Ohio State vs. Alabama: Key Storylines for College Football Championship 2021
When Alabama and Ohio State meet in the College Football Playoff National Championship at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami on Monday night, it won't be the first time the programs have faced off in a CFP matchup. And the Buckeyes are hoping this matchup goes just like the first one.
In the inaugural College Football Playoff at the end of the 2014 season, Ohio State beat Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl to advance to the championship game (where it beat Oregon 42-20 to win the national title). That was the last time the Buckeyes made it there, as they had lost their previous two CFP games before beating Clemson 49-28 in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day.
It's guaranteed that this season's national champion is going to finish with an unbeaten record. Alabama has won its first 12 games, which include wins over Florida (SEC Championship Game) and Notre Dame (Rose Bowl). Meanwhile, the Buckeyes are 7-0, having defeated Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game to reach the CFP.
While Ohio State is looking to win its first national title since the 2014 season, Alabama is aiming to win its third in six seasons, having won the championship in both the 2015 and 2017 seasons.
Here's a look at three storylines heading into college football's biggest game.
Will Waddle Return and Make Alabama's Offense Even Better?
Alabama's offense has been one of the best units in the country this season. And the scary thing for opposing defenses? It may have been even better if junior wide receiver Jaylen Waddle hadn't been limited to five games.
Waddle hasn't played since Oct. 24, when he suffered a fractured ankle that required surgery during the Crimson Tide's win over Tennessee. He made a huge start to the season, as he had 25 receptions for 557 yards and four touchdowns over the first four games, recording at least 120 receiving yards in each of them.
Waddle's injury was expected to keep him out for the rest of the season. But it turns out that may not be the case. The wideout has been active in practice, and according to head coach Nick Saban, he will be a "game-time decision" for Monday night's showdown with the Buckeyes.
"The issue with injuries is when a guy does practice, how does he respond to the workload?" Saban said Thursday, per Charlie Potter of 247Sports. "Sometimes if a guy practices one day and gets sore the next, you can't practice him the next day, so you just keep trying to build up his workload to where he might be able to play. So that's a work in progress right now, and you really can't predict where he might be."
If Waddle can play, he could have a big game. Even if he's not full strength and can't play at his typical high level, his presence could take some of the Ohio State defense's focus off senior wide receiver DeVonta Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner.
How Is Fields' Health After His Sugar Bowl Injury?
Although Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields returned from a hard hit and a rib injury to lead his team to victory in the Sugar Bowl, it was clear that the junior was in pain. He went to the medical tent on the sideline, got treated and still went on to pass for 385 yards and six touchdowns in a victory over Clemson.
There haven't been many updates regarding Fields' status. But there hasn't been any indication that he may not be able to play against Alabama. In fact, he said as much earlier this week.
"I'll be good by Monday night," Fields said, according to Phil Harrison of Buckeyes Wire.
Fields suffered a thumb injury during the Big Ten Championship Game, and he said leading up to the Sugar Bowl that he would be ready to play. So there's reason to believe Fields should be fine health-wise and that he could be poised for another big showing.
If Ohio State is going to win, it will almost certainly need a big game from Fields given its defense may struggle to stop Alabama's offense. But if Fields and the Buckeyes offense can match that, they could finish the season by celebrating a national title victory.
Offenses Could Turn National Title Game into Shootout
Alabama's offense is loaded. It has the Heisman Trophy winner in Smith and two other players who finished in the top five in Heisman voting in quarterback Mac Jones and running back Najee Harris. That's why the Crimson Tide are averaging 535 total yards of offense per game, which ranks fifth in the country among teams that played more than four games.
One of the only teams ranked ahead of Alabama on that list? Ohio State. The Buckeyes are third with 544.9 total yards per game, with Fields having an impressive season and running back Trey Sermon on a roll of late, rushing for 524 yards over Ohio State's past two games.
Alabama has scored more than 40 points in 10 of its 12 games and hasn't scored fewer than 31 in any outing. Ohio State has scored 38 or more points in six of its seven games. So things could be setting up for a lot of offense from both sides Monday night.
Perhaps that means the game will be decided by which defense can get a stop in a crucial situation. If both teams are trading scores, it could be a huge momentum swing for a defense to make a big play and prevent the other team's offense from keeping it going.
Regardless of which team may do that, it should be a fun matchup. Alabama and Ohio State are undefeated conference champions capable of putting up points quickly, which should be a formula for an exciting game.