CFB's Wildest Season Ends with Comfort and Familiarity of Alabama vs. Ohio State

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterJanuary 10, 2021

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith holds up his most outstanding offensive player trophy after their 31-14 win against Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game in Arlington, Texas, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

What happens next will actually feel quite normal. The restlessness surrounding the college football season's final act, whether you have a horse in the race or not, will surface like it normally does. There will be a sense of history. There will be a sense of sadness. Of pride and appreciation. It will be euphoric and empty all at once. All of it, in a way, will feel deeply familiar.

The matchup that will carry us to the offseason is rich in storylines and possibilities. But the fact that we are here, on the cusp of the final game, is nothing short of a minor miracle.

Before we immerse ourselves in Alabama vs. Ohio State—in Mac Jones vs. Justin Fields and Nick Saban vs. Ryan Day and DeVonta Smith vs. the football universe—we must first retrace how it all came together.

We must remind ourselves of how exactly we arrived in this place. It wasn't easy; it still isn't. And it's unknown how long that will be the case. It was different in many ways, but it was also familiar in ways that we didn't expect.

The national championship will be played Monday night at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. It will mark five months to the day the Big Ten announced it was postponing its fall football season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Pac-12 followed suit. Uncertainty mounted. In that moment, it felt like the season was slipping away. A national championship wasn't even being thought about.

The players and coaches embarked on the #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay movement, which largely escalated thanks to Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who fell one game short of making it to the very end.

Seasons were delayed. Then the Big Ten came back. The Pac-12 followed.

And so, they played. Or at least they tried. Many did so without fans, the lifeblood of a sport normally drenched in pageantry and emotion. Some played a schedule that resembled something close to a normal season. Others were limited to a handful of games. That discrepancy, while far less of a talking point now, somewhat fittingly follows us to college football's conclusion.

There were postponements and cancellations. Lots of them. All told, more than 120 games were altered because of the pandemic. Not even the national championship was free of this speculation, with rumors of COVID-19 issues at Ohio State sparking concerns over whether the game will go on as planned.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Players tested positive along the way. Games were lost. Coaches, including the two who will pace the sidelines on Monday evening, yelled at their televisions and their teams from their homes after their own positive tests.

The playoff was decided a few days before Christmas. The Heisman Trophy was awarded through video conference on a Tuesday night in January. This was a year we will never forget and not one we will ever want to relive. A year of change and doubt and concern.

And yet, here we are.

What happens next is familiar. And with Alabama and Ohio State, it can be about football.

There are two elite quarterbacks with vastly different styles and journeys.

Justin Fields began his career at Georgia as a 5-star recruit. He ends it at Ohio State, with a wealth of NFL interest surrounding his immense physical gifts, and with a rib cage that may or may not be completely healed after the brutal hit he took (and played through) against Clemson.

Mac Jones was never supposed to be here. He wasn't expected to start or star after taking over for Tua Tagovailoa last season when he went down with an injury. A 3-star QB in a football machine that normally welcomes and molds 5-stars, Jones' path to stardom is loud, unexpected and welcomed.

Two remarkable running backs with vastly different physiques and techniques.

Najee Harris is 230 pounds—part bowling ball, part ballerina. He can run through a team's best linebacker or hurdle its best defensive back. No matter his performance in what is certain to be his final game at Alabama, Harris will leave a legacy that few running backs at the school have left. Given the competition and those that came before him, that's saying something.

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

Trey Sermon is a football comet. He left Oklahoma for Ohio State this offseason, only to spend much of the year getting healthy. In the past two games, he's run for 524 yards. As Ohio State has found new life, Sermon has seen his profile explode. His emergence has come at just the right moment, especially considering the unknowns surrounding Fields.

Two collections of wideouts capable of taking a game over at any moment.

DeVonta Smith is a Heisman winner. That says it all. A wide receiver who was never the biggest or the fastest or the most talked-about, a theme that carried into this season. He will leave as one of the most decorated and celebrated players in the history of Alabama. And, as has been the case this season, he is likely to flash one last time.

While Ohio State doesn't necessarily have a DeVonta Smith—and this year, no one did—Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson aren't far off. They are plenty capable of having that kind of impact. Clemson saw that firsthand. This is an exceptional duo.

Two head coaches at different points in their personal and professional lives.

Nick Saban has been here. He has won this game six times. A seventh would only further cement him as the greatest coach in college football history. While the questions surrounding his coaching future will always exist until the 69-year-old finally retires, this doesn't feel like his last chance. It's just another in a long line of championship moments.

His opponent, Ryan Day, is just 41. But youth and inexperience has yet to hinder a coach who owns a 23-1 record. His offensive bag of tricks is plenty deep. And for as much as Saban has to counter, this is an entirely different challenge.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

This is why we watch. Two elite coaches. Two elite offenses. Two rosters stockpiled with future NFL players. Two of the sport's biggest brands matching up in a game that will carry history forward.

To get here, the two teams played a different number of games. The discrepancies, while well documented, no longer matter. The controversy surrounding the playoff and its participants has subsided. The question as to whether a wide receiver can really win the Heisman has been answered.

There are no more questions. Just a single game and a single outcome. But we know how much it took to get here, and we are thankful for those who made it possible.

It will feel the same, look the same and sound the same, but we know better. We, like the teams, players and coaches, have been along for the ride. But given all that it has taken to get us hereuncertainty that will linger up until the vey endAlabama-Ohio State is a fitting final chapter.

For the first time in a long time, it feels right.


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