Mac Jones leads Alabama's explosive and efficient offense against Ohio State's talented and opportunistic defense
Despite being two of the most successful programs in the history of the sport, the College Football Playoff National Championship between Alabama Crimson Tide and Ohio State Buckeyes will be just the fifth-ever meeting between the teams. Alabama won each of the first three: the 1978 Sugar Bowl, the Kickoff Classic in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1986, and the 1995 Citrus Bowl. But Ohio State won when it mattered most, beating the Crimson Tide 42-35 in upset fashion in the 2015 Sugar Bowl, which also happened to be the first playoff semifinal. The Buckeyes then beat Oregon 42-20 for the national title.
This year's championship game offers nearly unlimited storylines. As bona fide college football blue bloods, Alabama and Ohio State both offer historical angles worth discussing. With two of the most talented rosters ever assembled, the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes also feature several of the best players in the country. There's also plenty of contrast, such as the quarterback battle between ballyhooed former five-star recruit and potential future first-round NFL draft pick Justin Fields versus Alabama's Mac Jones, who entered the 2020 season relatively anonymous to casual fans as a former three-star prospect, who blossomed into a Heisman Trophy finalist and could join Fields in the first round.
Numbers also are a big part of the story. There are traditional statistics, like the fact Alabama leads the nation with 578 total points and 77 total touchdowns during the 2020 season. We can dive deeper into more advanced metrics, such as (deep breath) the Ohio State defense posting an FBS best -0.335 EPA per rush on early downs across non-garbage time possessions against FBS opponents, according to cfb-graphs.com. There are other facts and figures of note. For example, the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes have been recognized for a combined 18 national championships in the poll era, 12 for Alabama (the most recent in 2017) and six for Ohio State. The number of claimed national titles is higher at 17 and eight, respectively.
With so much to choose from, it's impossible to cover it all. But before we close the book on this season, we discuss 10 stats you need to know ahead of the National Championship on Jan. 11:
1.29: Ohio State's turnover margin, which ranks No. 3 in the country
We all know turnovers can be — and often are — a deciding factor in any football game. However, because of the luck involved, turnovers are notoriously among the most difficult things to quantify in the sport. Nevertheless, Ohio State has been one of the best (or most fortunate) teams in the country when it comes to turnover margin.
The Buckeyes have turned the ball over nine times on offense across seven games, losing three fumbles and tossing six interceptions. Ohio State has recorded an impressive 18 takeaways on defense, which ranks in a tie for 23rd among the 127 FBS teams, though all 22 teams who sit higher on the leaderboard have played in at least eight games to date. A plus-nine raw turnover margin is impressive enough, and only six teams have been better (Alabama, at plus-11, is one of them). But in terms of per-game turnover margin, Ohio State's plus 1.29 is better than all but two — Arizona State (2.00) and Ohio (1.33), who played a combined seven games in 2020.
2: The Alabama offensive line won its second Joe Moore Award in 2020
Since 2015, the Joe Moore Award has been handed out to the best offensive line in the country. The Crimson Tide won the first edition and captured it for the second time this season — becoming the first program ever to win the honor twice. This year's elite unit set the stage for one of the best offenses in history, and earned several individual honors along the way, including Landon Dickerson and Alex Leatherwood sharing the SEC's Jacobs Blocking Trophy and Deonte Brown joining them as a first-team All-SEC selection. Alabama also consistently ranks toward the top of many offensive line metrics. Heading into the title game, the Tide sits No. 7 on the FBS leaderboard in Standard Down Line Yards (3.02), No. 5 in Power Success Rate (89.7 percent), No. 9 in Stuff Rate (12.8 percent), and No. 7 in Sack Rate (2.5 percent), all according to Football Outsiders. Alabama also ranks 18th in pass-blocking grade and 15th in run blocking grade, according to PFF.
