For a program drenched in football triumphs and accolades, Ohio State knows what it’s like to be an underdog in a big spot.
It hasn’t happened often. These days, since Urban Meyer transformed the Buckeyes and passed the baton to Ryan Day, it’s happening less. But when the national championship takes place Monday night, the Buckeyes once again will assume the role.
As it stands now, they are 7.5-point underdog against Alabama, which has looked largely unbeatable the last two months. The total sits at a robust 75.5.
For a championship game, this spread is significant. And yet, given what we witnessed against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, it no longer feels insurmountable. After all, Ohio State was a touchdown underdog to Clemson and responded with an echoing 49-28 victory.
This is not the first time this team has delivered in a spot like this. In fact, in this specific matchup, it is vaguely familiar. In 2015, Ohio State closed as a 7.5-point underdog against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes won that game outright.
Since 2012, Ohio State is a spectacular 8-1 outright as a dog. This is a position, as rare as it might be, in which the Buckeyes thrive.
History shouldn’t dictate how you wager on this game. The trends dating back a decade won’t help the Ohio State secondary slow DeVonta Smith or tackle Najee Harris.
But the performance and the mentality are noteworthy, especially considering the most recent outcome. And at the very least, despite Alabama’s brilliance, it does give the gambling world much to mull heading into college football’s epic conclusion.
THE APPETIZER: FOOTBALL TIDBITS AND OBSERVATIONS
1. Justin Fields’ performance against Clemson in the semifinal is one of the greatest I’ve seen. When you consider how much pain Ohio State’s quarterback looked to be in after a brutal hit to his right rib cage, it’s even more unbelievable. Six touchdowns. Six incompletions. I’m still in awe. What a moment.
2. I think Steve Sarkisian could succeed at Texas. While the firing of Tom Herman was somewhat shocking, especially considering the Longhorns essentially said they were committed to him for next season after striking out on hiring Urban Meyer, this could work out extremely well. And to stomach Herman’s $15 million buyout, it certainly better. Given the reliance on recruiting and offense in college football, Sark is a natural fit. He will inherit a roster with some really nice young pieces, and don’t be shocked when Texas recruits exceptionally well over the next six months. It was a stunning move, but it feels like the right move.
3. Let’s move around the state of Texas. The foundation is in place for Texas A&M to build on a successful year. (And not just because the Aggies pulled off a beautiful back-door cover over North Carolina in the Orange Bowl.) Jimbo Fisher is recruiting well, developing well and in a position to live up to his massive contract. While betting against Alabama to win the SEC West always is a leap of faith, I’m eager to see what the futures look like in the division and perhaps even for the national championship. Depending on who declares, A&M might be worth a stab.
4. I think Matt Corral, assuming he comes back next season, might be worth a shot to win the Heisman. Playing in Lane Kiffin’s offense at Ole Miss, Corral made enormous strides in 2020. He accounted for 33 touchdowns. He also threw 14 interceptions, although 11 came in two games. (Seriously.) Another offseason with Kiffin, who was just given a new contract, and he’ll have a chance to post enormous numbers in 2021. Whether Ole Miss can win enough games is another story, but Corral is a fun player and a potential star.
5. What happens after college football’s season ends will be fascinating. Due to COVID-19, all players were granted an extra year of eligibility regardless of how many games they’d played. We already saw Miami quarterback D’Eriq King, whose season ended with a torn ACL, announce he would be back. If you’re going to partake in any futures, tracking these movements will be crucial. Between that and another recruiting class, this will be a curious year for roster management.
THE BUFFET: BREAKING DOWN THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
What About the Status of Justin Fields?
Let’s start with those ribs. I don’t know what Saturday felt like for Ohio State’s quarterback, but I imagine it was deeply unpleasant given the pain he looked to be in Friday.
Fields took a brutal helmet to his right side in the first half. Based on his response, I just assumed broken ribs. Watching him get on and off the exercise bike was painful. He took a “shot or two” to help him deal with the pain, though we don’t have a diagnosis and we probably won’t until after the game. Ryan Day declined to say anything meaningful about the injury other than Fields will play. Not shocking.
