The college football season has been a ride, but at long last, here we are at the College Football Playoff National Championship. To have made it all the way through the year, despite all of the interruptions and problems — both real and potential — is an accomplishment.
And now, No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Ohio State will take the field one final time to determine the national champion for one of the wildest seasons in the history of the sport.
While playing for championships is familiar territory for both programs, how they got here couldn’t have been more different. Alabama played close to a full schedule with the SEC opting for a conference-only slate. The Crimson Tide got in all 10 SEC games plus two postseason matchups. It wasn’t a completely smooth effort — coach Nick Saban tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the Iron Bowl — but all things considered it could have been worse.
Ohio State, on the other hand, almost didn’t have a season. The Big Ten initially eschewed a fall season for another crack at football in 2021 but eventually did an about-face with a shortened eight-game slate starting in late October. Because of various cancellations, Ohio State only played five games, but the Big Ten walked back its six-game minimum to allow the Buckeyes to play in the Big Ten Championship Game. Playing only six times, Ohio State was subject to intense scrutiny that it hadn’t played enough games to merit a playoff invite. However, the CFP Selection Committee included the Buckeyes anyway and the decision proved to be the right one when they beat up on Clemson 49-28 in the Sugar Bowl semifinal.
Which leads us to this. Saban will be looking for his sixth national championship at Alabama and seventh overall. Ohio State coach Ryan Day, in just his second year, is looking for his first. Which team will prevail? We break down Monday’s matchup below.
Alabama: It’s a conversation that’s come up more than once, but the 2020 Crimson Tide would be in the discussion as Saban’s best team ever with a win against the Buckeyes. It is already, at the very least, the most dangerous offense Alabama has ever put on a football field. DeVonta Smith became the first wide receiver in nearly 30 years to win the Heisman Trophy, quarterback Mac Jones was a finalist, and running back Najee Harris probably could have (should have) been, too. As it is now, the Tide are averaging 48.2 points. Last year’s national champion, LSU, averaged 48.4. With the shortened season, there’s no way Alabama passes the Tigers in total points scored, but the efficiency with which it’s slaughtered defenses this year is comparable.
Whereas Saban’s early Alabama teams were dominant on defense and slowly overpowered their opponents, the Bama teams of more recent years have relied on offense to overwhelm everyone in their way. College football has shifted towards wide open offenses, and Alabama has made that shift as well as any program in the country — if not better.
Ohio State: Of all the things to watch with Ohio State, none will be more important than the health of quarterback Justin Fields. The junior, a presumed top-three pick in next spring’s NFL Draft, took a hard hit to the midsection during the semifinal against Clemson. While Fields bounced back and threw for six touchdowns, he was also in noticeable pain. Day has said that Fields will play in the game, though the specifics of his injury weren’t disclosed. How Fields looks will be a huge X-factor. Is he fully functional? Is he clearly limited? Is he tepid with his decisions? Those will all be things to monitor.