We are counting down the hours to No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Ohio State meeting in the College Football Playoff National Championship. When breaking down the matchup between the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes, it's impossible to ignore the potential that a key player (or players) might be a late scratch before kickoff on the heels of news last week that , which led to discussions of potentially postponing the most important game of the year.
Despite that, the game remains on track for Monday night, and while Ohio State's availability remains enough of an unknown that it needs to be acknowledged, it does not dominate the conversation. This team is too talented and performed too well against Clemson to be written off based on reports of COVID issues. Alabama is a team that Ohio State can beat, and we think that even a few missing players would keep that championship potential on the table.
So with the unknown addressed and out of the way, here are five keys for the Buckeyes to knock off the Crimson Tide on Monday night in Miami Gardens, Florida. For another perspective, here's keys to Alabama taking down Ohio State.
1. Justin Fields' health and mobility
It was the thumb against Northwestern. Against Clemson, it was the ribs. As much as Fields can say he'll be ready to go on Monday night, you have to consider the bumps and bruises he's taken on the path to the national championship game. No one is expecting Fields to be limited, but these knocks along the way have been a reminder of his value to the Buckeyes' success. Every wince from Fields is a gasp for an Ohio State fan, knowing that while backup CJ Stroud is capable against many of the teams on the regular season schedule, the drop-off would be significant against a squad the caliber of Alabama.
The larger point for Fields is how he keeps defenses on their heels with his ability to make plays on the run. It happens on multiple levels -- first as a threat to run in zone read, run-pass option or designed quarterback run plays. Fields demands attention from the linebackers and any unblocked defensive linemen in a way that can open things up for running back Trey Sermon or take attention away from a wide receiver on a crossing route or other skill position player leaking out into the open space. Fields doesn't even have to run all that much to prove his threat, and the schematic advantage established by that threat helps open up the playbook for Ryan Day and the offensive staff.
The other aspect of Fields' mobility is likely what's keeping Nick Saban up at night leading into the game: how he uses his legs to evade pressure and extend plays when things break down. At 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, Fields can not only move around pass rushers in the pocket but also shake off would-be tacklers, often with the ability to keep his eyes down the field and find open receivers. Those throws on the run outside the pocket can be kryptonite to even the perfect defensive play call, especially when you consider how the Alabama defenders have to respect Fields' ability to take off running himself in those situations.
2. Trey Sermon's fresh legs
Sermon's rushing attempts totals were 11, 13, 12, 9 and 10 through the first five games, and it wasn't until his 10-carry, 112-yard effort against Michigan State on Dec. 5 that he amassed more than 70 rushing yards or even scored a rushing touchdown. Since then, Sermon's carried the ball 29 times for 331 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern and 31 times for 193 yards and a score against Clemson. The former Oklahoma star has exploded here late in the season, and it's come as a result of finally getting settled with full health behind an offensive line that's also playing its best football of the season at the right time.
Sermon suffered a season-ending knee injury in November 2019, and it took a lot of work and rehab to build back the strength and confidence required to be an explosive runner. So while getting back into shape for a national championship run with the Buckeyes, Sermon sees the season postponed and then brought back. By the time he's ready to practice and play, the entire program is going through starts and stops, making the time needed to establish chemistry with his new teammates is hard to find.
Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding pointed out this week that one of Sermon's strengths has been understanding the blocking structure up front and having patience to follow blockers as the holes develop. That requires being in sync with the offensive line -- something that has taken time for the Sooners transfer. If you're of the belief that Ohio State -- because of a late start, limited start and the start-stop nature of the Buckeyes' season -- is only just now hitting its stride, then the run game is a great piece of evidence of that argument. So not only has Sermon logged less carries than most star running backs, he's got those fresh legs at a time when things are finally clicking.
