One More Step: What it will take to clinch a title win against Ohio State

These teams look very different from their last meeting in 2014, but their goals remain the same: Walk out of Hard Rock Stadium with some shiny new hardware. 

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Hannah Saad | @hannah_saad21

It’s been two years since the Tide made it to a national championship, where they suffered a gut-wrenching loss to Clemson 44-16. Will Alabama restore its winning standard in 2021?

The Crimson Tide has one more hurdle to clear before returning to their title-winning ways: the National Championship game against the Ohio State Buckeyes. 

Restoring the Alabama Standard 

Most schools would be pleased with an 11-2 2019 season, which included a Citrus Bowl win over the Michigan Wolverines. But that’s not the culture head coach Nick Saban has created in his 14-year tenure in Tuscaloosa. The quest back to championship glory has been led by a juggernaut offensive attack led by offensive coordinator – and soon-to-be Texas head coach – Steve Sarkisian’s creativity. 

Alabama junior quarterback Mac Jones has flourished in Sarkisian’s offense, completing 77% of his passes for 4,036 yards and 36 touchdowns. Jones has only four interceptions this year. The offensive line has done its job to keep the pocket clean for Jones, as he has only been sacked 17 times. 

Heisman trophy winner and senior wide receiver Devonta Smith has emerged as the Tide’s top playmaker, leading the country in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. And Alabama senior running back Najee Harris is an unstoppable force on the ground, rushing for 1,387 yards and 24 touchdowns. Harris is also a weapon in the passing game, with 346 receiving yards and three touchdowns. John Metchie III and Jahleel Billingsley have also emerged as weapons for Jones to pick from. 

Defensively, the Crimson Tide had its fair share of struggles early on in the season. Missed assignments, busted coverages and lack of communication kept the defense from being as effective as possible. Slowly but surely, the defense improved, something Alabama head coach Nick Saban discussed during a press conference earlier this week. 

“I think early on, we made a lot of mental errors. The knowledge and experience that we had was probably not what we needed to be able to make the adaptations and adjustments in-game and also in preparation,” Saban said. “So I think that has improved as the season has progressed, and I think with that, the confidence of the players has improved.”

The improvements in-game and during the week’s preparation has helped the Crimson Tide hold seven of the last eight opponents to fewer than 17 points, which included holding Notre Dame to 14 points in the Rose Bowl. The offense, as expected, exploded against the Fighting Irish with Jones completing 83.3% of his passes for 297 yards and four touchdowns. Smith caught three of the four touchdown passes. 

The battle for this championship has not been easy, and the Buckeyes have no plans of handing the Crimson Tide the championship title. Alabama must continue their all-around offensive attack and recent defensive prowess to complete the quest. 

The Buckeyes’ Rocky Road 

It’s no question that the global pandemic has affected every aspect of people’s lives. COVID-19 almost wiped away the Buckeyes’ dream of winning the title, as the Big Ten conference decided to not play football last August. A month of player protesting, outcry and lawsuits later, the Big Ten conceded and reinstated the 2020 football season. Even without having played a game, the Buckeyes were considered a top-three team in the country. 

But early on, the Buckeyes struggled to play a complete game. The offensive line struggled at several points during the season. The secondary consistently had breakdowns in coverages. Northwestern was able to neutralize the passing game by locking down wide receiver Chris Olave. Looking at how Ohio State played leading up to the Sugar Bowl, many wrote this off as a Clemson victory. Ohio State had different plans. 

All aspects of the game came together for the Buckeyes at the Sugar Bowl. Led by quarterback Justin Fields’ herculean effort, the offense blossomed against a very formidable Clemson defense. Fields completed 78.6% of his passes for 385 yards and six touchdowns. He also ran for 42 yards. The rushing attack was led by running back Trey Sermon, who has had some of his best games during the latter stretch of the season. Sermon would rush for 139 yards and made plenty of Clemson defenders miss tackles in the open field. 

Defensively, the Buckeyes held Clemson to just 44 rushing yards. The interior of the defensive line and the linebackers contained quarterback Trevor Lawrence and eliminated running back Travis Etienne on the ground. An emotional win like this can make it hard for players to not get wrapped up in celebration. But Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said his team doesn’t have time for the fanfare. He wants them to be focused on the job at hand, as he discussed in a press conference earlier this week. 

“All that really matters is preparing for this game,” Day said. “I think when you start to take a step back, you get distracted and, um, every minute of the day – I tell the players – should be spent on Alabama. That’s it.”

Ohio State will have to keep that mindset should they want to stop Alabama’s drive for another championship title. 

Keys To The Game 

Both teams have saved their best football for the last part of the season, so fans should expect a closely fought contest. The keys to success for both the Buckeyes and the Crimson Tide are pretty simple. 

For Ohio State, staying two dimensional on offense and limiting Alabama’s offensive barrage will bring the title to Ohio. The late resurgence of running back Trey Sermon will be a vital part as well. Sermon had struggled early on to break tackles and gain multiple yards after contact. 

Those struggles started to go away in the Big Ten championship and the Sugar Bowl. On several crucial third and fourth downs, Sermon was able to make Clemson defenders miss to convert and keep the drive alive. Against a defense that has given up plenty of yards to running backs and tight ends in the passing game, look for Ohio State trying to exploit that weakness of the Alabama defense. 

Mobile quarterbacks also give Alabama’s defense some strife as well, so designed quarterback runs and rollouts for Fields will most likely also be included in the game plan. A balanced rushing attack can stress the Crimson Tide and create openings in the passing attack for Ohio State. Defensively for Ohio State, they have the tall task of slowing down the Alabama offense. 

With plenty of offensive weapons, Ohio State will have to pick their poison. The Buckeyes are eager, however, for the challenge. Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade already hinted at who he would like to line up against on Monday: Heisman winner Devonta Smith.

You already know who I want to go up against at the end of the day,” Wade said at a pre-game press conference.

Wade later confirmed in the press conference that he wants to cover Smith. Ohio State has given up 281.1 yards per game, the 12th worst in FBS. The secondary has improved slightly as of late, but being eager for the challenge and executing are two different things. Ohio State must execute – something few teams have done against Alabama’s powerful offense. 

For Alabama, a balanced passing attack will be vital to their title hopes. How does Alabama plan on doing that? In a press conference earlier this week, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian discussed his plan. 

“I think one of the keys to passing the football is doing a great job up front,” Sarkisian said. 

“We’re going to have to protect well when it’s time to throw the football so we can allow Mac the time and the receivers time to do their thing down the field.”

Jones has hardly had to throw passes under pressure, and the offensive line must continue doing a great job at blocking upfront to allow Jones time to go through his progressions. Unlike Fields, Jones is not likely to use his legs to extend plays unless the situation is dire. 

The soul of the Ohio State defense is their front seven. Should that unit be neutralized, the Buckeyes will have to rely on their secondary, which could prove futile. The offensive line must protect Jones like they have all season because having Jones make errant and rushed throws in the National Championship game could spell doom for the Crimson Tide. Allowing Jones time to pick apart the Buckeyes’ defense will be a key point to victory.

The long road to a National Championship title culminates on Monday night, with both teams having different obstacles to overcome to get to Miami. Motivated by different factors, both teams promise an exciting game for college football fans everywhere.