4.34: Points scored per drive by Alabama, tops in the nation
Points scored and total yardage can help explain some of the strengths and weaknesses of a college football team but drive efficiency — especially when it is adjusted to filter out garbage time (when the outcome of the game is already in hand despite the clock still ticking) — is better. Brian Fremeau has calculated points per drive, among a variety of other useful metrics, for each season since 2007. Alabama has averaged 4.34 points per drive on offense this year in non-garbage possessions in games versus FBS competition. Not only is that the best mark in the country this season, but it's also the best on record by a large margin. This year's No. 2 BYU (4.14) is the second-best for any offense since (at least) 2007, ahead of 2019 Alabama (4.12) and 2019 LSU (4.10), which joined 2013 Florida State as the only teams during that time span to score more than 4.0 points per possession. Ohio State (3.41) ranks ninth in FBS this year.
6: Touchdown passes and incompletions thrown by Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields in the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson
Simply put, Justin Fields had the greatest game of his career last week against Clemson. Fields completed 22 of 28 pass attempts and set career highs with 385 yards and a Sugar Bowl-record six touchdowns — meaning he connected on as many touchdown passes against the Tigers as incompletions. He also posted an average of 13.8 yards per pass attempt, which was the second-best mark for Fields since he arrived in Columbus in 2019. Remarkably, four of his six scoring strikes came after taking a massive hit to the midsection that resulted in a targeting ejection for Clemson linebacker James Skalski and left Fields in obvious pain for the remainder of the game.
8: Consensus All-Americans for Alabama and Ohio State
There are quite a few media outlets that select All-American teams. As of 2009, the NCAA recognized five of them — the AP, AFCA, FWAA, Sporting News and WCFF, as determining whether or not a player reached Consensus All-American status. To be considered a Consensus All-American, a player must appear on the first team of at least three of the five recognized outlets.
As of publication, four of the five teams had been announced, and a combined eight Alabama and Ohio State players had already reached consensus status. Six play for the Crimson Tide: quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris, receiver DeVonta Smith, offensive linemen Alex Leatherwood and Landon Dickerson (who will miss the national title game after suffering an injury in the SEC Championship Game) and cornerback Patrick Surtain II. Guard Wyatt Davis and defensive back Shaun Wade have earned consensus status for the Buckeyes.
10: Heisman Trophy recipients produced by Alabama and Ohio State
With DeVonta Smith being named this season's recipient on Tuesday, Alabama becomes just the 11th program to produce three or more Heisman winners. Smith joins Mark Ingram (2009) and 2015 honoree Derrick Henry as players who won the stiff-armed trophy in a Crimson Tide uniform. But no program in college football history has had more Heisman winners than Ohio State, which is tied with Notre Dame and Oklahoma atop the leaderboard with the recipient in seven different seasons. The Buckeyes also have the only two-time winner in history in Archie Griffin, who won in 1974 and '75. However, the Buckeyes are in a bit of a drought when it comes to college football's top individual honor. Troy Smith was the last Ohio State player to win in 2006 — three years before Alabama had its first. Yet since Ingram broke through in 2009, no team has had more Heisman winners than the Crimson Tide.
16.0: Alabama linebacker Christian Harris' Pass Rushing Productivity rating, according to Pro Football Focus
There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years about the way in which Alabama head coach Nick Saban — regarded as one of the greatest defensive masterminds in the history of the sport as well as arguably the greatest head coach in college football history — has fielded teams that feature more offensive firepower than defensive prowess. It's a sign of the times, but also an important realization that Saban will attempt to put his team in the best position to win regardless of his expected preferred philosophy. Of course, Saban still has many of the most talented defensive players in the country at his disposal, including some of the best pass rushers in the nation.
Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) rating "measures pressure created on a per snap basis with weighting toward sacks," according to PFF. Harris has 4.5 sacks this season, which ranks fourth on the Crimson Tide behind Will Anderson Jr. and Christian Baramore (7.0) as well as Christopher Allen (6.0), but he has a 16.0 PRP — best among all FBS players with 100 or more pass-rushing snaps. Harris, who has been credited with six quarterback hits and 16 hurries for a total of 27 pressures, ranks No. 32 among players with 20 or more pass-rush snaps. Only one player who will take the field Monday, Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner, whose 21.4 PRP includes 11 pressures in 28 pass-rushing snaps, is better. Furthermore, Anderson has recorded 56 total pressures, according to PFF — 34 hurries, 14 quarterback hits, and eight sacks. Only one FBS player has more (Coastal Carolina's Tarron Jackson, 59).