3. Elite run defense to make Alabama one-dimensional
Ohio State boasts the No. 2 rushing defense in the country in yards allowed per game and ranks No. 10 in yards per attempt, and that group showed out against Clemson in limiting the Tigers to just 44 net rushing yards on 22 attempts. Dabo Swinney pointed out at halftime that the Tigers struggling to run the ball effectively was a huge reason for the lopsided score. In the second half, we saw Clemson turn into a one-dimensional offense; yes, Trevor Lawrence finishing with 400 passing yards but on 48 attempts with only two touchdowns.
This is a different Ohio State defensive line in that its stars are not the elite pass rushers on the edge like a Chase Young or Nick Bosa, but instead the run-stuffers on the inside like defensive tackle Haskell Garrett are shining. While Alabama's passing attack can overwhelm opponents, forcing the Tide into obvious passing situations with good run defense on early downs makes things easier for defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs.
If you eliminate the Najee Harris hurdle highlight run of 53 yards, Notre Dame held Alabama to just 87 rushing yards on 24 attempts (3.6 yards per carry). When Nick Saban discussed his frustrations with the offense's inability to run the ball in the second half, he's thinking of all those short or negative gains that contributed to a pedestrian effort on the other two dozen rushing attempts while all we can think about is the hurdle. Good run defense helped Notre Dame limit Alabama to its season-low point total, and it's a huge key to keeping the Tide offense in check on Monday night.
4. DeVonta Smith vs. Shaun Wade
One of the things that Ohio State did defensively against Clemson was leave Shaun Wade on somewhat of an island to win one-on-one battles and allow the rest of the defense to focus their attention elsewhere. That extra help from safeties and linebackers is huge for stopping the run and clogging passing lanes for the second and third options in a quarterback's progression. Wade is the next in line of a revolving door of Ohio State defensive backs to be high picks in the NFL Draft, and while there have been a few performances worth criticism during the regular season, he's brought his A-game to the College Football Playoff. Now comes his biggest test in lining up against 2020 Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith.
"You already know who I want to go up against at the end of the day," Wade said this week, later noting that, "DeVonta is a very great player, quick and shifty and fast. You see it on his highlights. He can do everything in the book as a receiver, and just really looking for that matchup at the end of the day."
Two elite skill players going head-to-head in the national championship game, and Wade welcomes the challenge. I love the competitiveness and can't wait to see that battle when they do get matched up. Considering the many ways Smith is used in the Alabama offense, it won't be an every-down scenario; after all, Tide offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian would much rather get Smith a more advantageous matchup. But when it happens, it will be a preview of what's to come on Sundays from two future starters in the NFL.
5. Maintaining that motivational edge
I don't put a ton of stock into the idea that Dabo Swinney's No. 11 ranking of Ohio State on his Coaches Poll ballot inspired the Buckeyes to raise their level of focus and play against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. All of the seeds of motivation and a revenge performance were planted last season in the Fiesta Bowl when the Buckeyes won in the box score but lost on the scoreboard in the semifinal. The 29-23 final score was posted in the Ohio State locker room throughout the season, and I have no doubt that someone, somewhere in that football facility -- maybe just an analyst but maybe the entire staff including Ryan Day -- began preparing a game plan for Clemson weeks in advance of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee releasing its final rankings.
Now that Ohio State has cleared that Clemson hurdle with the perfect game plan and ruthless efficiency, what's left in the tank for Alabama? It's been six years since the Buckeyes stunned the top-ranked Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff semifinal, so we can't point to any lingering rivalry on the field. Instead, we're simply getting two rosters both in search of returning their blue blood program to the top of the mountain.
If anything, there might be a motivational edge for DeVonta Smith, Najee Harris and Alex Leatherwood, all of whom played in the College Football Playoff National Championship win over Georgia as freshmen. When that trio announced their return for another season instead of going to the NFL Draft, it was clear that the pursuit of a national championship was a motivating factor. Can Ohio State, which has not played for a national championship since that 2014-15 season, match that emotional edge? I fully expect "playing Alabama" and "playing for a national championship" to be all the motivation any Ohio State players would need to get the engine going at full speed. Keep in mind, though, the level they might need to reach to match the opposition on Monday night.