The two teams meeting in this year’s national title game took very different paths to get here. The SEC (together with the ACC) was one of only two conferences to basically start the season “on time” and Alabama played ten regular season games, to go along with beating Florida in a shootout in the SEC title game and a convincing 31-14 win over Notre Dame in the CFP semifinal of the Rose Bowl. Ohio State on the other hand had three of their eight regular games canceled due to COVID concerns and it took the Big Ten to change their rules about the minimum amount of games played to qualify for a spot in the conference championship game, which they struggled with Northwestern through three-and-a-half quarters, but then surprisingly lit Clemson up 49-28 in the Sugar Bowl, to make it to the big game.
All those different factors that have led to the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes meeting in the CFP final don’t matter now, because while people may want to put an asterisk to this very unique season, in the end one of these teams can call themselves national champions. So now let’s see how these two teams match up and what I believe will happen. I will have one paragraph each for one team’s offense, the defense they are facing and how some of the matchups may favor either side, then I give you one X-factor for each team and finally get to my score prediction.
The Crimson Tide offense to me is really based around the RPO game, which they use a lot in combination with those wide zone runs out of shotgun or power with both guards pulling. And even when they run more downhill, they stress defenses horizontally with all the bubble screens and stuff they have integrated. Maybe their best run play is duo out of pistol sets, where Najee Harris is very patient when picking his spots, but then becomes a load to bring once he shifts into gear. To me he has been the best college running back over the last two years, because he shows excellent pace and vision for backside cuts and while he may not great breakaway speed, he constantly gains yards through contact and we have seen him hurdle quite a few defenders now, who have tried to go low on him. Plus he is one of the top pass-protecting backs and route-runners in the country. In the dropback pass game, it is all about how they can create space for their receivers on crossing routes or get them into matchups with safeties down the field. One of the reasons this has been the most explosive Alabama offense ever – with three of the top five Heisman candidates – and OC Steve Sarkisian was just named the new head coach of Texas is the way they create leverage advantages for their receivers and how they attack the rules of defenses with different motions and run the same concepts out of their various sets – especially mesh. Something they love to do is have the back in the shotgun motion across his alignment and putting stress on those linebackers to shift with him. Plus they have elite pass protection, which allows those plays to develop, and Mac Jones has very calm feet when sliding around in the pocket, to go with excelling on touch passes. And with Sark saying he is still all-in for this game, his new job shouldn’t have any impact.
Ohio State’s defense was pretty disappointing early on compared to the 2019 season, which has a lot to do with losing the number two and three picks to the most recent NFL draft in Chase Young and Jeffrey Okudah. They allowed 25 points to a pretty limited Penn State offense, 27 to Rutgers and 35 to Indiana. However, their defensive line has really started to take over games down the stretch and they have been very opportunistic since then, forcing four turnovers against Michigan State and then two each in both their “playoff games” basically. Their defensive tackle duo of Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai has been tremendous over the second half of their season and the Buckeyes have a lot of depth on the interior to keep them fresh. You see them stacking their blockers and then being very active with working back across their faces to get to the ball-carrier constantly, which has them as the number two run defense in the country behind only Georgia (89.1 yards per game). Something Clemson put a focus on early on in the semifinal game was attacking the edges of the Buckeye defense with jet sweeps, bubbles and tosses. And then if you get some lateral movement, both Tuf Borland and Pete Warner struggle to keep their shoulder squared to the line of scrimmage, which can get them burnt by cutbacks to where they originally lined up. Trevor Lawrence did throw for 400 yards against them in the Sugar Bowl, but that was more of a product of chipping away at more prevent defense, as Clemson was down early, and the Tigers were held to just 44 yards rushing. Still, they give up some big plays through the air, in part because of how soft their corners play in three-deep coverages. As great as Bama is at creating leverage issues and seemingly making it impossible for zone defenders to stay true to their assignments, in terms of not being able to properly to pass on receivers, I think Ohio State would be best served to just throw a lot of different hard shells at the Crimson Tide and not allow themselves to fall victim to their own match principles as much. Because if Michael Penix can light them up for almost 500 yards when they show single-high from the start, lord have mercy with them in this game.
