to Landon Dickerson (who just won the Rimington Award) is a MASSIVE blow to that, and it showed up when Alabama struggled to get much traction running up the middle against Notre Dame while trying to kill clock in the second half.
I’ve already hit on the main weaknesses of this team earlier: containing off-tackle runs and covering tight ends and running backs in the passing game. And a particular defensive back who may or may not actually be starting in this game.
Gene: Steve Sarkisian has already accepted the job as Texas’ next head coach. Is there any concern at all that his head may not be entirely into his last game with Alabama, or do you think he is still 100% locked in to the task at hand?
Brent: I dearly hope he’s locked in. I’m REALLY tired of our coordinators accepting jobs elsewhere every time Alabama gets to a National Championship. While it worked out fine in Jeremy Pruitt’s case, it was absolutely disastrous for Lane Kiffin and Mike Locksley. The biggest hope I’m clinging to is how the Early Signing Period in recruiting means that Texas is pretty much done with their recruiting class, so there probably isn’t really any pressure on Sark to be trying to do some last second recruiting for February.
Gene: Dabo Swinney had previously ranked Ohio State No. 11 in his final coaches poll, stating that they didn’t deserve to make the CFP because they didn’t play enough games before they promptly kicked his ass on the field. Nick Saban ranked the Buckeyes No. 5, but hasn’t been a whiny brat about OSU’s playoff spot like Swinney was. Do Alabama fans also feel that the Buckeyes’ spot was unearned, or do they respect this Ohio State team and what they’ve been able to accomplish in spite of awful management by the Big Ten Conference from the jump?
Brent: I don’t think any of us ever really thought Ohio State wasn’t one of the three most talented teams in the nation. I won’t lie and say that, before you went and annihilated Clemson, it was hard for any of us to really be sure what that Ohio State team was. While they’d had some nice performances, the offense looked particularly dreadful against Northwestern... And that was 17% of your entire season. The Buckeyes were just an unknown due to sample size, and I definitely don’t blame anyone for ranking Texas A&M right up there considering their resume.
Anyway, now we have enough evidence to know what Ohio State can be this year, and it’s quite clear this is the matchup of the two best teams in college football.
Gene: What are some of the keys to this matchup in your mind? What must happen in order for Alabama to win this game? What must happen in order for the Buckeyes to come away victorious despite being eight-point underdogs?
Brent: If Alabama can keep Trey Sermon from busting off a bunch of big runs and not do some stupid turnovers, I think the Tide wins. I think Alabama’s offense has a lot of advantages over the OSU defense in multiple phases, and they will absolutely score some points. And I think a combination of Alabama’s corners and pass rush would be able to get enough stops against a 1-dimensional passing game for Alabama to get a 2-score win.
On the other hand, if Sermon is able to get off tackle, break off some big runs, and put the offense into a more pressured situation, then the Buckeyes could absolutely pull off a back-and-forth kind of win.
Gene: What is your prediction for the final score of the game?
Brent: Most everyone in the media seems to think this one is going to be right in the 38-31 range, and I think that’s probably about right. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s even more defensive than anyone expects, and the final score is 35-27 Alabama.
Special thanks again to Brent Taylor for his valuable insight on this year’s matchup. Be sure to follow him on Twitter and check out Roll ‘Bama Roll for everything and anything Alabama.
If you would like to check out my answers to Brent’s questions about Ohio State, you can find those here.