National Championship Prediction and Preview: Ohio State vs. Alabama

Ohio State and Alabama meet to decide the national championship on Monday night

The 2020-21 college football season is down to its final game, as Ohio State meets Alabama on Monday, Jan. 11 in Miami to determine the national championship. This matchup in Hard Rock Stadium is the culmination of an unusual and challenging 2020-21 season, as COVID-19 forced the cancellation of several games and altered the overall calendar from the start. The Buckeyes and Crimson Tide are two of the biggest brands and most successful programs in college football. However, despite their success at a high level, Ohio State and Alabama have never met with the national championship on the line. That changes on Monday night.

 

Alabama is back in the national championship game for the eighth time since 2009. The Crimson Tide have won the title five times under coach Nick Saban and missed the playoff just once since its inception in 2014. Alabama is 169-23 overall since Saban arrived in ’07 and has not lost more than two games in a season since ’10. The Crimson Tide rolled to Miami on the strength of an offense averaging 48.2 points a game and 7.84 yards per play. Saban’s team dominated its opposition, winning 11 of its 12 games by 15 or more points. Alabama picked up wins over Texas A&M, Georgia and Florida en route to the CFB Playoff. And on Jan. 1, the Crimson Tide handled Notre Dame 31-14 in the Rose Bowl to book a trip to Miami.

 

Ohio State’s path to Miami to play for the national title was an unusual one. The Big Ten canceled its 2020 season in early August, only to reverse that decision in September. The conference announced an abbreviated nine-game slate, but the Buckeyes were only able to play in six regular-season contests due to COVID-19. Coach Ryan Day’s squad took care of business in its first three games (Nebraska, Penn State and Rutgers) but had to sweat out a 42-35 win over Indiana. Ohio State defeated Michigan State 52-12 before edging Northwestern 22-10 in the Big Ten title game. The Buckeyes got revenge for last year’s loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl by defeating the Tigers 49-28 in the Sugar Bowl. The victory over Clemson clinched Ohio State’s first trip to the national title since the 2014 season.

 

Alabama owns a 3-1 series edge over Ohio State. The Buckeyes won the last meeting 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl during the 2014 CFB Playoff. These two teams have met just once in a regular-season game, but three of the last four matchups were decided by a touchdown or less.

 

National Championship: Ohio State vs. Alabama

Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 11 at 8 p.m. ET

Where: Hard Rock Stadium (Miami Gardens, Fla.)

Spread: Alabama -8

TV: ESPN

 

When Ohio State Has the Ball

 

Ohio State’s offense is coming off arguably its best performance of the 2020 college football season. Playing in just six regular-season games due to a few COVID-19-related cancellations didn’t allow the Buckeyes to get in a rhythm. However, Day’s offense fired on all cylinders against Clemson. This unit averaged 8.9 yards per play (the highest since a 9.2 mark against Rutgers in 2017) and gashed the Tigers for 49 points.

 

Quarterback Justin Fields is the catalyst for Day’s offense, but the junior took a hard hit in the first half against Clemson and was laboring somewhat the rest of the game. All signs point to Fields playing on Monday night, and needless to say, the Buckeyes need him to deliver another huge performance. Fields was at his best in the win over the Tigers, throwing for 385 yards and six touchdowns and adding 42 yards on the ground. For the season, Fields is completing 73.4 percent of his passes and leads all Big Ten quarterbacks with 14 connections of 30-plus yards. The return of receiver Chris Olave after a one-game absence helped Fields get back on track after a sluggish performance in the Big Ten title game. Olave leads the team in receptions (42) and touchdown catches (seven), with Garrett Wilson pacing the offense in yardage (673 on 40 receptions). These two players account for 58.1 percent of the catches on Ohio State’s offense. The secondary weapons stepped up against Clemson and will be needed again. Tight ends Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell have combined for six touchdowns, and promising young receivers like Jameson Williams, Julian Fleming and Jaxson Smith-Njigba are ready to break out.

 

Alabama will no doubt aim to slow Fields, Olave and Wilson through the air, but that task was made more difficult in the last couple of weeks thanks to the emergence of running back Trey Sermon. The Oklahoma transfer has 868 yards this fall, with 524 coming in the last two games. After not rushing for more than 215 yards in the first three contests, Ohio State has posted at least 254 in each of the last four. In addition to Sermon’s outstanding play, the offensive line has been dominant. The Buckeyes are averaging 6.04 yards per pop, and quarterbacks have been sacked only 19 times.

 

With the firepower Ohio State possesses on an offense averaging 43.4 points a game, stopping this unit is going to be a challenge for Alabama. Saban’s defense isn’t as strong as some of the previous versions that won the national title. The Crimson Tide enter the title game holding teams to 19 points a game and five yards per play. However, as games against Ole Miss and Florida in 2020 showed, along with the rare past losses for Alabama, mobile quarterbacks and big-time playmakers on the outside give Saban’s teams a lot of trouble.