Shaun Wade has said that we “already know who he wants to go up against”, talking about Heisman trophy winner DeVonta Smith, who has averaged 136.8 yards per game and reached the end-zone 20 times this season. While the Buckeyes do play a lot of cover-three match, Wade does end up in one-on-one situations quite a bit in those single-high looks. However, I’m not sure if I love this matchup for him, because if Ohio State asks Wade to press, I think Smitty will give him a lot of issues with those stutter releases and while the receiver is only 6’1”, he has received the nickname “The Slim Reaper” in part because we have seen him kill people at the catch point throughout his career. And if Jaylen Waddle is back (who I’ll still talk about more in a bit), the Crimson Tide have a trio with those two and John Metchie that could give the rest of that secondary a lot of issues. A spot where the Buckeyes could give Alabama some trouble is at center, where the Tide lost one of their biggest leaders in Landon Dickerson on their final touchdown in the SEC title game, who is also a huge piece in creating movement on those combo-blocks with his guards and passing on different games up front by the D-line. So Tommy Togiai will definitely be a challenge at that shade nose position and I could see Ohio State put a lot of pressure on his replacement Chris Owens with delayed blitzes by their linebackers or bring somebody up the A-gaps on a delayed loop. The Buckeyes show a lot of five-man fronts on third downs and drop one man out, plus they like those E-T and inside twists.
The view on this Ohio State offense and quarterback Justin Fields in particular has been kind of a see-saw over their last three weeks. They were scoring 46.6 points through their five regular Big Ten games, before they really struggled against Northwestern in the conference championship game, and then they reached the end-zone seven times against Clemson in the CFP semifinal. After Trey Sermon had only 344 rushing yards through the five regular season games combined, he went off for a school-record 331 on 29 carries against Northwestern, who gave the Buckeyes a lot of challenges in the pass game, and then he touched the ball 35 times for 254 yards against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. I wasn’t overly impressed with him in that Ohio State jersey until then, because I liked his Oklahoma tape so much better, but he has started to run so much more physical and that stiff arm he dishes out is becoming a real problem for defenders. Over that two-game stretch in particular, they have a lot of inside zone away from the tight-end and even more of the split zone, with one of the TEs lined up as the H-back and coming across on a sift block, where you see Sermon cut it all the way back routinely. Plus they have a bunch of bootlegs off it. Ryan Day also started using a lot more 12 personnel with Luke and Jeremy Ruckert, which gives them a lot of flexibility, whether it is putting them in bunches detached from the line or line them up to one side in two-by-two sets, to force the hand of the defense. Something they create problems with out of those stacks and bunches are the switch releases they use and when they get Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson matched up against safeties vertically from the slot. And with their run game really kicking into gear, they have been deadly off play-action, which all of their successful deep balls came from against Clemson – mostly with seven men in protection or leaking one of them out late. And while Justin Fields hasn’t been a surgical passer necessarily, double-clutching and making some ill-advised throws, he can still let it fly and just watch the play he had before their second TD in the Sugar Bowl, when the Tigers were all over a running back screen and he took off to get them back into position for him to fire a laser to his tight-end in the end-zone on the very next snap, with a defender in perfect position.
This is not the Alabama defense of the early 2010s that held opponents to single-digit points on a regular basis, but it’s also certainly not the one from the last year, that got lit up for 94 combined points by their two biggest rivals in LSU and Auburn. The two teams that gave the Crimson Tide defense a lot of issues were wide open spread offenses – Ole Miss put 48 points up against them and Florida in the SEC championship game 46 (funnily also a combined 94). However, in the ten other games they have played, they allowed an average of just 12.4 points per contest. They play a lot three down-linemen plus one of their OLBs standing up on the edge and they have two very rangy linebackers behind that. Bama gives up an average of 20 first downs to their opponents (tied for 44th in the country), but they create a lot of negative plays, with an SEC-high 6.4 tackles for loss per game, to go with 34 sacks and 22 takeaways in 12 games. Nick Saban and DC Pete Golding run more split-safety looks than I can remember in a while, because while they do have arguably the top corner in the country in Patrick Surtain II, the rest of their secondary can be exploited. And that also makes them vulnerable over the middle on dig routes and attacking the seams, while not doing a whole lot of disguising on the back-end. Ohio State hit Clemson over the top for a 56-yard touchdown to Chris Olave, when they were running a double post concept against quarters coverage – so those safeties can’t really squat on those in-breaking routes either. To not let those downfield patterns develop, the Tide will have to come after Fields, where Christian Barmore has turned himself into a monster at create push up the middle and then you have Will Anderson coming off the edge with ferocious pursuit – so Fields better be careful with holding onto the ball when he gets outside the tackle box.
