Alabama vs. Ohio State: Complete Guide to 2021 National Championship Game

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2021

Alabama vs. Ohio State: Complete Guide to 2021 National Championship Game

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Justin Fields and the Ohio State Buckeyes will take on the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship to wrap up the 2020 season on Monday.

    Ohio State crushed Clemson 49-28 in the Sugar Bowl behind a six-touchdown performance from Fields. He accounted for 427 yards of offense, while running back Trey Sermona late breakout playertotaled 254 yards from scrimmage.

    Alabama, meanwhile, stomped Notre Dame 31-14 in the Rose Bowl as Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith caught three of Mac Jones' four touchdown passes.

    The programs last met in a semifinal of the 2014 season's CFP when Ohio State clipped Alabama 42-35.

Game Information

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    When: Monday, Jan. 11, at 8 p.m. ET

    Where: Hard Rock Stadium; Miami Gardens, Florida

    TV: ESPN

    Live stream: WatchESPN

    Spread (via DraftKings): Alabama -7.5

    Total: 75



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How Alabama Made It Here

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    Led by coordinator and soon-to-be Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, Alabama has been a juggernaut offensively.

    Jones has completed 77 percent of his passes, racking up 4,036 passing yards and 36 touchdowns with only four interceptions. He's rarely throwing from an uncomfortable position, and the offensive line has surrendered only 17 sacks in 12 games while helping Najee Harris rush for 1,387 and an FBS-best 24 scores.

    Evidenced by his Heisman win, Smith is the top playmaker. He leads the nation in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,641) and touchdowns (20). John Metchie III is an explosive option with 17.7 yards per catch on his 47 receptions, and tight end Jahleel Billingsley has become a regular target since late November.

    The offense is the biggest reason Alabama has played a single game within 15 points all season.

    On the opposite side, the Tide have a formidableyet vulnerableunit. Ole Miss and Florida both scored 46-plus points, and Ohio State has a more efficient offense than either one.

    Alabama ranks 17th nationally in yards allowed per play, but its performance against top offenses is cause for concern.

How Ohio State Made It Here

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Most importantly, Ohio State navigated a down Big Ten with relative ease. Still, prior to demolishing Clemson, the Buckeyes hadn't performed at a high level for an entire game in 2020.

    The offensive line struggled at various points in the early part of the season. The secondary had plenty of rough moments. The passing game (without Chris Olave) stagnated against Northwestern.

    But in the Sugar Bowl, most everything came together for Ohio State.

    Fields showed his peak value, throwing for 385 yards and running for 42. Sermon followed up his record-breaking day opposite Northwestern with 193 rushing yards against Clemson. Olave and Garrett Wilson both caught deep passes, and the Buckeyes schemed in targets for seldom-used tight ends.

    Defensively, the Buckeyes are strongest along the interior of the D-line and at linebacker. They limited Clemson to just 44 rushing yards, containing Trevor Lawrence on designed runs and basically eliminating Travis Etienne on the ground.

    The secondary still had a few breakdowns, and OSU cannot afford many of those against Alabama. But if the other parts of the team are thriving, the Buckeyes can overcome a couple of mistakes.

Top 2020 NFL Draft Prospects

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press


    DeVonta Smith, WR: Expected to either be the first or second wide receiver picked, along with LSU's Ja'Marr Chase. Smith is undersized (6'1", 174 lbs) relative to a prototypical receiver, but his production is far more important than hitting size/weight ideals.

    Patrick Surtain II, CB: Surtain, the son of an All-Pro corner, has a strong chance to be the first player selected at his position. He'll face two excellent receiversOlave and Wilsonin the title game.

    Jaylen Waddle, WR: Despite the ankle injury that sidelined him after five games, Waddle is a definite Round 1 talent. He's incredibly fast and, more importantly, is also a refined receiver.

    Mac Jones, QB: While most of the other top-rated quarterbacks are mobile threats, Jones is a typical dropback passer. Nevertheless, he throws with excellent anticipation and is extremely accurate when in rhythm. System fit is always key for quarterbacks, but especially for a pass-dependent player like Jones.

