Four months ago, the Big Ten conference still had not yet reversed its decision to cancel the league football season. Consequently, the Ohio State Buckeyes were on the outside looking in on a 2020 college football season which was about to go ahead without them. Now, on 11 January 2021, the Buckeyes are going to suit up for a crack at the CFP title; sixty minutes of football separating them from a ninth national championship.
During this unique pandemic-riven season, Ohio State saw more than its fair share of hardship over the course of the regular campaign. Maryland & Michigan were forced to cancel on the Buckeyes due to outbreaks (although Harbaugh would have used a tummy ache as a legitimate excuse to avoid another whooping), while an outbreak among the Buckeyes necessitated the cancellation of the matchup against Illinois. With three regular-season games missing from their resume – in a year where the schedule was cut to just eight games – the candidacy of Ohio State as one of the top four teams was shaken.
However, the committee saw enough from the Buckeyes in the games they did play to be convinced the team was worthy of the opportunity to compete for their ninth title. Those games included top-15 ranked wins against a tricky Indiana team, and versus Northwestern in the conference title game: two of the toughest defenses in the nation last season.
But the Buckeyes have not been without their detractors. Some of the criticism has been fair. After all, Buckeyes had only played six games prior by the time Championship Weekend ended in OSU bringing home another Big Ten title. The conference, too, had a poor year. Perennial Top-25 teams Wisconsin – hampered by their own flurry of game cancellations – Michigan and Penn State all had very disappointing seasons. Additionally, neither of OSU’s top-15 victories were particularly convincing; Although the Buckeyes were without 26 players in the contests against the Wildcats.
But the committee stuck to their guns and granted the scarlet and grey a CFP semi-final meeting against Clemson. That performance by the Buckeyes completely vindicated the committee’s decision to include them. The team eviscerated the Tigers 49-28, serving a fat wedge of humble pie to the haters, and their king Dabo Swinney. With the Clemson monkey finally off their back, the Buckeyes turned their attention to that familiar foe, Alabama. A team they beat on their way to securing the inaugural CFP trophy back in 2015.
The Buckeyes hope to capture the magic of 2015, again, to take down Nick Saban and weather the Tide. This time not in the semi-final, but in a winner-take-all championship matchup. It won’t be easy, but the Buckeyes are more than up to the challenge.
Alabama probably possesses the best offense Saban has ever had in his coaching career. Three members of the offensive unit – Mac Jones, Devonta Smith, Najee Harris – were finalists for the Heisman this year, with the star wide receiver, Smith, taking home the hardware. Bama is also strong in the areas we have become accustomed to seeing under Nick Saban. The offensive line, for instance, won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s best OLine. They are an experienced group with 126 starts among them. But there is an Achilles heel, and the Buckeyes are ripe to expose it.
This Alabama defense is not your classic Bama D, which has choked the life out of opponents for fun. They rank 92nd in defensive passing marginal explosiveness (who knew that stat existed?). For reference, Clemson ranked 100th. To illustrate the vulnerability of the pass defense, the Tide coughed up a season-high 48 points against that well-known offensive juggernaut…Ole Miss. But Alabama has also shown they can flip the switch and suffocate a team’s offense, albeit against much lesser teams. On three occasions they have held a team to three points or fewer, including a shutout of Mississippi State. And they surrendered just 14 points in their semi-final to Notre Dame.
But Bama hasn’t faced as balanced and dangerous an attack as the Buckeyes offer. OSU ranked 4th, ahead of Bama, in total offense this season with 554.9 yards per game. These numbers are split almost perfectly down the middle – 272.3 / 272.6 – between the passing and rushing game. Going by rushing yards per game, other than the three Forces teams and Kent State, the Buckeyes had the leading rushing attack in the nation behind the three-headed beast of Sermon-Fields-Teague III. The Buckeyes also finished 4th in yard per play (7.51) and in scoring offense (43.4ppg).
This all matters because with the struggles we have seen in the Buckeyes’ secondary all season, Fields and company will need to be at their best on offense in order to outgun the Crimson Tide. The Clemson game showed that Ohio State has the ammunition to outlast an Alabama point-scoring blitz, should it come to that. In that game Fields, while playing half the game injured, threw as many pass TDs (6) as he did incompletions, going 22-28 for 385 yards and an outstanding 99.0QBR. Olave was the main beneficiary as he caught six passes for 132 yards and two scores. On the ground, Sermon continued an unbelievable stretch of football by rushing for 193 yards one week after exploding for a Buckeyes record 332 yards against Northwestern.
As the marginal explosiveness stat above suggests, Alabama is vulnerable to a well-executed passing attack. The kind that Ohio State demonstrated with the semi-final performance. Bama does have some sensational playmakers in the secondary, headlined by cornerback Patrick Surtain, but the team has faltered often while defending against talented passing offenses like that of Florida, who dropped 46 on them in the SEC title game.
Alabama is a surprising 31st in the nation in total defense. But crucially they are 79th…79th!!!!! In the nation in passing yards allowed per game (242.2). Which is a full 30 yards worse than Clemson was allowing. And we saw how bad it turned out for Dabo. They also allow 14.57 yards per completion which were bad enough for 12th-worst in the nation. Fields and his corps of star receivers must be frothing at the mouth thinking of the opportunities for big plays through the air.
It must be said that Ohio State has its own issues preventing big gains in the opponent’s passing game. Wade and the secondary will need to step up as they did against Clemson to make things tougher for Smith, Metchie and Bolden (and maybe Waddle). More importantly, the defensive line will need to get after Mac Jones the same way they did Trevor Lawrence. Unsettling the Alabama QB, from the start, will be one big key to success tonight. Even though this 2020 Buckeyes team has not racked up the sacks like in previous years, the defensive front has been adept in the pass rush all year. They will have to put in a Herculean effort to overcome such a stout and experienced Bama OLine, but if Ohio State can put the pressure on Jones, they will put themselves in a good position to get some stops.
That strategy of upsetting the Mac Jones passing attack will get a big assist from what is the number two pass defense in the country. Ohio State allows fewer than 90 yards per game on the ground. Evidence of what the front seven is capable of was on full display in the semi-final when they held Travis Etienne to just 32 yards. Even more impressive, the mobile and athletic Lawrence – who went off for 100 yards in the semi-final game against the Buckeyes last year and is always a danger with his legs – was stifled throughout the Sugar Bowl, accounting for an embarrassing negative eight yards on the ground. Can the Buckeyes give Najee Harris the same brutal treatment?
With all this said, at the end of the day, the game will come down to offensive firepower. Whoever has the most bullets left in the fourth quarter will likely walk away with the glory. In this humble writer’s opinion, that final bullet will cut through the heart of Alabama fans as Justin Fields, the greatest QB to don scarlet and grey, fires his Buckeye team to their ninth natty in program history.