Over the same time frame in which Nick Saban has dominated Southeastern Conference football – and if not for Clemson, dominated the entirety of Southern football altogether – only two teams from other conferences have been able to keep pace.
One of those is a pseudo-Southern team in its own right, Oklahoma. With Texas mired in repetitive failure in the Big 12, Oklahoma has emerged as the go-to team in that conference, mostly off the back of Texas-based recruiting. No PAC-12 teams have been able to achieve consistent success, although USC threatens to do it every couple of years, and Oregon has established itself as consistently respectable, thanks mostly to attention brought to that program courtesy of Nike’s Phil Knight.
Besides Oklahoma, the only other team that has become a consistent presence at the top of the FBS heap has been Ohio State. And while OSU fans would never admit to it, the reason the Buckeyes have been able to achieve what arch-rival Michigan has not, is that Ohio State is pretty much Alabama of the Upper Midwest.
Just as Alabama fans hope Nick Saban leaves a legacy after his departure, Ohio State has managed to survive – and even thrive, yet – in the days following Urban Meyer’s retirement as a college coach. Few programs in any conference, SEC included, can claim the donor support, fan attendance and focus on greatness that Ohio State enjoys.
While it came as a minor surprise to many that Ohio State would knock off Clemson in the 2020 CFP semifinal, it wasn’t a shock. Clemson’s defense isn’t what it has been in recent years, and even though Tiger QB Trevor Lawrence is all but certain to go No. 1 overall in this spring’s NFL Draft, he didn’t have the supporting cast around him that Clemson quarterbacks have grown accustomed to over the past decade. Meanwhile, Ohio State has as much offensive balance as does Alabama.
What Ohio State doesn’t have is defensive balance; the Buckeye secondary is not exactly tops in its class, and the bigger issue is one of sample size: Just how good is Ohio State, anyway, given that the Buckeyes played only half the games Alabama played in this Covid-affected season? A cursory look at Ohio State’s schedule shows the Buckeyes faced only three quality opponents, with Clemson being the only one the Buckeyes defeated soundly.
Alabama is the focus target of every other college football program in the country. Ohio State has hit the mark better than most, including a victory over Alabama the last time these two teams met in a playoff. Can Ohio State upset two playoff opponents in a row?
Alabama’s multiple, pro-style spread attack leads the nation in passing efficiency and is ranked 6th overall. That puts Alabama, technically, at a disadvantage this week. Ohio State ranks 4th in total offense. The rest of the numbers are almost uniformly flipped: Alabama is 5th in passing and 46th in rushing; Ohio State is 5th in rushing and 31st in passing. The Buckeye offense owes a bit more to Meyer’s spread-option stylings thanks to mobility at the quarterback position, and OSU head coach Ryan Day has done a good job carrying on that legacy. Again, the question is sample size, especially given OSU’s list of opponents, but the Buckeyes answered a lot of naysayers with the big Clemson win.
If Justin Fields was 100 percent coming into this game, this would be a really hard category to pick. But everyone saw the hit he took in the Clemson game, and everyone saw his body language after the fact. It’s been difficult to get any kind of dependable information on Fields’ status in the days since – Day, understandably, isn’t showing his cards – but whether the issue was more in the rib cage itself, or a soft tissue matter, few people expect Fields to be able to take many big hits in this game.
Fields threw every pass attempt for Ohio State this year. The backup will either be a true freshman, Jack Miller III, or Kentucky transfer Gunnar Hoak. Miller took those snaps last week, but tested positive for Covid-19 this week and is listed as doubtful. Fields’ game is all about his dual-threat capabilities; he scored 5 touchdowns on the ground and averaged more than 4 yards per rush (which includes yardage lost to sacks), and his passing numbers were strong, completing 73.4% of his passes for nearly 2,000 yards. The one hitch in his game is ball security. He threw 6 interceptions in half a season, but still finished with a fine QB rating of 186.7.
Alabama’s Mac Jones finished third in the Heisman Trophy competition, and he went over the 4,000-yard mark against Notre Dame. Jones has thrown 36 touchdowns against just 4 interceptions, by itself a jaw-dropping stat pointing to his extreme efficiency. Backup Bryce Young isn’t all that experienced, but he certainly has more time on the firing line than the Buckeyes’ Miller. With Fields’ running threat at least muted somewhat, Alabama has a modest but clear edge here. Advantage: Alabama
Like the Notre Dame matchup last week, Alabama is going against a team that has used more of its depth chart at this spot, and it comes down to whether you like Najee Harris enough to put him over a larger stable of backs. In OSU’s case, primary back Trey Sermon is coming off an explosion of productivity against Clemson. He’s averaging 124.0 yards per game as a rusher, but there are two glaring areas where he doesn’t stack up well against Harris: touchdowns (Sermon has just 4 compared to Harris’ 24) and receiving stats (Sermon has 12 catches, but for only 95 yards, and few explosive plays).
