After a blowout and an upset in the College Football Playoff semifinals, the 2020 college football season comes down to the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Ohio State Buckeyes on Monday night in Miami.
The two powerhouse programs last met in the CFP semifinals for the 2014 season with the Buckeyes upsetting top-ranked Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl on the way to winning the national championship.
Alabama is currently favored by 7.5 points, but those were the same odds the Buckeyes faced ahead of their win over Clemson. This is a game that could go either way and will likely be decided by these five matchups between the Buckeyes and the Crimson Tide.
DeVonta Smith vs Shaun Wade
DeVonta Smith is undoubtedly the best receiver in the country. He has the most well-rounded skill set of any pass catcher in college football and can hurt teams in a variety of ways.
In the national semifinal, Notre Dame had no answer for Smith, who caught seven passes for 130 yards and three touchdowns. Of course, the Irish weren’t the first team to watch Smith shred their secondary this season. While Alabama has other capable receivers, Smith is the most dangerous by far and needs to be contained to some extent.
That assignment will likely fall on Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade. Wade has seen his draft stock plummet this season and he should have his hands full against Smith. If Wade and the Buckeyes can avoid giving up the big play to Smith, they’ll take it. However, Smith can be dangerous after the catch and has the speed to run past defenders, so even Wade playing off coverage doesn’t guarantee that Smith won’t get behind the Ohio State defense.
Chris Olave vs Patrick Surtain II
Patrick Surtain II might be the biggest weapon on the Alabama defense. He’s capable of taking away an entire side of the field and limiting where quarterbacks can throw the ball. In the national semifinal, Notre Dame didn’t even consider throwing the ball in Surtain’s direction until late in the game when they were desperate. Against Ohio State, Surtain will likely get paired up with Chris Olave, who torched Clemson for 132 yards on six catches, including two touchdowns.
The difference between Ohio State and Notre Dame is that the Buckeyes aren’t going to shy away from Surtain. Frankly, Ohio State can’t afford to not throw the ball in Olave’s direction. Outside of Olave and Garrett Wilson, the Buckeyes are a little limited at wide receiver. The team’s third-leading receiver Jameson Williams has just eight catches for 140 yards this season. In fairness, he caught three passes for 62 yards and a touchdown against Clemson. However, Ohio State doesn’t have the volume of receivers to ignore Olave, so he’ll have to win some one-on-one battles against Surtain.
If Olave struggles, the Buckeyes will have limited options in the downfield passing game.
Najee Harris vs Ohio State’s Linebackers
If Smith and Alabama’s passing attack weren’t scary enough for opposing defenses, running back Najee Harris also gives the Crimson Tide a potent ground game.
The Tide averaged close to 50 points this season because of a balanced offense that included Harris rushing for nearly 1,400 yards and averaging over six yards per carry. He also found the end zone 27 times. If the Ohio State defense is going to contain the Alabama offense, they have to prevent big plays from Smith while also keeping Harris under wraps.
To their credit, the Buckeyes have a veteran contingent of linebackers led by Pete Werner and Tuf Borland. Against Clemson, they limited Travis Etienne to just 32 rushing yards on 10 carries, so they’ve capable of shutting down quality running backs.
The caveat is that Harris and Etienne are different types of backs. Harris isn’t going to bounce around and try to get to the edge the way Etienne does. Alabama will run Harris between the tackles and force the Buckeyes to tackle him play after play. Against both Florida and Georgia, which were Alabama’s two toughest games this season, Harris had over 30 carries. That means Ohio State’s linebackers might have to tackle 30 times, increasing the chances of Harris tiring out the defense and eventually breaking free for a big run.
Tommy Togiai, Haskell Garrett vs Chris Owens
Alabama’s offense doesn’t have too many flaws, but if there’s one it might be Chris Owens at the center position. Owens is replacing Landon Dickerson, who was injured in the SEC Championship Game. Despite being a fifth-year senior, Owens has spent most of his career as a backup, so he’s a little light on playing experience and doesn’t have pro potential like other members of the Alabama offensive line.
In other words, the Buckeyes need to exploit this potential weakness on the Crimson Tide offensive line with interior linemen Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett. They are two of Ohio State’s best pass rushers, combining for five sacks in seven games this season. The best way to disrupt Alabama’s passing game and prevent big plays down the field is to knock Mac Jones off his spot and force him to move his feet.
Jones has only been sacked 11 times in 12 games this season, meaning few teams have found consistent success pressuring the Alabama quarterback. But if Togiai and Garrett can take advantage of Alabama’s inexperienced center and make Jones uncomfortable in the pocket, the Buckeyes might get a few more stops against the Crimson Tide than most teams and give themselves a fighting chance in this game.
Justin Fields vs the Alabama Defense
Frankly, we all know that this game is likely to come down to how Justin Fields plays against the Alabama defense. The Buckeyes needed him to deliver a transcendent performance against Clemson to beat the Tigers and Fields delivered. He completed 22 of his 28 passes for 385 yards and threw six touchdown passes, four of which came in the red zone and two others on long pass plays. Even after getting hurt, Fields was able to play through the pain and elevate the entire Ohio State team. There’s little doubt that he’ll have to do the same against Alabama.
It might not be so easy for Fields, though. The Alabama defense is one of the best in the country, giving up fewer than 20 points per game against an all-SEC schedule. Outside of an early-season game against Ole Miss, the only time the Crimson Tide looked vulnerable defensively this season was in the SEC Championship Game against Florida. Despite little help from the running game, Florida quarterback Kyle Trask carved up the Alabama defense for over 400 passing yards. But even that wasn’t enough to beat the Crimson Tide.
Fields needs to replicate his performance against Clemson while also mimicking Trask’s success against the Alabama defense. If the Crimson Tide can keep Fields under wraps in a way that Clemson failed to do, Ohio State’s path to victory will be quite narrow.
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