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Why Three Key Matchups Will Decide the National Championship

 

If numbers don’t lie, Monday night’s matchup between the Alabama offense and Ohio State defense should make you cringe. But didn’t many people feel similarly before the Buckeyes beat Clemson on New Year’s Day? So maybe, just maybe …

By: Craig Haley

The Ohio State defense must be embracing this thought leading into the College Football Playoff national championship game: Alabama is coming off its lowest point total in the last two seasons under offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian.

The truth is, the Buckeyes may not want to think of this reality: The top-ranked Crimson Tide were in complete control of Notre Dame and didn’t necessarily have to name the point total in their Rose Bowl semifinal win. They held a double-digit lead for all but 7 minutes, 13 seconds of the 31-14 triumph, which lifted them to 12-0.

Whether or not Ohio State (7-0) can slow down Alabama’s masterful offense is the overwhelming question heading into college football’s biggest game Monday night.

“We’re going to have to find another level, for sure,” Buckeyes middle linebacker Tuf Borland said.

Coaches With Most National Titles

An Alabama win would allow Nick Saban to stand alone among Division I football coaches with the most national championships. Here are the top five:

6 – Bear Bryant and Nick Saban. All of Bryant’s national titles were at Alabama (1961, ‘64, ‘65, ‘73, ‘78 and ‘79), while Saban won his first at LSU (2003) before adding five at Alabama (2009, ‘11, ‘12, ‘15 and ‘17)

5 – Bernie Bierman (Minnesota: 1934, ’35, ’36, ’40, ‘41) and Woody Hayes (Ohio State: 1954, ’57, ’61, ’68 and ‘70)

4 – Frank Leahy (Notre Dame: 1943, ’46, ’47 and ‘49) and John McKay (USC: 1962, ’67, ’72 and ‘74)

Football is a different game than when Nick Saban took over as Alabama’s coach in 2007, but the Tide have risen highest offensively with the Texas-bound Sarkisian calling the plays. With the Tide scoring over 30 points in all 25 games the last two seasons, they’ve produced the highest-scoring offenses and the most-prolific passing attacks of the Saban era: 48.2 points per game this season and 47.2 last season with 349.3 passing yards per game in 2020 and 342.2 in 2019.

Not surprisingly, Saban has been complimentary of Ohio State’s defense, but this is not necessarily a vintage Buckeyes’ unit. This season, the Buckeyes have allowed more passing yards per game (281.1) and a higher completion percentage (63.8) than in any of the last 25 years. Over this same period, the 2020 squad has allowed more points per game (22.0) than in only four other seasons and more yards per game (371.3) than in only two seasons.

Still, the Buckeyes had answers for Clemson in their 49-28 semifinal rout in the Sugar Bowl, giving promise to the defense peaking for an even bigger test in the championship. Here are three key matchups between the Alabama offense and Ohio State defense.

Heisman winner DeVonta Smith figures to pose a big challenge for Ohio State’s secondary. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth, File)

‘BAMA RECEIVERS VS. OSU’S SECONDARY

Alabama’s game-breakers on the perimeter pose a matchup problem for every opponent, none more so than DeVonta Smith, the first wide receiver to receive the Heisman Trophy in 29 years.

The 6-foot-1 senior leads the FBS in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,641) and touchdown catches (20) and is about to become the first player to pull off the triple since Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree in 2007. Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade, a first-team All-American, is expected to draw the difficult assignment.

The last thing Ohio State needs is for Jaylen Waddle, the Tide’s chief downfield threat, to return from a right ankle fracture suffered in mid-October – a strong possibility – and make an immediate impact. Waddle is second nationally in yards per catch (22.3) among players with 25 or more receptions. He’s the Power 5 leader in Stats Perform’s burn yards per route (6.12) and burn yards per target (21.31).

The Buckeyes were the worst in the Big Ten against slot receivers, and a return of Waddle, who has spent 64% of his time there, would really spread out the Buckeyes. Ohio State also has to deal with emerging sophomore John Metchie III (47-835-6) and its defensive backs must tackle in space to prevent short passes from turning into long gains.

Alabama will try to protect quarterback Mac Jones against OSU’s strong defensive front. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

WINNING IN THE TRENCHES

Alabama’s offensive line, anchored by 6-6 left tackle Alex Leatherwood, has done a solid job of protecting quarterback Mac Jones, who was third in the Heisman voting. But Ohio State’s defensive line is a strength and coordinator Kerry Coombs is hoping for a similar performance after the front pressed the pocket against Clemson.

If there’s a mismatch at the line of scrimmage, it’s Alabama offensive lineman Chris Owens, making just his second start at center this season in place of the injured Landon Dickerson, being asked to neutralize Ohio State standout defensive tackle Haskell Garrett.

If the Buckeyes are quick off the line of scrimmage, the Big Ten champ will still have to defend well against Jones reading quick targets. Alabama’s first 4,000-yard passer (4,036) leads the nation in completion percentage (77.0), and the Buckeyes are better against deeper routes than short routes, ranking 21st nationally in burn% versus throws of 10 yards or more, but only 45th against throws less than 10 yards.

Alabama running back Najee Harris faces a stout OSU defensive line on Monday night. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

AND THEN’S THERE NAJEE HARRIS

Smith and Jones were two of the four players invited to the Heisman announcement this past Tuesday, but it’s not as though running back Najee Harris was far behind. He finished fifth in the voting to make Alabama just the second team with a top-five trio (Army, 1946).

To offset the struggles against the pass, Ohio State has been stout versus the run, allowing just 90.1 yards per game to rank second nationally. It’s the Buckeyes’ best average since 2007 (82.8), although perhaps a bit deceiving considering Big Ten teams have averaged 161.2 rushing yards per game, fewer than only SEC teams (152.7) and improved by the Buckeyes offense’s conference-leading rushing total.

Harris ranks third nationally in carries (229) and rushing yards (1,387) and first in rushing TDs (24). He averaged 6.5 yards before contact against Notre Dame – up significantly from his 4.1 season average. If that happens again, Ohio State will be in trouble considering all that Alabama can do offensively.

 

Data modeling provided by Greg Gifford.

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