There’s no real question about it: Ohio State’s defense will face its toughest test of the year against Alabama in the national championship game.
Ohio State’s defense has already had its ups and downs this season, and the same thing could have been said going into the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, in which the Buckeyes allowed 444 total yards (including 400 passing yards) but held Clemson to a season-low 28 points, enough for the Buckeyes to roll to a 49-28 victory and earn their opportunity to play the Crimson Tide.
Alabama’s offense, though, has been the best in the country this year, leading all Power 5 teams with 48.2 points per game and 7.84 yards per play. And it presents major challenges to opposing defenses in all areas.
DeVonta Smith has been so good this year, catching 105 passes for 1,641 yards and 20 touchdowns, that he just became the first wide receiver since 1991 to win the Heisman Trophy. Mac Jones, who leads all FBS quarterbacks in completion percentage (77.0), yards per attempt (11.3) and passer rating (203.0), was also a Heisman finalist. Najee Harris, who has a nation-leading 24 touchdowns in 12 games, is widely considered to be college football’s best running back.
Alabama’s offensive line is also arguably the nation’s best, having won the Joe Moore Award. John Metchie III has emerged as another big-play weapon opposite Smith, catching 47 passes for 835 yards and six touchdowns. And it’s possible Jaylen Waddle – a dynamic receiver and punt returner who, like Smith, Jones, Harris and Alabama left tackle Alex Leatherwood, has been projected as a first-round NFL draft pick – could return for Monday’s game after missing the Crimson Tide’s last seven games with an ankle injury.
That’s a lot to digest for Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs and his players.
“This is a great offense. It is a complete offense,” Coombs said Wednesday. “They have great players, but they also have a great scheme and they understand how to attack defenses. People have tried numerous different things against them, and they always have an answer.
“They run the ball well. They throw the ball extremely well. They have great skill. For us, this is the biggest offensive line that we've faced, but they're also very gifted, very athletic, they can run, and they do a great job. So it's going to be really, really important for us that we're fitting the right gaps, that we have inside hands with great pad level … and then obviously we're going to have to do a great job in coverage with the skill of the receivers and the quality of the quarterback.”
Coombs also says, however, that he doesn’t want the Buckeyes to be afraid of the challenge.
“I mean, we're going to go play,” Coombs said. “I don't think you can play a game scared. I think that would be probably the worst thing you could do. But you have to also acknowledge when you're playing teams that are really, really good at what they do. And they are, and we acknowledge that, so we understand the challenge that's ahead of us and we're preparing to play.”
Given that Smith was just named college football’s best player for the 2020 season, and that Ohio State’s secondary has been shaky all year, the matchup between him and the Buckeyes’ defensive backs has understandably drawn a lot of the focus leading up to the national championship game. There’s reason to worry whether Shaun Wade and Ohio State’s other cornerbacks can adequately cover him, given that no one has consistently covered Smith and that Wade continued to be inconsistent in coverage against Clemson, but Wade still isn’t backing down from that potential battle.
“You already know who I want to go up against,” Wade said, referring to Smith, when asked who he wanted to cover in Monday night’s game. “DeVonta is a great player, very, very shifty, quick and fast. You see it on his highlights. He can do everything in the book as a receiver, and just really, really looking forward to that matchup. But at the end of the day, just want to win that game.”
Add in the possibility that Waddle could be back on Monday, and fellow Ohio State defensive back Marcus Williamson says the Buckeyes’ preparation for the Crimson Tide’s receivers has been “extensive” – but he’s excited for the chance to face them, too.
“Of course DeVonta just won the Heisman the other night, and just all around, they're great players,” Williamson said. “Any time you're in the national championship, there won't be bad players on the field. So being able to get on the film, prepare for what we think they're going to do, it's been fun, as well. So just really excited to get out there and compete as a secondary against their group. “
While there’s no guarantee that Waddle will be back – Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian confirmed Wednesday that Waddle returned to practice on Tuesday, but wouldn’t say one way or the other whether he thought Waddle would be ready to play – Coombs said the Buckeyes “absolutely have to prepare like he's going to play.”
“He's an extraordinary athlete, extraordinary receiver,” Coombs said. “He's a great player, and you're going to have to account for him on the field. There's no question about that. They just have so many really, really gifted receivers and players on offense. That's another one. So we'll have to prepare and be ready for them.”
With or without Waddle, Alabama’s passing game will be the best Ohio State has faced this season. But so too will Alabama’s running game, led by Harris and its well-regarded offensive line.
“I don't think you can play a game scared. I think that would be probably the worst thing you could do. But you have to also acknowledge when you're playing teams that are really, really good at what they do.”– Kerry Coombs
The Buckeyes have shut down most of their opponents in the running game this year, ranking second in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision with only 89.1 rushing yards allowed per game this season. Against Clemson, Ohio State allowed just 44 rushing yards on 22 carries, including just 32 yards from highly touted running back Travis Etienne.
Harris is a bigger, more physical runner at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, and he’s got a bigger, more talented offensive line in front of him as well, which will make it more difficult for Ohio State's run defense to dominate as it has. But the Buckeyes are confident the success they’ve had stopping the run all season can translate against the Crimson Tide.
“He's more of a physical guy, but then we have certain things to prep for that,” Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner said of Harris. “The guys are a little bit different, but as long as we do what we did for Etienne, then I think we'll be very good at stopping him.”
Led by an All-American in Leatherwood and another All-SEC performer in left guard Deonte Brown, Alabama’s offensive line is probably the best Ohio State has faced in a game all year. But because they go up against Ohio State’s offensive line every day in practice, the Buckeyes are confident they’ll be ready for that matchup.
“We like to compare our offensive line to their offensive line, so it's going to be very similar,” Werner said. “We're ready to get after them. But I credit them. Very good offensive line, very disciplined and very aggressive getting off the ball.”
For all the concerns of how the back end of Ohio State’s defense will hold up against Alabama, it was the dominance of the Buckeyes’ defensive line that enabled them to keep Clemson in check in the Sugar Bowl. And they expect that to be a key to the game once again.
“It'll be won in the trenches, no doubt,” said Ohio State defensive tackle Haskell Garrett. “Games like this will be won up front. If you can't move offensive and defensive lines, then you have no chance at winning, in my opinion. Offensive linemen and defensive linemen are unsung heroes, so we might not get the glamorous, the flash, but it's won up front, and the better front is going to win this game.”
Much like with last week’s game against Clemson, the Buckeyes know they can’t expect to be perfect on defense against Alabama. Given that the Crimson Tide have scored at least 31 points in all 12 of their games this season, they’re going to score their share of points and make their share of plays. Ultimately, though, the Buckeyes just need to make enough stops to give their offense a chance to score enough points to win the game, so they have to limit Alabama’s effectiveness on offense rather than allowing the Crimson Tide to run them off the field.
“At the end of the day, what Coach Coombs says every day is we've got to win by one point to get the national championship,” Wade said. “Playing against teams like this, they're going to end up scoring … We focus on just playing every play, playing each play one at a time and not focusing on the next play or the play in the past. Just play the play that's there right now.”