As much love as the matchup between Devonta Smith and Shaun Wade will get, I’m also looking forward to seeing how much Chris Olave and Patrick Surtain II will be matched up against each other. As technically advanced as Surtain may be with his fake press technique and guiding receivers into the boundary, he just gave up a long touchdown against Florida in the SEC title game on a pass that hung in the air for a while, which is where he hasn’t been tested a whole lot this season. Surtain almost exlusively lines up on the defensive left outside, so I still expect the Buckeyes to get their receivers in better matchups usually though. Going back to the Florida game, something the Gators did a ton of is getting Kadarius Toney matched up with Alabama’s nickel of STAR Malachi Moore and put him in a plenty of disadvantages, even lining Toney up in the backfield at times. I don’t know if he can hang with those Buckeye receivers, as long as they have enough protection to let routes develop. Not only that, but we have seen opposing teams give the Tide some trouble by getting their backs out on wheel routes or just releasing late with a lot of space underneath – especially Dylan Moses, who can definitely move, but panics with his back to the ball at times. Something Bama could create some issues with on the other hand, is scheming up free rushers, where they do a good job of lining one of the backers up in a gap and occupying the guard, while they bring their STAR off the slot or blitz Christian Harris from different angles, which Justin Fields is a little oblivious to at times and might not be able to get away from as effectively in this game.
I usually don’t like going with star players as X-factors, because it obviously doesn’t really fit the category, but with Waddle his health and involvement could make a huge difference. Waddle was off to an incredible start to his junior season, as he basically averaged 142.2 yards and a touchdown through the first four games (since he broke his ankle on the opening kickoff against Tennessee). As phenomenal a season as Devonta Smith has had, this was the most dynamic player on that team and he looked like a Heisman candidate himself. Steve Sarkisian moved him all over the formation and attacked different matchups, while manufacturing touches for him on speed sweeps and stuff like that, to go along with the threat he presented as maybe the most dangerous return man in the country. Nick Saban has said that #17 will most likely be a true game-time decision and I wouldn’t expect him to play the majority of snaps, but if they can use him to attack the edges of the Buckeyes a few times, like I already talked about, or he can at least be a decoy, that would only make the Alabama offense even tougher to defend.
And then I’m going to go with a certain body part of another star player. Fields took a major shot to the mid-section by Clemson linebacker James Skalski in the first half of the Sugar Bowl. And while he went on to put together a performance for the ages with those six touchdowns, you saw him be in pain on several occasions when he released the ball. So not only could this be a factor in terms of his accuracy, if he tries to shorten that motion or kind of side-arm throws, but also just how much of an element as a runner he brings, pulling the ball on zone reads or scrambling if they give him a lane. And you already know those Bama defenders will try to land shots, to make him hesitant with putting himself into those situations. When you look at some of the big runs the Buckeyes have had before they switched to more of those pistol sets with two tight-ends on the field, you see the back basically replace the contain defender on the backside edge, as Fields takes that guy with him.
Could Justin Fields bring that “best player on the field” factor and kind of will his team to victory much like Deshaun Watson did against Alabama back in 2017? Yes. Mac Jones is not on the same level talent-wise and can’t make those same off-script plays like Fields, but if that Alabama O-line can keep him clean, like they have done all season long, and he can just take advantage of the separation his skill-position create as plays develop, the Ohio State secondary can not cover all those weapons. If the Buckeyes want to continue having success in the run game, they will have to get those linebackers out of position with misdirection, which they were vulnerable at early on in the season, and not allow the Crimson Tide to keep those three big D-linemen on the field. I could see the Ohio State linebackers get killed in space, as they have to match up with crossers or Najee Harris one-on-one. In the end I’m going with Nick Saban’s defense winning a few more plays against Ryan Day’s offense than the Buckeyes back-seven slowing down this explosive passing attack for Bama, as long as the D-line doesn’t make Mac Jones uncomfortable early on.