‘It’s going to be a hell of a football game’: Coaches’ keys to Ohio State-Alabama
- College football reporter
- Joined ESPN.com in 2007
- Graduate of the University of Tennessee
- College football reporter.
- Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
- Graduate of Northwestern University.
Alabama and Ohio State most recently met during the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2015. Behind coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Cardale Jones, the Buckeyes won the Allstate Sugar Bowl semifinal 42-35 and went on to a national title.
Since that loss, Nick Saban and Alabama have won two national championships and played in two other title games. Ohio State, now led by Ryan Day, is making its first trip to the championship game since winning that title in 2015.
Two of college football’s true blue bloods meet again on Monday in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T in Miami Gardens, Florida (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and the ESPN App).
There are many similarities between the two unbeaten teams, from the collection of potential first-round NFL draft picks, to a pair of top-five scoring offenses nationally, to defenses that have uncharacteristically given up points in bunches at times this season.
Alabama and Ohio State have also dominated their conference brethren. Since the start of the 2014 season, Alabama is 59-5 against SEC opponents, and Ohio State is 59-4 against Big Ten foes.
We surveyed coaches who have faced Alabama and Ohio State this season to break down the factors that will shape Monday’s game and determine which team should win the national title.
Fields vs. Alabama’s D
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was spectacular in the 49-28 semifinal rout of Clemson in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. He finished 22-of-28 for 385 yards, with six touchdowns and just one interception. He also rushed for 42 yards.
It might not take six touchdown passes to beat Alabama, but coaches in the Big Ten and SEC agree Fields will again have to be at his absolute best for the Buckeyes to win. Entering the Clemson game, Fields had thrown 15 touchdown passes and five interceptions in six games and had been sacked 18 times.
“He’s had a couple of games where he’s looked pretty human,” one Big Ten head coach said. “He’s going to have to be at the top of his game. He’s going to have to be really sharp. They just need all of their weapons [to play well].”
An SEC head coach said the Clemson game is the best he’s ever seen Fields play, in part because the Ohio State running game opened up so many things for him down the field. Trey Sermon rushed for 193 yards against the Tigers.
“I thought Indiana confused Fields and that Northwestern confused him,” said the SEC coach, noting that Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is one of the best in the business at messing with quarterbacks’ minds.
“So I thought [Venables] would rattle Fields, and to his credit, he didn’t let that happen. We’ll see if Alabama can do that. But the key was the Ohio State run game. That helped settle Fields down and allowed him to take those shots down the field.”
A Big Ten coach credited Ohio State’s Day for ensuring Venables and Clemson couldn’t steal the Buckeyes’ signals. Ohio State consistently attacked a Clemson defense that didn’t know what was coming.
“Fields goes from the Big Ten championship, where he looked just dazed and confused, and against Clemson, he looks like the best player in the country,” a Big Ten offensive assistant said.
A constant threat to run, Fields has rushed for more than 40 yards four times this season and naturally makes plays outside the pocket.
“Alabama has issues with quarterbacks that can run,” an SEC head coach said. “I think Ohio State can keep them off balance if Fields can run it some. If he can do that, they can play with Alabama. But you’ve got to be good on third down to have any chance against Alabama and control the tempo of the game a little bit. Fields gives you a chance to do that with his skill set.”
If Fields even comes close to playing at the level he did against Clemson, one SEC offensive assistant said, “it’s going to be a hell of a football game. It could be the Alabama versus [Clemson quarterback] Deshaun Watson game [in 2017] all over again, and we saw what Watson did to some Alabama defenses that were better than this one.”
Winning (or avoiding) a ‘track meet’
Alabama and Ohio State are both averaging more than 43 points per game, and both offenses are equipped to rack up scores.
But an SEC defensive coordinator said the last thing Ohio State wants to do is get into a game where both teams are scoring at will.
“Ohio State looks like the closest team that could do that,” the coordinator said. “But if you do get into a track meet with Alabama, you’re probably running for the silver medal, not the gold medal. Alabama has never been this explosive on offense before under Saban, but they can still pound you in the running game.
“They’ve got an elite running back [Najee Harris], an elite offensive line and an elite playcaller [offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian]. That’s dangerous.”
A Big Ten head coach said Ohio State’s front seven on defense will be the key to slowing down Alabama and not allowing it to become a track meet.
“Are they able to generate a pass rush?” the coach said. “You can go after [Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade], but they’re going to play three-deep, keep it inside and in front. I think they’re going to force Alabama to earn it.”
That same Big Ten head coach said there’s always the chance that Sarkisian, recently named the Texas head coach, could be distracted.
“But that front seven of Ohio State’s is pretty damn good now. They dominated Clemson. Dominated,” the coach said. “Those backers and the D-line, there’s no superstar on the D-line except for maybe [tackle Haskell Garrett], but if they do what they did in the Sugar Bowl, that front eight that they rotate could be a problem. It will probably be the best D-line that Alabama has played.”
The Crimson Tide have won twice this season when they gave up 46 or more points, a 63-48 victory over Ole Miss on Oct. 10 and a 52-46 win over Florida on Dec. 19 in the SEC championship game.
An SEC head coach said it will be vital for Ohio State to hit some explosive plays, but equally important will be minimizing Alabama’s possessions.
“But if you’re going to do that, you’ve got to score on your drives, and even though you’ve got to hit some shots down the field, you’ve got to be able to meticulously move the ball on them, which I think you can on this defense if you’re patient,” the coach said. “They’re a really good defensive football team. They’re not a great defensive football team.”