54.5%: Alabama's Success Rate, the highest of the College Football Playoff era
One of the most respected advanced metrics in football is Success Rate, which measures the efficiency at which teams gain yardage. A "successful play" gains 50 percent or more of the needed yardage on first down (five yards on first-and-10), 70 percent on second down (seven yards on second-and-10, for example), or the full yardage needed to gain a first down on a third- or fourth-down play. Alabama, which has played all 12 of its games against Power 5 competition, including 11 against its SEC rivals, has a 54.4 percent Success Rate in non-garbage plays this season, per cfb-graphs.com. Kent State (52.2 percent) ranks second, and Ohio State (50.3) is the only other FBS team above 50 percent this season. Last year's LSU offense, widely considered among the greatest in college football history, posted a 54.3 percent Success Rate, which is the best for any squad since (at least) the College Football Playoff was introduced in 2014.
76.92%: Ohio State's scoring percentage in the red zone, which ranks No. 100 nationally
The vast majority of our list is positive, and rightfully so. Alabama and Ohio State are the final two teams standing, and not surprisingly, the pair ranks at or near the top of a wide range of statistical categories. Nevertheless, there are some imperfections for both squads (and generally more on the defensive side of the ball than on offense), and the Buckeyes have a few more than their favored opponents. The most noticeable flaw for Ohio State is a shaky pass defense (Ohio State ranks 52nd in EPA/pass on defense, for example). Alas, Ryan Day's offense has struggled in one particular area of note: the red zone.
The Buckeyes have found the end zone 25 times on 39 trips to the red zone this season, a 64.1 percent rate that sits 55th on the FBS leaderboard. Ohio State also has converted five field goals but has come away without points nine times. As a result, the Buckeyes rank No. 100 with a 76.92 percent scoring rate. Among the notable failures, Fields was intercepted in the end zone by Clemson in the third quarter and he was picked off by Northwestern just before halftime of the Big Ten Championship Game.
Ohio State obviously overcame both, but the margin for error is even smaller against Alabama. On that note, the Crimson Tide has scored on 91.94 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line, with 48 touchdowns (77.42 percent, sixth nationally and better than every FBS team that has played at least eight games) and nine field goals (14.52 percent) in 62 opportunities.
93.08: Ohio State's Roster Strength Rating, according to CFB Winning Edge
Traditional recruiting ratings, like those from 247Sports, are an excellent way to determine has much talent a team has available on its roster. Alabama ranks No. 1 in the country with an average player rating of .9373 in the 247Sports Composite across its active roster of scholarship players. The Crimson Tide also have the highest average rating in the country among defensive starters (.9504), while Ohio State (.9284) ranks third behind Alabama and Georgia (.9312). However, the Buckeyes have the most talented offensive starting lineup (.9606) in the 247Sports Composite, while Alabama sits at No. 3 (.9369). The Crimson Tide rank second in the 2020 College Football Team Talent Composite, according to 247Sports, with 985.86 points, behind only Georgia (990.52). Ohio State is third (976.48).
Those recruiting ratings take roster fluctuation into account, which is especially important in the days of the transfer portal as well as a rising number of early entries to the NFL draft. However, they do not account for experience and on-field production (the kind that made Mac Jones a Heisman finalist, for instance). That's why CFB Winning Edge set out to provide a clearer picture of overall Roster Strength. When tallying up the 247Sports Composite ratings for every player on each FBS roster during the 2020 season, which factors in experience while adding "production points" for reaching statistical benchmarks and performance grades to develop an individual rating for each player (think overall rating from the Madden NFL video game series), Ohio State leads the pack with a 93.04 overall Roster Strength rating — meaning the Buckeyes have the most talented roster in the nation on paper. Ohio State also ranks No. 1 in Offensive Roster Strength (93.80), and No. 3 on defense (91.96). Of course, Alabama isn't far off. The Crimson Tide rank second in both overall Roster Strength (92.93) and on offense (93.57) and have a slightly better group of defensive players with the No. 2 unit (92.07).
The margin is tiny, but regardless of how you slice it, Ohio State and Alabama are two of the most talented teams in college football this season. More importantly, they've played like it. And as two of the most prestigious and successful programs in the history of the sport, we should be in for a memorable national championship game.