 

How will the Crimson Tide try to counter Ohio State’s offense? The guess here is both defenses are going to deploy the “bend but don’t break” philosophy. Alabama is seventh in the SEC in third-down defense but leads the conference in red-zone defense. Northwestern aimed to take away Fields and the Buckeyes’ passing attack, which allowed Sermon to run for more than 300 yards. Could the Crimson Tide give a little ground through the air and hope their defensive front can win one-on-one battles? Also, negative plays on early downs could be crucial.

 

Related: Way-Too-Early College Football Top 25 for 2021

 

When Alabama Has the Ball

 

If he had his preference, it’s probably safe to assume Saban would prefer to win with defense and running the ball. But in this era of college football, high-powered offenses led by elite quarterbacks and playmakers on the outside are where the game has shifted. Saban and Alabama have assembled arguably the nation’s best offense in just a few years. This unit leads all Power 5 teams by averaging 48.2 points a contest and nearly eight yards a snap (7.84). The Crimson Tide scored more than 40 points in 10 of their 12 games and has generated 37 plays of 30 yards or more. Coordinator Steve Sarkisian was recently hired as the head coach at Texas but will be on the sidelines for Monday night’s game.

 

With quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris, and a deep receiving corps led by Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, this Alabama offense can play any style of game it wants. Jones has been lethal in his first year as the starter, connecting on 77 percent of his throws for 4,036 yards and 36 touchdowns to four picks. Jones also is tied for the SEC lead in completions of 40 yards or more (16). Helping Jones pick apart opposing defenses is a stalwart offensive line. This unit has surrendered only 17 sacks and has paved the way for rushers to average just over five yards per attempt. Starting center Landon Dickerson is out for the year due to injury. Chris Owens started in place of Dickerson versus Notre Dame and will get the nod again on Monday night.

 

With so many weapons in the arsenal, Ohio State will have its hands full trying to slow down Alabama’s attack. Harris has rushed for 1,387 yards and 24 touchdowns and is a valuable receiver out of the backfield (36 catches). Sarkisian excels at using motion or decoys to get Harris and Smith opportunities in the open field. Smith leads the nation in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,641), and touchdowns (20). John Metchie III has grabbed 47 receptions for 835 yards, with Jahleel Billingsley (16 rec.), Slade Bolden (16), and tight end Miller Forristall (23) also in the mix. But there’s an x-factor looming on Monday. Jaylen Waddle has missed the team’s last seven games due to an ankle injury suffered in the win over Tennessee. When healthy, Waddle is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the nation. Waddle is a game-time decision, but if he can play any snaps, it’s another weapon for Sarkisian to deploy.

 

Similar to Alabama, Ohio State’s defense probably isn’t up to its usual dominant level (5.6 yards per play allowed in 2020). However, the Buckeyes did more than enough to beat Clemson on Jan. 1. This unit dominated in the trenches and didn’t allow much in the way of big plays to Trevor Lawrence. Winning the battle up front is crucial for this group. Alabama’s offensive line has allowed Jones plenty of time to throw downfield, and Ohio State’s secondary struggled at times in pass coverage this year. If the Buckeyes can’t get to Jones or stop the run, winning this game will be tough. Also, expect situational stops to be crucial. Ohio State ranks third in the Big Ten in third-down stops and eighth in the red zone.

 

Final Analysis

 

After the unusual and crazy season, college football is due for a good national championship game. The makings are there for it to happen, as both Alabama and Ohio State bring elite quarterbacks, standout offensive lines, and skill talent all over the field to Hard Rock Stadium. Neither defense is dominant, which means timely stops or finding ways to create negative plays or turnovers might decide the game. Expect a high-scoring and entertaining game to cap the 2020-21 college football season.

 

Predictions for the National Championship from Athlon's Editors and Contributors

  Prediction MVP
Steven Lassan

 45

 38

DeVonta Smith, WR
Mark Ross

 38

 30

Najee Harris, RB
Ben Weinrib

 45

 32

Najee Harris, RB
Nicholas Ian Allen

 34

 27

Najee Harris, RB
John Coon

 49

 38

DeVonta Smith, WR
Allen Kenney

 42

 31

Mac Jones, QB
Jon Kinne

 42

 40

Justin Fields, QB
Chip Minnich

 49

 45

Justin Fields, QB
Juan Jose Rodriguez

 41

 24

Mac Jones, QB
Gabe Salgado

 42

 39

DeVonta Smith, WR
J.P. Scott

 41

 27

Justin Fields, QB
Eric Sorenson

 35

 31

Justin Fields, QB
Aaron Tallent

 42

 28

Najee Harris, RB
Josh Webb

 52

 46

Trey Sermon, RB
Scott Whittum

 41

 38

Justin Fields, QB
Ryan Wright

 42

 24

Najee Harris, RB

 

Podcast: Previewing and Predicting the National Championship

Event Sport: 
College Football
Event Date: 
Monday, January 11, 2021 - 20:00
Event Location: 
Hard Rock Stadium, 47 Don Shula Dr, Miami Gardens, FL 33056
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