National Championship Game Preview: Ohio State Looks to Complete “One of the Greatest Stories in the History of College Football” Against Alabama

By Dan Hope on January 11, 2021 at 8:35 am
Hard Rock Stadium
Kim Klement – USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State will complete a season that almost never happened by competing for college football’s biggest prize on Monday night.

Exactly five months to the day that the Big Ten initially decided to cancel its fall football season, which would have prevented the Buckeyes from participating in this year’s College Football Playoff, Ohio State will face Alabama in the season-ending national championship game at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, at 8 p.m. Monday (ESPN).


8 P.M. – MONDAY, JAN. 11


All the adversity Ohio State has had to overcome along the way, from at one point having no season at all to the unending challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, make its opportunity to play on the sport’s grandest stage even more special than it would be in a normal year.

“Our story, to me, is just simply amazing,” Ryan Day said when the Buckeyes were selected for the College Football Playoff. “We weren't even playing the season for a month, and then here we are right now. I think we have an opportunity to write one of the greatest stories in the history of college football.”

There’s still one more big chapter that has to be written in that story.

Just getting to the national championship game is a big accomplishment in itself, especially given all that Ohio State (and every other college football team) had to battle through this season. Getting there with a 49-28 CFP semifinal win over Clemson, avenging a history of heartbreak against the Tigers, ensured this season will be one to remember no matter what happens on Monday night.

But for this to truly go down as one of the greatest seasons in Ohio State history, and for the Buckeyes to accomplish the goal they’ve had their sights on all year long, they must earn one more iconic win against the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide.

“No one ever talks about getting to the national championship, they talk about winning the national championship,” Day said Sunday. “Along the way there are certain goals that you have to reach to get to this point, but the ultimate goal is to win this game. When you have your goals of beating your rival, of winning the conference, of winning the semifinal and then finally this game, you have to check off those boxes. But ultimately, this is the final goal.”

The Headlines

A Chance to Win It All

Although Ohio State has been a perennial playoff contender, it’s the first time since winning the inaugural College Football Playoff six years ago – when they beat Alabama in the semifinals before defeating Oregon to win it all – that the Buckeyes have made it back to the national championship game.

Ohio State will be looking to win its ninth national championship in school history, with Day looking to win his first in just his second year as a head coach. Alabama will be looking to win its 18th national title, having already won five national championships since Nick Saban became coach, including two CFP titles.

While none of Ohio State’s current players have played in a national championship game, all of them came to Columbus with visions of playing for titles, and they’ll now finally get the chance to make their championship dreams come true.

“We've been wanting to get this shot for as long as I've been here, and it's here,” said Ohio State tight end Luke Farrell, a fifth-year senior. “So now we've just got to capitalize on it.”

A Battle of Elite Offenses

Defense wins championships might be the old adage, but the two teams playing in Monday’s national championship game are in Miami because of their offenses.

Alabama’s offense has been the best in the country this year, leading all Football Bowl Subdivision teams with 48.2 points scored per game and 535 yards per game this season. The Crimson Tide are loaded with offensive superstars, including Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith at wide receiver, Davey O’Brien Award winner Mac Jones at quarterback, Doak Walker Award winner Najee Harris at running back and Outland Trophy winner Alex Leatherwood at left tackle.

“They certainly have great weapons on offense,” Day said. “The quarterback is tremendous. The offensive line is as good as I've seen, the running back. I mean, they're as talented an offense and play as clean as I've seen.”

That said, Ohio State’s offense also certainly has a case for being the nation’s best. Led by Justin Fields at quarterback, Trey Sermon at running back, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson at wide receiver and an offensive line that’s been dominant down the stretch, Ohio State is similarly loaded with offensive talent and has the ability to overwhelm defenses by both passing and running.

“You kind of look at their offense, they can literally do anything,” said Alabama linebacker Christian Harris. “They can run the ball at any point. They can throw it at any point. They have great, explosive receivers. They have a really explosive quarterback who can sit in the pocket, take a hit and throw it. He can run out of the pocket and scramble and throw it, or he can take off for 50 yards. So they present a really great challenge for our defense.”