That same SEC head coach said that getting Alabama to the fourth quarter, especially in a high-scoring game, would work in Ohio State’s favor.
“Make it a tight game because they really haven’t played one,” the coach said. “When Florida kept scoring, Alabama had a little bit of panic on their face. They hadn’t been hit like that.”
Alabama’s offensive line vs. Ohio State’s defensive line
Several Big Ten coaches identified Ohio State’s secondary as the team’s weak link. Even Wade, a possible first-round NFL draft pick, hasn’t wowed coaches in the league. A Big Ten coach said safety Josh Proctor is Ohio State’s most impressive defensive back.
A vulnerable secondary likely spells disaster against Alabama’s passing game, but Ohio State has the defensive line to create some problems for the Tide.
“This may sound crazy, but you’ve got to make [Alabama] one-dimensional,” the coach said. “You’ve got to win on first down. You’ve got to set them behind the chains, because Mac [Jones] can’t run. So you’ve got to make that kid beat you.”
As talented as Ohio State is up front along the defensive line, an SEC head coach said the best part of Alabama’s team is its offensive line, although the Crimson Tide did take a hit when senior center Landon Dickerson went down in the SEC championship game with a knee injury.
“The part of their team that nobody talks about enough and the best part of their team overall as a group is the offensive line,” the coach said. “Najee Harris is a good player, but he’s not [former Alabama running back] Derrick Henry. What he has is five professional offensive linemen in front of him. I think Mac Jones will probably be a first-round pick, but he’s also not Joe Burrow. Again, Mac is a really good player who never turns it over. But if that offensive line were average, he would be average.”
A Big Ten offensive assistant said Ohio State would need to find a way to get pressure on Jones without blitzing, which is easier said than done.
“They don’t have to pressure because they usually get pressure from their D-line a lot of the time,” the assistant said. “They’ve got some pressures, but people are afraid to pressure Alabama because they’re afraid to give up some big plays.”
And even if Ohio State’s defensive line plays lights out, an SEC head coach said the Buckeyes had better be able to tackle in space.
“You just can’t let Alabama get yards after the catch,” the coach said. “Look at three of their touchdowns against Notre Dame. The quarterback takes the ball and throws it to a guy like it’s 1980 again. But that’s how good Alabama is at their skill positions, especially DeVonta Smith.
“It’s not like Sark is running some kind of offense that nobody’s ever seen before. He’s just got the best players, so you better make them earn it and not get yards after the catch.”
As good as Smith is, as evidenced by his 20 touchdown catches and Heisman Trophy, one SEC head coach said the thought of having to prepare for Smith and Jaylen Waddle is a nightmare for any defensive coordinator. Waddle has been practicing this past week after fracturing his ankle on Oct. 24 and will be a game-time decision.
“Smith is unreal, but the wide receiver group as a whole is not the same without Waddle,” the coach said. “With him, and if he plays, look out.”
The winning edge
Ohio State’s best chance to win, according to an SEC offensive assistant, is to take Smith completely out of the game. But good luck with that. He’s caught two or more touchdown passes in six of his past seven games.
“Let [John] Metchie go for 100 yards,” the assistant said. “His 100 yards are going to be dig routes where he gets tackled or crossing routes where he gets tackled. But DeVonta catching crossing routes? He ain’t catching them. They’re touchdowns. I would commit two people to DeVonta at all times.
“If Ohio State can’t contain him, Alabama will win big.”
Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss piled up 647 total yards on Alabama this season and did it by using an up-tempo offense that kept the Tide defense in disarray. One SEC head coach said Ohio State’s best chance in this game would be to use some tempo, but he doubts that the Buckeyes would be able to go at the pace the Rebels did on Oct. 10.
“Ohio State can go fast, but nobody can go fast like Lane,” the coach said. “And you can’t put tempo in like that in one week. Ohio State messed with Clemson but was hiding their formations and waiting and waiting and then would run a play and gashed Clemson a couple of times when they weren’t lined up. But to do it against Alabama, you’ve got to do it four times in a row like Lane did.
“That can be catastrophic, because if you do that and don’t get a first down, you’re going to be down 14-0 because Alabama is going to score.”
A Big Ten offensive assistant said this is not the Alabama of old that could win games purely on defense. He said if the Buckeyes can force two or more turnovers and/or generate a big play on special teams, then they have a chance to win.
“Ohio State is going to score points,” the assistant said. “They should be able to go toe to toe. It’s going to be, ‘Who turns the ball over, or which defense can make a stop?’ I don’t know who to pick in this game. It’s not like there’s a clear-cut pick.”
An SEC head coach expects Ohio State to do its best to attack Alabama’s two freshman nickel and dime defensive backs (Malachi Moore and Brian Branch) the way Florida did.
“That was a tough matchup for Alabama because it exposed their two true freshmen having to cover Florida’s two best players [Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney],” the coach said. “Ohio State is more traditional. Now, Chris Olave is … a great player. How good? I guess we’ll find out because Olave plays outside, and that’s where Bama’s strength is with Patrick Surtain and Josh Jobe.”
It rarely comes down to just one player in a game like this, but a Big Ten coach wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case.
“To me, the only way Alabama loses the game is if Mac Jones plays the worst game he has all season, sort of like Tua Tagovailoa two years ago against Clemson,” the coach said.
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