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Beware of a disrespected underdog. Ohio State entered the College Football Playoff as the outsider in an elite club, at least according to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who ranked the Buckeyes 11th on his ballot. Swinney questioned Ohio State’s thin body of work in its shortened six-game Big Ten season, and while his main point might have been right, he was wrong to say it publicly. The Buckeyes showed up hungry and motivated, and Swinney went home humbled after a 49-28 loss in the Sugar Bowl. Tigers star Trevor Lawrence, the presumed No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL draft, was the second-best quarterback on the field. After pitching nearly a perfect game against Clemson, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields will need to be just as good against No. 1 Alabama in Monday night’s national championship game in Miami.

The Crimson Tide coasted past Notre Dame 31-14 in a Rose Bowl semifinal in Arlington, Texas, where the matchup was far more one-sided than the final score. The Alabama offense made it look easy early, and coach Nick Saban took his foot off the gas with a bigger game on deck. The Irish were overwhelmed and outclassed yet managed to sneak in the back door and cover the 20-point line. If Saban gets the Buckeyes down, he has no reason to hold back or show mercy.

Circa Sports opened Alabama as a 7-point favorite over Ohio State with a total of 77. Most bookmakers reported an initial wave of sharp money on the Tide, who are now favored by 7.5 to 8, and the total has dipped to 75. Alabama is -300 on the moneyline, and the Buckeyes (+ 250) figure to draw their fair share of action as a popular team with the betting public. The wagering handle is expected to exceed most NFL playoff games this weekend.

Is it possible for Fields to be as good as he was against Clemson? Probably not. Fields struggled against the strongest defenses he faced this season, throwing a total of five interceptions and taking eight sacks in narrow victories over Indiana and Northwestern. He shredded the Tigers by completing 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards and six touchdowns in the finest performance of his career. It stood in stark contrast to Fields’ weak showing (12-for-27, 114 yards, two interceptions) in a 22-10 win over the Wildcats in the Big Ten title game. The constant for the Buckeyes was the running of Trey Sermon, who went for 331 yards against Northwestern and 193 against Clemson. The Buckeyes should be able to move the ball behind their powerful offensive line, but Fields must avoid turnovers and match scores with a Tide offense that appears unstoppable.

Alabama’s big-play firepower starts with quarterback Mac Jones and wideout DeVonta Smith, who can exploit Ohio State’s soft secondary. The Buckeyes ranked last in the Big Ten in pass defense in their first six games, which is why their showing against Lawrence was so surprising. Jones has completed 77% of his passes with 36 touchdowns and four interceptions, numbers typical of a Heisman Trophy winner. Smith, who has 105 receptions and 20 touchdowns, emerged as the Heisman favorite late in the season. Do not overlook Najee Harris, who has rushed for 1,387 yards and 24 touchdowns. The Tide scored on drives of 79 and 97 yards to take a 14-0 lead on the Irish less than 11 minutes into the game. Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian accepted the Texas head coaching job last week, so that’s a potential issue if he’s not fully focused on the task at hand. Still, the Tide have too many weapons not to top 40 points against the Buckeyes.

Ryan Day has a 23-1 record in his second season as Ohio State coach and just avenged his only loss to Clemson in a playoff semifinal last season. Day is being mentioned as a candidate for NFL job openings, but he’ll put that story on hold for another week. What’s more important to monitor is the health of Fields, who took a hard shot to the ribs in the second quarter against Clemson. Fields returned to play spectacularly, but the injury could linger, and it’s rare for any quarterback to be nearly perfect in back-to-back games against elite defenses. The Buckeyes just turned in an A+  performance that will be difficult to duplicate. Saban is shooting for his sixth national title at Alabama, and he’s a good bet to get it because his team has been better and more consistent on both sides of the ball all season.


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