The principal advantage Ohio State has here is that Master Teague III is as good as Sermon. He is steadier, has been more productive as a scorer, but doesn’t bust open big plays as often as Sermon, who is averaging 7.5 yards per carry on the season, an astounding number for a running back with as many carries as he has.
Alabama’s Brian Robinson Jr. is a quality backup, but there’s a gap back to him from Harris, whereas Ohio State’s tandem is pick-your-poison. Neither team is likely to get back to its third running back in this game – unless Teague can’t go; he’s listed as questionable with an unspecified injury, which would elevate freshman Steele Chambers to the spot – and neither team utilizes a fullback except in goal-line situations. We’ll give Alabama the slight edge here based mainly on scoring production, especially in the red zone, but it’s a tight matchup that could go either way. Advantage: Alabama
The crimson-colored elephant in the room here is Jaylen Waddle, and whether he’ll truly be available for Alabama – and if he is, how effective he’ll be. Waddle was hoping to return for the Notre Dame matchup, but didn’t. He’s been medically cleared for this game, although it’s asking a lot for a player to shake off two-plus months of rust in less than a week’s time, especially since the injury in question (ankle, with surgery) is such an issue for a quick-twitch player for whom change of direction is such a large part of his game.
If the goal is to come out on top in a comparison of wide receiver groups, Alabama has to hope Waddle’s return is for real and not some kind of glorified decoy situation, because otherwise Ohio State wins this comparison even with Heisman Trophy DeVonta Smith on Alabama’s side. Ohio State will start Chris Olave, Jameson Williams and Garrett Wilson, and Olave and Wilson are both next-level players. They’ve combined for 12 receiving touchdowns even in OSU’s short season, they pressure cornerbacks on deep routes and they will both go across the middle. They are secure receivers with explosive skills, and then there is the tight end combo of Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell. Julian Fleming is an effective reserve receiver, but the other main reserve, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, hasn’t made an impact yet. For that matter, Williams didn’t put up the kind of numbers most thought he would.
For Alabama, Smith is exactly what the Heisman committee says he is, a game-changer and undisputed leader of the Tide receiver group. John Metchie III has stepped up in a big way after Waddle went down, but if you combined the two teams and selected one set of receivers, OSU’s Olave and Wilson would slot in between Alabama’s Smith and Metchie. Slade Bolden will be Alabama’s third starter, his eventual playing time to be determined by how well Waddle’s ankle feels. Miller Forristall and Jahleel Billingsley will handle tight end, with Billingsley also getting some reps at receiver.
With a full season schedule, both Olave and Wilson were on pace to break the 1,000-yard mark, and this is yet another team with a talented tight end group to account for. But if Waddle is truly back, it takes Alabama up more than just a notch or two. We’re going on faith here. Advantage: Alabama
The biggest shock in regards to Ohio State’s offensive production is that it seemed to have happened almost in spite of the offensive line, not because of it. The Buckeyes rank a dismal 101st in sacks allowed and 85th in tackles for loss allowed, while Alabama is 24th and 8th in those categories, respectively, even in the face of a much tougher schedule.
Regardless, the production had to come from somewhere, and even with a lot of busts on their resume, OSU’s offensive line tends to draw more praise than complaints. Left guard Harry Miller was unavailable due to Covid protocol against Clemson, but he’s expected back for this game. He’ll line up alongside center Josh Myers and across from right guard Wyatt Davis, while Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere hold down the tackle slots. Depth is good, with guard Matthew Jones and tackle Dawand Jones both having starting experience, but Ohio State may be without Paris Johnson Jr., its other reserve tackle.
Alabama will again start Chris Owens at center, and while he put together an acceptable game against Notre Dame, it clearly wasn’t up to the level Alabama usually gets from Landon Dickerson. Emil Ekiyor Jr. and Deonte Brown will start at the guard slots, with Alex Leatherwood and Evan Neal at the tackles. With Owens now part of the starting lineup, the sixth man is probably Kendall Randolph. Advantage: Alabama
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