College football is looking to crown a national champion on Monday night — and to punctuate a season that routinely dealt in controversy and so often teetered toward collapse during the coronavirus pandemic.
Top-ranked Alabama will meet No. 3 Ohio State at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., the teams having dispatched their opponents, Notre Dame and Clemson, in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Both bring mighty offenses. Their defenses are shakier than those of their predecessors. Alabama, the Southeastern Conference champion, and Ohio State, the winner of the Big Ten, are both facing questions about whether certain stars will be able to play. Both coaches are chasing history in strikingly personal ways: A win for Nick Saban, 69, would tie Bear Bryant’s mark for the most championships at Alabama, and a victory for Ryan Day, just 41, would give him his inaugural title.
The game will air on ESPN at 8 p.m. Eastern time. Despite questions last week about whether issues related to the virus might force a postponement of the game, playoff officials say the teams will be ready to proceed.
A public vaccination site at Hard Rock Stadium will close at noon on Monday, the state said, “to accommodate” the championship.
No. 1 Alabama (12-0)
College Football Playoff record: 7-3
Record in playoff championship games: 2-2
Players to watch: For excitement that is as compelling as it is predictable this season, look to the offense. DeVonta Smith, the first wide receiver since 1991 to win the Heisman Trophy, will almost assuredly be hard to miss, as will Najee Harris, the starting tailback who turned heads during the Rose Bowl with a breathtaking leap over a Notre Dame defender. But the offensive line, so often overlooked, makes things work for Alabama, so watch Deonte Brown, the 350-pound redshirt senior at left guard, and Alex Leatherwood, a senior who plays left tackle.
Something Alabama loves: Hard as it might be to believe after years of special teams struggles in Tuscaloosa, kicking (when Alabama must, of course). Will Reichard has hit all 13 of his field goal tries, as well as all 77 extra point attempts.
Something Alabama detests: The defense has intercepted a dozen passes this year — stellar by many standards but the fewest by an Alabama team since the 2014 season, when its campaign ended with a College Football Playoff game against Ohio State. (Alabama lost, 42-35. Ohio State went on to win the first national championship of the playoff era.)
Alabama’s warning light: It’s the same as Clemson’s was in the Sugar Bowl semifinal game on New Year’s Day. Facing an Ohio State pass defense that was the worst in the Big Ten in 2020, Alabama should be terrified if it struggles through the air with a quarterback, Mac Jones, who has completed 77 percent of his throws this season, and Smith, who has 1,641 receiving yards.
How Indiana Coach Tom Allen thinks Alabama can beat Ohio State: “Mac Jones is good enough — he’s an elite player — and that receiver corps is extremely talented,” said Allen, whose team came closer than anyone this season to defeating the Buckeyes. “The matchup is going to be this: If Alabama can’t run the ball against their D-line, that will be huge.”
Extra point: Despite a frustrating two seasons leading the Miami Dolphins, Coach Nick Saban will arrive in Miami Gardens with an 11-7 record at Hard Rock Stadium, between his N.F.L. and collegiate head coaching careers. But as Smith put it this month, location may not matter all that much: “Just spot the ball. I’m ready.”
No. 3 Ohio State (7-0)
College Football Playoff record: 3-2
Record in playoff championship games: 1-0
Players to watch: Quarterback Justin Fields took a sack to his torso that knocked him (and perhaps a few of his ribs — the world may never know) out of place during Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl matchup against Clemson. He still finished the night with 385 passing yards and six touchdowns. Wide receiver Chris Olave and Trey Sermon, a running back, will remain key connections: Olave, who missed Ohio State’s Big Ten championship win because of coronavirus protocols, caught two touchdowns for the Buckeyes against Clemson, and Sermon has rushed for 524 yards in the last two games.
Something Ohio State loves: The defensive line. Seriously. Ohio State’s rushing defense is ranked second in the Football Bowl Subdivision, flying under the radar as weaknesses in the secondary allowed opponents to challenge the Buckeyes. Ohio State held Travis Etienne, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time leading rusher, to 32 yards. The rest of Clemson’s rushing attack gained all of 12 yards.
Something Ohio State detests: Well, the secondary, which has been giving up nearly a dozen yards a completion. That pass defense will need to look far sharper when it’s facing the Heisman-winner Smith — plus the potential return of Jaylen Waddle, who was hurt in October but could someday be a first-round N.F.L. draft pick. (Alabama Coach Nick Saban has said Waddle’s status will be a game-day decision.) And then there’s the rest of Alabama’s deep pool of pass catchers, including its tight ends and running backs, namely Harris.
Ohio State’s warning light: As the Ohio State defense consistently rushes four from the line, it may require its secondary to hold up in coverage for a longer amount of time, especially given the strength of the Crimson Tide offensive line. Shaun Wade, the leader of the Buckeyes’s secondary and a top-ranked coverage cornerback heading into this year’s N.F.L. draft, will need to step up against one of the most potent passing attacks in recent college football history.
How Mississippi Coach Lane Kiffin thinks Ohio State can beat Alabama: “You have to be off-the-charts aggressive,” Kiffin, the former Alabama offensive coordinator, said in an interview. “Fourth downs, trick plays, tempo. You’re the underdog against an offense that no one has stopped. You’re going to have to try to outscore them.”
Extra point: Day has only lost once in 24 games as Ohio State’s coach: a playoff game against Clemson in 2019. The Buckeyes haven’t won a national championship since the 2014 season — but they beat Alabama, 42-35, that season in a playoff semifinal.
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