As football is often compared to wartime conflicts, and coaching strategy to military maneuvers, there needs to be some kind of martial terminology fit to describe what Alabama football did to the rest of the sport’s landscape in 2020.
Because when the fog of war finally cleared from its Miami battlefield, it only revealed the same blitzed terrain that had been present in Alabama’s twelve other skirmishes. The Crimson Tide had buried Ohio State 52-24 much the same way tanks bury any detritus that is unlucky enough to find itself caught under their treads.
Most experts expected Ohio State to make a game out of it for a quarter or two before Alabama used its superior speed and depth to put the Buckeyes away. Those experts proved to be prescient. Were it not for a fumble by Mac Jones early in the game, the limits of Ohio State’s competitiveness might have proven even more restrictive.
Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith rewrote most of the College Football Championship Game receiving records in one half, then got hurt on the first play of the second half and wasn’t able to contribute any further. It wasn’t that Alabama was obscenely ahead of Ohio State at the time of his injury, either; it simply didn’t matter. Whereas Ohio State was fighting its own war of attrition on another front – against the insidious enemy Covid-19 – Alabama was able to do what the Buckeyes could not: plug in the next man up and keep the caissons rolling along.
The depth of Ohio State’s defeat – a loss on all fronts aside maybe from special teams, and even that was debatable given that PK Will Reichard never allowed the Buckeyes to attempt a kickoff return – was by such a degree as to send scribes scurrying for a recheck of the rankings of the last five recruiting classes. This Ohio State team, which had bombed a good Clemson team 49-28 just ten days before, looked barely competitive against Alabama. Had Ohio State played in the SEC East this year, it’s doubtful the Buckeyes would have reached the SEC Championship Game.
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day and his staff came up with out-of-the-box strategies in an attempt to hold Alabama to limited production, especially in the running game. Call it asymmetrical warfare if you want, but the last time an Alabama team faced an opponent running a 4-4 base defense may have been in 2002, under Dennis Franchione, against MTSU, when the Crimson Tide still played a few games each year in Legion Field in Birmingham. Did it work? Check the scoreboard and make your own analysis.
But as the clock ticked down on a game that saw Jaylen Waddle catch three passes while favoring a bum ankle, and as Alabama ran out the clock behind a center who had just blown out his knee two games ago but who desperately wanted to finish his career on the field rather than on the sideline, the enormity of the situation began to reveal itself to the chosen few fortunate enough to gather to watch it in person in this year of horrific disruption.
This was Nick Saban’s seventh career national title as a head coach, and sixth at Alabama. The second number ties Paul “Bear” Bryant’s accomplishments at the school and the first number exceeds Bryant’s career total. Alabama beat 12 of its 13 opponents by double digits, scored almost 50 points per game doing it, put three players in the Heisman Trophy list’s top five, and will likely send at least four players into the NFL Draft’s opening round this spring, and could place as many as seven there.
The 2020 Alabama team may not just be Nick Saban’s best Alabama team. It might be the best Alabama team in history. It might be the best team in history, irrespective of school affiliation.
As to what this team means to Alabamians in general, or to college football fans in general, is hard to say. Fans who will follow the sport through crises small and large – and who needed any kind of positive distraction from a virus-ridden world where normalcy has become a luxury – certainly got the salve they needed from this team. There will be more in-depth examinations of this team and its components in the coming weeks, especially once NFL talent analysts get their hands on things at whatever a scouting combine ends up looking like in 2021, but the initial take is that this was at least the best offensive football team for at least the modern era, and perhaps ever. It is certainly the most talented. It could be argued that it was the best-coached, top to bottom, even on defense, because no one has yet figured out how to grade “modern defense” in the context of where the sport is these days offensively.
While there may be much debate over that last point, though, there is no debating this team’s greatest attribute: its heart. It was Alabama’s secret weapon all year, the mother of all warheads that Alabama deployed each week to finish off opponents in mid-charge. But should anyone be surprised that, when college football was beset with its most grim external challenges since World War II, the team led by the most focused and process-oriented head coach in the sport’s history would thrive rather than wilt?
