Ohio State bases out of a 4-3 set, although the Buckeyes will be in nickel against Alabama just as often as Alabama is in nickel against the OSU offense. Ohio State finished the year ranked 41st in total defense, almost completely due to breakdowns in the back end of the defense. Up front, rushing defense ranked 2nd overall, and OSU creates a lot of turnovers, ranking 3rd in turnover margin despite Fields’ interception count. Alabama’s 3-4 over/under rebounded nicely against Notre Dame after being tested heavily by Florida. Unfortunately for Alabama, Ohio State shares much more in common with Florida than it does the Fighting Irish.
Ohio State put up decent sack numbers (34th) but not great numbers in tackles for loss (72nd). Regardless, the Buckeyes don’t give up much on the ground. The real question is which of these guys are going to play. OSU would like to start Tommy Togiai and Antwuan Jackson at tackle and Tyler Friday and Jonathon Cooper at end, but Friday and Togiai may be victims of contact tracing. Ohio State has been mum on the status of both players so far, but if they’re out, it’s a big hit, especially up the middle. Togiai is a next-level player who is equally adept at stopping the run and creating problems for opposing quarterbacks; he’s essentially OSU’s Christian Barmore.
The other issue is that Haskell Garrett, the other regular starter at tackle, is not going to be 100 percent regardless of whether he plays. Garrett has a knee injury that is considered substantial. There are also injury concerns with reserve end Zach Harrison, who missed the Clemson game. Assuming the worst, Jerron Cage would be forced into starting duty next to Jackson at tackle, and the backups, Darrion Henry-Young and Ty Hamilton, would have combined to play 4 games and record 1 tackle between them.
Alabama may get LaBryan Ray back for this game – finally – which would give them another weapon up front along with Barmore. D.J. Dale, Tim Smith and Phidarian Mathis will rotate in the middle, while Barmore, Ray, Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe will work at defensive end. It’s a decent argument if everyone were healthy, but if even half the Buckeyes that are rumored to be out actually end up out, it’s a clear edge to Bama. Advantage: Alabama
You can’t ask for more than this if you’re Ohio State: three senior starters, all quality players. Tuf Borland will start at middle linebacker, flanked by Pete Werner and Baron Browning. OSU keeps all three linebackers on the field more than most 4-3 teams, with Werner and Borland the teams No. 1 and 2 tacklers and Browning at No. 5 on the list. Moreover, they can all make plays in the passing game and behind the line of scrimmage, giving Ohio State good flexibility. Werner, who will start at weakside, is the one to really watch, given his productivity and penchant for forcing fumbles. Depth is also in good shape, with Dallas Gant, Teradja Mitchell and Craig Young all getting decent snap loads in 2020. Mitchell and Gant are upperclassmen.
Alabama will start Dylan Moses and Christian Harris inside, with Christopher Allen and Will Anderson Jr. outside. There are still ongoing concerns about Bama’s run fits inside, but most of that comes from watching the Florida tape. The linebackers as a group have gotten better as the season has gone along, and there has been decent depth established in the form of Ben Davis and Drew Sanders outside and Jaylen Moody and Josh McMillon inside. Moody, in particular, has made a move in the second half of the season and played most of the second half of the Notre Dame game. While Alabama is improving, Ohio State’s experience and performance against the run gives it the edge here. Advantage: Ohio State
The Buckeyes rank 57th in pass efficiency defense, which is bad enough, but given its raw pass defense ranking of 116th, Alabama’s receivers have to be licking their chops. The word of the day is “erratic.” Cornerback Sevyn Banks has a knack for breaking up passes, but Marcus Williamson doesn’t make many impactful plays. Shaun Wade does make some big ones, but also needs to be more consistent.
The big issue is at safety; on some depth charts, OSU doesn’t even list two safeties as starters, opting to go with three corners and let one of them play free safety in base. Marcus Hooker is the strong safety, and Josh Proctor gets the call when a true free safety is needed. Size, particularly height, is an issue across the board, as Ohio State has no one taller than 6’1” playing in its A-group. The corners seem to lack the quick-turn flexibility present in other teams’ top DBs.
Alabama will start Patrick Surtain II and Josh Jobe at corner, with Jordan Battle and either Daniel Wright or DeMarcco Hellams at safety. Brian Branch was forced to play Star for the entirety of the Notre Dame game, as Malachi Moore was out with injury, but Moore should be available again this week. Alabama’s defensive backs haven’t always been the most consistent, but they’ve put up far better results than Ohio State’s secondary, which may be the weakest unit on the Buckeye team. Advantage: Alabama
Placekicker has been a bit of a game of “Go Fish” for Ohio State this year; three different kickers have been tried. Blake Haubiel appears to be the guy the Buckeyes will use against Alabama, although Jake Siebert and Dominic DiMaccio have also been used. The issue for Ohio State is the Buckeyes are just a collective 6-of-10 on the year from all distances, which includes 3-of-5 from beyond 30 yards out and also 3-of-5 from in close.
Net punting is a better story, with OSU ranking 37th overall behind Drue Chrisman. Chrisman has a big leg and has the ability to get Ohio State out of deep holes if necessary. Returns have been poor; OSU ranks 71st in punt returns and 126th in kickoff returns, next-to-last in the country. That’s also the Buckeyes’ ranking for punt return defense, and DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle have to be excited about that.
Alabama’s Will Reichard was a Groza Award candidate at kicker, and while Charlie Scott isn’t the boomer his brother J.K. Scott was, he’s still been a steadying force since taking over the job after the first third of the season. Alabama’s kickoff returns have been woeful, but kick coverage is a strength. Ohio State leads in a punting comparison, but everything else points Bama’s way. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in seven categories, Ohio State in one. As for the OL-DL cross-matchups, so much depends on who is available for Covid-ravaged Ohio State. At press time, given the best information we have regarding the personnel set to play, Alabama’s DL has a clear, albeit not overwhelming advantage over Ohio State’s OL, while the Crimson Tide’s OL holds a strong edge over Ohio State’s DL.
So how are the Buckeyes in this game? Take the Clemson contest out of the picture and that’s a good question. Ohio State barely got out of the Big Ten Championship Game, beating a decent, but fairly unathletic Northwestern team 22-10. Its next-best win was a nail-biting 42-35 victory over an Indiana team that would have been about fifth-best in the SEC. Still, the Clemson game can’t be ignored, not just for the ease in which Ohio State won against a tough opponent, but that it did so with a roster stripped down due to Covid contact tracing.
Those are the pitfalls of 2020 football analysis, trying to figure out just how good one conference is against another when there has been virtually no interconference competition. And in Ohio State’s case, not even a full slate of games against conference foes. In a normal year, with 14 games played by now and coronavirus something you might get from tainted beer, Ohio State would be viewed as a worthy opponent due to its overall talent level. Regardless of what the results on the field might be saying, the one thing we know to be true is that Ohio State gives up nothing against the SEC when it comes to recruiting class rankings.
Still, a 7-1 edge in category comparisons and leads in both OL-DL cross-matchups can’t be ignored, either. Ohio State is here right now primarily because of excellent play from its quarterback and skill positions. The Buckeyes don’t trail by much at receiver, quarterback or running back. And Justin Fields is just the type of quarterback that usually gives Alabama nightmares.
For that reason, we believe the game could wind up being closer than the analysis would suggest. Clemson’s defense isn’t vintage, but it’s still a quality defense made up of a lot of players Alabama wanted during recruiting season. For the Tigers to struggle the way they did against Ohio State should get everyone’s attention. You can bet it got the attention of Nick Saban.
Ohio State 35
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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