A Pair of Beatable Defenses

Statistically, Alabama has the better defense in this matchup, ranking 13th nationally with only 19 points allowed per game this season. That said, the Crimson Tide have struggled against the two best offenses they’ve faced this year, allowing 48 points against Ole Miss and 46 points against Florida. They’ve been strong against the run, ranking in the top 15 nationally in yards allowed per carry (3.21) and per game (110.3), but rank 79th in the FBS with 242.9 passing yards allowed per contest.

Ohio State’s defense, which has allowed 22 points per game this season, has been even better against the run but worse against the pass. The Buckeyes rank second among all FBS teams with only 89.1 rushing yards allowed per game, but 116th out of 127 FBS teams with 281.1 passing yards allowed per game.

Given that, it would be a surprise if either of these defenses can consistently shut down either offense in this game. There’s every reason to expect this game to be a shootout in which both teams score a lot of points, yet the game could ultimately be determined by which defense can step up to force more turnovers or make more clutch stops with the game on the line.

“Playing against teams like this, they're going to end up scoring,” said Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade. “You just got to get your stops, and make sure you get to your stops on 3rd down, so that's what we focus on.”

Keep An Eye on These Guys

WR DeVonta Smith

While Alabama has a multitude of stars we could talk about in this section, we have to start with Smith, who became the first wide receiver since 1991 to win the Heisman Trophy. Smith has had one of the greatest seasons by a wide receiver in college football history, leading all FBS players this year with 105 catches, 1,641 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns.

He’s not the biggest receiver at only 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, but he’s an elite route runner who no one has been able to consistently cover this season, while he’s caught just about every catchable ball that’s come his way.

“He's just really, really gifted as a route runner,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “He's got extraordinary physical ability, which everybody understands, but it's way more than just being a guy who can run fast. He runs great routes. He catches the ball. He high points the ball, catches it in his hands. He catches short balls and makes some big plays. He catches the deep balls as well as anybody that we've gone against. 

“He's a blocker. He's a team guy. He's involved in every phase of their offense. I appreciate good players. He's a great player.”

RB Najee Harris

As excellent as Ohio State’s run defense has been this season, it hasn’t faced a running back like Harris, who’s been the best running back in all of college football this season and has a skill set that will truly put the Buckeyes’ run defense to the test.

Alabama's Projected Starters

Harris, at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, is both a big, powerful back who can break through tackles and an explosive athlete with great speed and the ability to make defenders miss – and even hurdle them – in the open field. Harris has rushed for 1,387 yards on 229 carries, leads all FBS players with 24 rushing touchdowns and has also caught 36 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns.

“When you get him to the second level, he can make guys miss in a variety of ways,” Day said Sunday when asked about Harris. “I think he runs hard. He falls forward a lot. He's also done a good job in the pass game, in protection. He's caught balls as a receiver. He's caught balls coming out of the backfield. So he's a complete back. Very versatile. Probably the most versatile guy we'll see all year.”

CB Patrick Surtain II

Although Alabama’s offensive superstars get most of the attention, the Crimson Tide also have a consensus All-American on defense in Surtain, a projected first-round NFL draft pick who might be the best cornerback in college football.

Since the rest of Alabama’s secondary has been mediocre, opponents typically don’t throw the ball Surtain’s way very often, but he’s still managed to record 12 passes defensed this season, including an interception that he returned 25 yards for a touchdown against Mississippi State. He also has 35 total tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss.

A five-star recruit who was ranked as the No. 6 overall prospect in the class of 2018, Surtain has lived up to the billing at Alabama, and is a player who certainly has the attention of the Ohio State receivers who will be trying to get open against him on Monday.

“He's a great player,” Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave said this week. “Long, fast, physical. Can't really ask for much (more) in a DB. I went against (Jeff) Okudah last year (in practice). He's damn near equal to him.”