In the postgame press conference, Ryan Day mentioned how “tired” and “exhausted” his team was, and how much they needed some time off and away from the field. Context: Ohio State played eight games in 2020; Alabama played thirteen. Ohio State had not played on consecutive weekends since Nov. 7, when it followed up a win over 4-5 Penn State with a win over 3-6 Rutgers. The Buckeyes also got three unscheduled off-weeks in the middle of its year when games against Maryland, Illinois and Michigan were canceled.
Day shouldn’t be hammered too much for his comments, however, as Ohio State had clearly been affected more by Covid-19 tests and contact tracing than had most of the other contenders, but refer back to comments about Alabama’s organization and process-oriented planning under Saban. Sometimes the output matches the input.
On Monday night in Miami, the output flowed from the Bama sideline, over and over again, like waves of attackers delivering shock and awe against a hapless foe. There would be no mercy, and there would be no place of peace for the Buckeyes to find.
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In the end, there was just the humid, damp south Florida winter air – a fog of war indeed, for an Ohio State team that was outclassed in battle.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Ohio State:
1. Mac Jones probably should have won the Offensive MVP. He may very well be the best quarterback in Alabama history. Yes, that includes Tua Tagovailoa, who was supposed to be the once-in-a-generation talent that would carry Alabama to multiple championships. But the fragile Tagovailoa never had to endure the loss of his top two wide receivers and yet continue to build a lead on the way to putting away a quality opponent in a championship game.
At one point in Monday night’s game, Alabama’s wide receiver rotation featured John Metchie as the lead dog, followed by Slade Bolden (who Jones found for his first career touchdown reception), and then Xavier Williams and Javon Baker. Baker and Williams are expected to compete for a starting job next year, but they came into this game with 4 career catches combined. Williams caught his third pass of the season during this game and was asked to play probably more snaps in the national championship game than he had played in his entire career up to this point.
Jaylen Waddle contributed when he could, but his ankle was clearly well short of 100 percent, and there were simply plays he couldn’t make. In addition, Ohio State made a point to take away Alabama’s tight ends in the passing game; Jahleel Billingsley caught 2 passes for 27 yards and Miller Forristall was shut out. Yet Jones finished 36-of-45 (80.0%) for 464 yards, 5 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Jones said after the game that he believed this team was the greatest to ever play college football. He’s probably not wrong, and he’s a big reason why that is so.
2. Defensive game plan was solid, and Pete Golding answered a lot of doubters. Aside from a 3-play touchdown drive Alabama gave up in the third quarter – a drive which featured a great individual play on a zone-read option from Ohio State QB Justin Fields and then a 20-yard touchdown pass over a true freshman defensive back – Alabama’s defensive plan was aces. Alabama rotated pressure schemes all night, maybe no more so than usual, but certainly enough to confuse the Ohio State offensive line.
As TideFans.com previewed before the game, Ohio State’s supposed prowess on the offensive line came with a lot of statistical busts. Alabama’s Christian Barmore abused Ohio State’s guards, getting frequent pressure on Fields up the middle and rushing Fields’ internal clock. The Alabama secondary ended up playing one of its best games of the year, holding Fields to less than 100 yards passing in the first half and less than 200 yards for the entire game. Top receiver Chris Olave caught 8 passes, but for just 69 yards; he made no substantive impact on the game. Alabama also adjusted well on its run fits following Master Teague’s 4-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 14 early in the second quarter. Alabama ended up yielding just 341 total yards on the night, with one of the scores coming on a short field following Mac Jones’ fumble on a sack. This was a well-designed and well-executed plan, top to bottom.
3. OSU’s defensive game plan was understandable, given all factors, but put the Buckeyes at a disadvantage against Jones and the Tide receivers. We’ve come a long way when a 4-3 base defense would be considered “unconventional,” but against a team like Alabama, staying in base personnel is a curious strategy. Even more so was the decision to use extra linebackers at times to the point of deleting a safety from the base package.
The 4-4 defense is a physical defense built to stop the run first, and when it’s run well it also makes life a little hard on tight ends on crossing routes. To that end, Alabama didn’t find a tight end on a true crossing route all day. But with Jones setting a CFP Championship Game for passing yards, it can’t be said this defense was actually effective. DeVonta Smith put up 12 catches for 215 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first half alone, and was frequently running patterns against linebackers that have mediocre speed by SEC standards.