If you’re going to bet on Ohio State, you have to start by playing doctor. Fields will have about nine days to recover, which could be a) enough time if his ribs aren’t broken or b) probably not enough if they are. If he is still hurt, he’ll likely have plenty of help from the medicine gods once again.
While he was extraordinary even after he was injured, completing 11 of 16 throws for 222 yards and four touchdowns, asking him to do that again against a much better secondary is asking a lot. He’s an incredible talent, but it just seems unreasonable.
Here’s the part of the injury that is concerning. If it does linger, Ohio State will likely limit his mobility to protect him. (This would be smart.) It would also largely diminish one of his greatest assets.
The other part to worry about: Can he hold up? One hit in a game that will probably feature plenty of them could alter its course drastically.
Can Ohio State Slow the Alabama Offense?
The simple answer is probably not. There’s a reason the total is above 75.
However, Notre Dame delivered a blueprint on how at least to try. The Irish sat on the ball, delivered a few long drives and limited the Tide’s possessions. They did not generate enough offense to turn this plan into something more, but it was a sound strategy that showed signs of working.
Najee Harris still rushed for 125 yards on only 15 carries. DeVonta Smith still caught seven balls for 130 yards and three touchdowns. The finely tuned machine did what finely tuned machines do.
My chief concern for Ohio State is its secondary. Cornerback Shaun Wade had a brutal game, and the rest of the group has been a liability all year. (Just go back and watch what Indiana did in the second half.)
The best way for Ohio State to cover up these issues is to do precisely what it did against Clemson: apply enough pressure with its front four to make Mac Jones uncomfortable. Trevor Lawrence was under duress for much of the game thanks largely to a defensive line that took over.
The problem? Alabama has a much better offensive line. In fact, this group just won the Joe Moore Award as the best offensive line in college football. Even without injured center Landon Dickerson, this unit is pretty special.
If Ohio State is to slow down this electric offense, it really has to start up front. If no pressure is applied, it will be an incredibly long evening.
How Can Ohio State Cover or Win This Game?
To me, it starts with running back Trey Sermon. The Oklahoma transfer has blossomed into a star over the last few games. After running for 331 yards against Northwestern, Sermon torched Clemson with 193 rushing yards and 61 receiving yards. The Buckeyes’ offensive line played exceptionally against Clemson. I believe any upset bid, especially with Fields’ status somewhat unknown, starts here.
Ohio State doesn’t have a wideout of Smith’s caliber, but Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, two potential future first-round draft picks, are a difficult matchup.
Alabama counters with cornerback Patrick Surtain II, a potential top-10 pick this year. This secondary and defense, however, has given up plenty of big plays. Florida and Ole Miss showed us that.
Day, a brilliant offensive play caller, has plenty of pieces to play with. Ohio State also has a couple of really solid tight ends, and I expect that to be a fixture of the offense also.
This is no magic formula. Allow really good players to make plays in space. Ball control. And hope your dynamic quarterback is healthy enough to facilitate it all.
The Wild Card
Jaylen Waddle. Remember him?
Before Smith delivered an all-time season for a wide receiver, Waddle was well on his way. The sterling wideout and return man accounted for 557 yards receiving and four touchdowns in only four games before suffering a season-ending injury.
Or did he? Waddle is reportedly practicing with Alabama this week, which is an enormous twist heading into CFB’s final night.
Does he have an actual chance to play? Or is this merely a brilliant bit of strategy by Alabama to give Ohio State even more to think about?
Time will tell, but I would be surprised if Waddle plays, especially since he is likely to be a top-15 pick in the upcoming draft.
That said, if he does, Alabama’s offense becomes that much more dynamic. And at the very least, this adds an enormous bit of intrigue to a game already ripe with it.
While Ohio State is one of the few teams capable of matching Alabama athletically, I think the status of Fields coupled with the brilliance of ‘Bama will be too much to overcome.
I’ll have more on VSIN this week when we make our official picks, but that’ll do for now.
I’ll lay the 7.5. I’ll also be on Alabama first half.