    Najee Harris, RB: Harris doesn't have breakaway speed, but he's a smart and powerful runner who has added versatility to his game. During the last two seasons, he's rushed for 2,611 yards, caught 63 passes and totaled 47 touchdowns.


    Ohio State

    Justin Fields, QB: Likely an early selection in a deep quarterback class that also features Lawrence, North Dakota State's Trey Lance, BYU's Zach Wilson, Jones and Florida's Kyle Trask.

    Chris Olave, WR: Similar to Smith, Olave isn't an overwhelming player physically. But he too just gets open. That ability to create natural separation makes Olave, who's averaging 110 receiving yards in 2020, a dependable target.

    Wyatt Davis, OG: The two-time AP All-American can be a dominant run-blocker, particularly for offenses that prioritize inside runs and would emphasize his pure strength.

Injury Report

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    On the injury topic, most everyone is focused on two players: Justin Fields and Jaylen Waddle.

    Fields took a crushing hit from Clemson's James Skalski that resulted in a targeting penalty. Fields stayed in the game and excelled, but he visibly played through pain. While he's near-certain to play, don't expect a clear indication of his health.

    "Yeah, I definitely expect him to play, but we don't get into specifics on injuries," Ohio State coach Ryan Day told reporters early in the week. "We put out our availability report at the end of the week, and that's always been our policy."

    Alabama, meanwhile, is hoping Waddle can return from what initially seemed like a season-ending ankle injury.

    "He has been able to practice some," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "His status for the game is still relatively up in the air, and it will probably be a game-day decision."

    Beyond those two stars, Ohio State has no injuries of note. Alabama center Landon Dickerson is out because of a knee injury that happened in the SEC Championship Game, and cornerback Malachi Moore is expected to play.

    Ultimately, both rosters are mostly healthy.

    Note: Positive COVID-19 tests and subsequent contact tracing may or may not impact availability at a later date.

Keys to Watch

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Ohio State: Stay Two-Dimensional

    While the offensive line's improvement has keyed Ohio State's rise, Sermon's late surge is vital too.

    His ability to break tackles or gain five-plus yards after contact (both on runs and receptions) hadn't appeared on a consistent basis before the Big Ten Championship Game. Sermon had a few critical third-down conversions that Clemson seemed likely to stop but missed a tackle or couldn't bring him down.

    Alabama has allowed only 3.2 yards per carry, so an effective OSU rushing attack can stress the Tide defensively more than usual. Plus, mobile quarterbacks on top offenses have flummoxed Alabama for years; Fields certainly fits the mold.


    Alabama: Keep Mac Clean

    Whether by sturdy blocking, Jones' intelligence or good schemerollouts, run-pass options, etc.Alabama has done an excellent job keeping pressure from reaching the quarterback.

    If that remains true, it's difficult to see Ohio State winning. Again, the strength of its defense is up front. If the Buckeyes are relying on the secondary to carry the unit, that's concerning. Indiana nearly pulled off a 28-point second-half comeback because it relentlessly pushed the ball downfield.

    Jones very rarely scrambles; he has a single 10-yard run this season. Disrupt his timing and comfort in the pocket, and Ohio State has a path to a victory.


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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    Ohio State played its absolute best game of 2020 at the perfect moment and earned a little revenge in the process. It's impossible not to be impressed with Fields and the offense, especially after his injury. Day called a brilliant game, mixing in late substitutions and having the Buckeyes quickly break the huddle. Ohio State is certain to have a few surprises for the Crimson Tide.

    But the opposite matchup is concerning.

    Clemson had a massive lull in the second quarter, which Ohio State won 21-0. Not coincidentally, the Buckeyes won by 21. Much of that can be attributed to Clemson offensive coordinator and play-caller Tony Elliott being unavailable. Alabama, with Sarkisian, is better prepared to adjust faster.

    Plus, the Tide have a substantially more effective offensive line than Clemson. Ohio State needs to play a near-perfect game defensively to contain Smith, slow Harris and eliminate Metchieand that's even before thinking of Waddle's possible return.

    Alabama stays ahead thanks to forcing a couple of red-zone field goals, and a late touchdown puts the game out of reach.

    Prediction: Alabama 41, Ohio State 30