While Ohio State did keep Najee Harris under the 4-yard-per-carry mark (22 carries, 79 yards, 3.6 avg.), it allowed Harris to catch 7 passes for 79 yards and did a terrible job picking up receivers and backs coming out of the backfield on routes. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian dialed up the perfect attack plan, especially after it became clear that Ohio State simply could not or would not cover the flats. Why did Ohio State opt for this path? Probably because linebacker was the strength of the Buckeye defense even before two key defensive linemen were lost to Covid-19 issues, and an extra linebacker on the field was often a better option than a fourth, let alone a fifth defensive back. But this had the effect of trying to make chicken salad out of chicken refuse.
4. Alabama’s offensive line put together its usual dominating performance. Aside from the strip-sack of Jones, which happened mostly because Jahleel Billingsley was slow to get across the formation to block the weakside rusher, Alabama’s offensive line pitched a gem. Given the way Najee Harris was bottled up early, it wasn’t a perfect game, but it was effective, especially in pass protection.
Chris Owens, who had a decent-but-unspectacular effort against Notre Dame a week ago, played probably the best game of his career, and if he chooses to end his college career at this point, he’ll be going out on a high note. The Crimson Tide put up 621 total yards of offense, and then closed out the game by running Brian Robinson over and over again to chew up the clock. In a year of bests, this was probably the best offensive line in school history, topping even the 2012 unit.
5. It was all about the heart, and we venture to say Nick Saban would agree. Watching Jaylen Waddle, who had literally nothing else to prove for NFL scouts, risk further injury by rehabbing ahead of schedule and coming back to play in this game – let alone be productive – is an object study in want-to. And oddly enough, his actions may end up actually helping him bank more NFL money in the end. NFL teams certainly got a full examination of his heart and courage.
Center Landon Dickerson’s knee injury against Florida could have thrown the whole train off the tracks; Chris Owens hadn’t yet established himself as a consistent option at the position, not to mention what Dickerson’s presence on the field means for his teammates, emotionally. But when Dickerson came out for warm-ups and worked with backup QB Bryce Young, it set Twitter on fire. When Nick Saban allowed Dickerson to go into the game for the final two snaps with the Tide in victory formation, it may have been meaningless on the stat sheet, but it was a perfect encapsulation of everything this crazy 2020 season brought us. There weren’t many dry eyes in the house – and that included Saban’s, too, as the head coach was caught on camera shedding tears at the podium during the trophy presentation.
And that’s what made this team so special, and what will one day be considered a single sparkle of boundless joy in a year that has been so twisted by outside forces. Football, in the end, is not very important at all. It provides a living for a select few individuals, yes. But its value to society and to both teams and fans is almost completely emotional. We do not remember games solely because of their scores; we remember them because of the family members we shared to experience with, and for how the game is not just an amalgam of pseudo-military tactics, brute strength and images of teenage boys running fast down a field, but rather as touchstones for special moments and memories, an avatar of the real world compressed into 100 yards of green grass.
This is why the 2020 Alabama team feels different. It’s why it can legitimately be called the best team in the history of the school, and of college football as a whole. If the world cares to look at small group of college athletes for inspiration before the shadow of the darkness, it will see courage and tenacity in the face of a faceless enemy that threatens us all from the shadows. There will be a day, some day, when Nick Saban will choose not to be the head coach at Alabama any longer. Some pundits were even predicting he would begin the transition this year, the year in which he will turn 70 years old. But the 2020 season seemed to rejuvenate him, and as he said in his post-game comments, sometimes you don’t know how much you appreciate something until it is taken from you.
Saban seems to thrive on challenges and reinventing himself. This year, he had to reinvent himself as a counselor rather than just a coach, as a leader in the face of some very sinister real-world trouble rather than just a leader of young men against other young men in a game with very little consequence. He pulled it off. This Alabama team pulled it off. Let them enjoy all the accolades that will surely flow their way.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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