Game Week Talk

“I remember watching in high school the National Championship and just how much of a big deal it is for me, me telling myself at a young age back then, hopefully one day I'll be on that field playing, and here I am now a couple years later with that opportunity.”– Wyatt Davis

Davis briefly opted out of Ohio State’s 2020 season when it appeared as though the Buckeyes wouldn’t have the opportunity to play this fall, but he opted right back in once the opportunity to compete for a national championship was reinstated. Like so many players, he’s been dreaming of this opportunity since he was a kid, and he’s now going to get that opportunity in his final game as a Buckeye before he pursues another dream of playing in the NFL.

“We love to compete, and we're going to step up to the challenge and we're going to see if they want to play football.”– Alex Leatherwood

You’ll be hard-pressed to find any true bulletin-board material from what Alabama players and coaches said this week (though Nick Saban’s daughter might have given the Buckeyes some), but this might have been the closest. It’s safe to say the Buckeyes are going to want to play football, but their defensive line is going to be need to be ready for a tough, physical game in the trenches against Leatherwood and the rest of Alabama’s offensive line, which won the Joe Moore Award as college football’s best this season.

“I think we're going to come out with our hair on fire and play as hard as we possibly can.”– Ryan Day

Because there was so much talk all year long inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center about avenging last year’s loss to Clemson, it’s fair to wonder whether there’s truly another level the Buckeyes can tap into after their dominant performance against the Tigers. Day isn’t concerned about his team having any kind of letdown, though, saying “I know our guys are going to play really, really hard.”

Get Smart

  • Alabama has a 3-1 all-time record against Ohio State, but the Buckeyes won the most recent game in the series when they defeated the Crimson Tide, 42-35, in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2015.
  • Alabama is making its fifth appearance in the College Football Playoff national championship game, breaking a tie with Clemson for the most appearances of any team. The Crimson Tide are 2-2 in their previous four appearances.
  • Ohio State is seeking its first undefeated season since 2012. It would be the 11th season in Ohio State history without any losses and the seventh without any losses or ties.
  • Monday’s game will be Ohio State’s first game in Miami since its Orange Bowl loss to Clemson to end its 2013 season. The Buckeyes are 1-2 all-time in games played in Miami, also losing in a regular-season non-conferences game against the Miami Hurricanes in 2011, with their only win in the city coming in the Orange Bowl against Colorado to end the 1976 season.
  • The only Ohio native on Alabama’s roster is walk-on offensive lineman Donovan Hardin, a freshman from Dublin Scioto High School just outside of Columbus. Ohio State does not have any Alabama natives on its roster.
  • Ohio State is expected to be without several players due to COVID-19, but Day said the Buckeyes will still have “plenty of players.” The only player who has publicly confirmed his absence is backup running back Miyan Williams, but the Buckeyes will release their full list of unavailable players after arriving at the stadium on Monday night.

How It Plays Out

Line: Alabama -8, O/U 75.0

Just like in the College Football Playoff semifinals against Clemson, Ohio State enters the national championship game against Alabama as an underdog of more than a touchdown. The Buckeyes are more than capable of pulling off another upset, though, if they can play at the same elite level they did against the Tigers.

Ohio State’s defense is likely to be overmatched against Alabama, and the Crimson Tide will likely score a lot of points, but the Buckeyes are capable of dominating Alabama’s defense, too. Even though 75 is a high total, the over should be very much in play on Monday night, as it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either or both teams score more than 40 points.

As for who will win the game, it’s tough to make a confident forecast one way or the other, and our staff was split in its predictions of whether the Buckeyes or Crimson Tide will win. This could easily be a game that comes down to a couple of big plays or which team makes fewer mistakes.

Ohio State’s performance versus Clemson, though, gave us real confidence that this Buckeye team is capable of winning a national championship, and there’s a feeling reminiscent of six years ago that this Buckeye team has peaked at the right time for another special postseason run.

The Buckeyes have to be at their absolute best once again on Monday night, but if they are, they just might complete their improbable five-month journey from no season to the national championship game by hoisting the sport’s most coveted trophy.

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