Ohio State is headed back to the national championship for the first time since the 2014-15 season thanks to a convincing 49-28 win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl/College Football Playoff Semifinal. The Buckeyes crushed the Tigers on the strength of 385 passing yards and six touchdown passes from quarterback Justin Fields, and the defense dominated up front and didn’t allow any big plays from Trevor Lawrence and his receivers. The Sugar Bowl victory allowed coach Ryan Day’s team to get revenge against the Tigers after last year’s loss in the Fiesta Bowl/College Football Playoff Semifinal.
Ohio State had an unusual 2020 season. The Big Ten decided to cancel its schedule due to COVID-19, only to reverse that decision and start on the Oct. 23-24 weekend. The Buckeyes were limited to six games due to COVID-19 issues within their own team and with opponents. However, coach Ryan Day’s team won five of its six regular season matchups by 12 points or more, with the only game decided by one score coming against Indiana (42-35). While Ohio State has played fewer games than Alabama, the start-and-stop nature of the season hindered the overall rhythm and development of this team. The Buckeyes played their best game of the year in the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson and should continue that momentum into the biggest contest of the 2020-21 season on Jan. 11.
College football’s 2020-21 season concludes on Monday, Jan. 11 with the national championship game in Miami. Why will Ohio State defeat Alabama and claim the title? Here are five reasons why the Buckeyes will win it all:
5 Reasons Why Ohio State Will Beat Alabama for the National Title
1. Justin Fields
As mentioned above, the unusual 2020 season likely prevented Ohio State from finding its rhythm with no back-to-back games since Oct. 31 and Nov. 7. And the abbreviated schedule probably cost Fields a chance to contend for the Heisman Trophy. But make no mistake, the junior is among college football’s top players and the Sugar Bowl was one of the best performances during the College Football Playoff era. Fields torched Clemson for 385 yards and six touchdowns through the air by connecting on 22 of 28 throws. He threw as many touchdowns (six) as incompletions (six). Additionally, Fields rushed for 42 yards over eight carries. The Georgia native has been razor sharp all season. Over 192 attempts, Fields has connected on 141 of them for 1,906 yards and 21 touchdowns and six picks. The junior did suffer a rib/torso injury against Clemson but remained in the game. How healthy is Fields for the showdown on Jan. 11? The Buckeyes need Fields at full strength and able to move around or make plays with his legs. The Sugar Bowl showed Fields is locked in and ready to carry this team to a national title.
2. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson
More than ever, winning a national championship in college football requires elite quarterbacks and playmakers on the perimeter to win one-on-one battles. The Buckeyes are set here, as Olave and Wilson form one of the best duos in college football. Olave leads the team in catches (42) with 660 yards and seven receiving scores. Wilson enters the national championship with 40 receptions for 673 yards and five touchdowns. Olave and Wilson have combined for 82 catches, which accounts for just over 58 percent of the receiving production. However, there’s good depth here with Jameson Williams (eight catches for 140 yards), Julian Fleming (seven), Jaxson Smith-Njigba (eight), and tight ends Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell.
3. Trey Sermon and the Offensive Line
Justin Fields was outstanding in the Sugar Bowl win, but an overlooked cog in the victory was the standout play of Ohio State’s offensive line. Fields was sacked two times, but the line gave him plenty of time to throw by allowing three overall pressures. Tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere were especially outstanding, as neither player allowed a pressure and helped to anchor a ground attack that posted 254 yards over 44 attempts. Sermon accounted for 193 of that on 31 attempts, averaging 6.2 yards per rush. The Oklahoma transfer has been on fire the last three games for the Buckeyes. Sermon posted 112 in the win over Michigan State, followed by 331 against Northwestern and nearly 200 more against Clemson. Alabama has generated 34 sacks and ranks third in the SEC in rush defense. After a strong performance against Clemson, Ohio State’s line will be tasked to keep Fields’ jersey clean and continue opening up holes for Sermon. This unit is more than up to the task.
4. The Trenches on Defense + Overall Momentum
Ohio State simply dominated up front in the win over Clemson. In addition to the success on offense, the Buckeyes limited the Tigers to just 44 rushing yards and sacked quarterback Trevor Lawrence two times. No rush went longer than 15 yards, and the defense generated 15 quarterback pressures. Those numbers helped Ohio State bolster their rush defense to first in the Big Ten by holding its seven opponents to an average of 89.1 yards per game. This group is only giving up 3.2 yards per carry and has generated 19 sacks in 2020. Tyreke Smith and Jonathon Cooper lead the pass rush with 41 pressures, and this rotation could get deeper if Zach Harrison and Tyler Friday return after missing the Sugar Bowl. Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett have been dominant in the interior all year, and linebacker Baron Browning is capable of pitching in off the edge to bolster the pass rush.
There was plenty of scrutiny directed toward this defense after allowing 35 points to Indiana, but Ohio State held its other six opponents to 28 points or less. After giving up 7.3 yards per play against the Hoosiers, the Buckeyes responded by limiting Michigan State to 4.1 and Northwestern to 4.6. Clemson managed 6.3 per snap but 139 yards came in the fourth quarter with the game out of reach. Defensive play-caller Kerry Coombs has a veteran linebacker unit (Pete Werner, Justin Hilliard, Browning and Tuf Borland) to lean on, while All-Big Ten corner Shaun Wade patrols the back end with Sevyn Banks, Marcus Hooker and Chris Williamson.
5. Buckeyes Motivated and in Rhythm
Ohio State’s 2019 season ended with a crushing loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl with a chance to get to the national championship. That defeat drove the Buckeyes all season and provided plenty of motivation to get to Miami on Jan. 11 for a chance to play for the national championship. While energy level and motivation can fluctuate from week-to-week, Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl performance shows this team is playing its best ball of the 2020 season. Assuming Fields is at full strength, the junior and his receivers are going to present a ton of challenges for Alabama’s defense. And when the Buckeyes are going against the Crimson Tide’s high-powered offense, timely stops and their pass rush will be essential. Ohio State checked both of those boxes in the win over Clemson. After looking out of sync and rhythm at times during the regular season, the Buckeyes have rounded into form at the right moment.