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What To Watch For In The College Football National Championship

It looked like we were all headed for another Alabama-Clemson matchup in the College Football Playoff National Championship — a saga that perhaps only “Star Wars” can rival in episodic volume. But Ohio State found Clemson’s exhaust port numerous times in the Sugar Bowl semifinal to the tune of a 49-28 win, giving the Tigers another sour end to a season in the Superdome. Alabama’s semi was similarly never really in doubt, but the Tide’s workmanlike 31-14 whooping of Notre Dame was the outcome most predicted.1

Despite what the point spread says (Alabama is a 9-point favorite) and what the money line implies (-320 … a 76.2 chance of a Bama win), Ohio State has proved that what you saw from the Buckeyes in their first six games is not necessarily what you’ll get in the postseason.

The Buckeyes can stick with this Alabama offense, but how do they plan to do it?

Drawing a straight line from the beginning to the end of Ohio State’s season is not easy. Three starting offensive linemen missed the win over Michigan State. Standout wide receiver Chris Olave missed the conference title game against Northwestern. Games against Illinois and Michigan were canceled.

Still, Ohio State has the talent and the tools to match Alabama on the scoreboard. Quarterback Justin Fields ran the show all season at a high level overall, but his passing performances against Indiana (in which he was sacked five times and threw three interceptions) and later in the Big Ten Championship Game raised questions about his proficiency against good defenses2 and dredging up old criticisms that he may hold onto the ball too long3 or lock on reads. But the Buckeyes rank second in offensive SP+ and fourth in EPA per play, and they boast an undefeated regular season in which they left little doubt in any game other than a 7-point win over Indiana on Nov. 21.

Ohio State’s passing game features two players prominently: Garrett Wilson and Olave. Their target share of the offense dwarfs that of their teammates.

Two receivers get the lion’s share of OSU targets

2020 Ohio State receivers by targets, catches and yards receiving

Player Pos Targets Catches Yards
Garrett Wilson Wide receiver 55 40 673
Chris Olave Wide receiver 51 42 660
Trey Sermon Running back 16 12 95
Jeremy Ruckert Tight end 15 12 115
Jameson Williams Wide receiver 13 8 140
Julian Fleming Wide receiver 12 7 74
Jaxon Smith-Njigba Wide receiver 9 8 29
Luke Farrell Tight end 8 5 37
Master Teague III Running back 4 4 45
Demario McCall Running back 2 1 27
Jake Hausmann Tight end 1 1 13

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The two receivers have different usages. Olave is more likely to do his damage from the outside, where he lines up 86 percent of the time, per Pro Football Focus. Watch him work here:

Wilson will line up inside or outside but is more likely to work from the slot (65 percent of snaps in that alignment, per Pro Football Focus), where he is an absolute matchup nightmare even for a hybrid safety/linebacker like the one he toasts here:

The Buckeyes take those deep shots fairly often,4 and Fields’s arm strength makes their vertical passing game really sing, but it was their running game that shifted into a higher gear starting in the Northwestern game.

Trey Sermon took over when Master Teague III went down injured, and all he did was break an Ohio State single-game rushing record that had stood for a quarter of a century with 331 yards on the ground on 29 carries.5 Ohio State’s zone-heavy run scheme has benefited from Sermon’s vision and cutback ability, shown here alongside a dash of dynamic run blocking from tight end Luke Farrell (No. 89), a staple of their split zone runs.

Fields is an incredible run threat himself, but expect Ohio State to limit designed runs for him against Alabama because of his injured ribs.6 How Ohio State works around that is part of the broader discussion about what exactly the Buckeyes will have in store for the Tide’s defense.

Ryan Day and Ohio State’s coaching staff conducted their magnum opus against Clemson. They generated explosive plays to keep Clemson reeling with a bespoke gameplan that led to more points against the Tigers than any opponent since 2013.

They used a conventional huddle at times (a revolutionary concept in today’s college football) …

… and they also ran formations into the boundary7 at a high rate relative to the rest of the season.

Ohio State also showed a willingness to vary its tempo against Clemson. Tempo doesn’t always mean moving at warp speed and getting snaps off within 10 seconds of the previous play. Using tempo as a tool is a way to keep the defense off guard.

Here, Ohio State’s sugar huddle hides how the Buckeyes are going to line up until they rapidly get set and go. The Tigers aren’t all the way lined up at the snap but are able to recover.

Later in that first quarter, they married deliberate tempo with that punishing run game to catch Clemson out of position again — this time to devastating effect.

The Buckeyes could employ tempo to even greater effect against Alabama. Earlier in the season, Ole Miss gave Bama fits by varying how fast it went. The Rebels scored more points (48) than any other Tide opponent this season.

But drawing from what Ohio State has done this season might not be the best way to project what they will do against the Tide. Rather, it might be best to expect the Buckeyes to bring something new to the table to attack them.

We do have a decent idea of how Alabama will go about its business

This Alabama team is the end result of a schematic perestroika on offense. In 2014, Nick Saban hired Lane Kiffin as his offensive coordinator, and the program entered a new era. Previously, the Tide sat on games and opponents with dominant defense and a punishing run game. They were an immovable object for the first half of Saban’s tenure that has morphed into an unstoppable force.

Saban has said that he’d always wanted a more open offense, but he understood that his previous offensive coordinators’ penchant for a more run-heavy attack was the pragmatic approach, given their personnel — and the three national championships Alabama won before bringing on Kiffin served as plenty of proof of concept.8 But much like the legendary Alabama coach he’ll always be compared to, Bear Bryant, Saban noticed the writing on the wall and evolved with the game. Kiffin presided over the boom, current Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and current Maryland head coach Mike Locksley were each caretakers for a year, but future Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian has ratcheted things up.

This season, Alabama has gained 73.1 percent of its available yards and scored 4.34 points per drive. The only team remotely close to that combined output is BYU. It certainly helps to have a Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line and a laughable amount of talent at the skill positions, including Heisman Trophy winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith9 and wildly athletic running back Najee Harris to help quarterback Mac Jones.

College football fans are no doubt aware of Smith’s highlight reel catches, and the afterburners he can turn on at will against even the best corners. But the different ways the Tide find to get him the ball are equally noteworthy.

The screen pass he took 26 yards to the house against Notre Dame may look simple …

… until you consider that Smith was motioned back toward the middle of the field before the snap, thus creating space to his left and allowing him to use his quickness to get around the defensive back and score. Chess piece moves like this one are part of an Alabama offense that uses motion on 65.1 percent of its snaps, per Pro Football Focus, tied for fourth among FBS teams.

He is both the torching deep threat over the top and the screen threat that helps Alabama chew up all those available yards.

The stable of productive pass catchers from Alabama runs deep with John Metchie, Slade Bolden and even tight end Miller Forristall contributing significantly. They’ve all had to step up to offer Smith a second fiddle in the absence of Jaylen Waddle, but Waddle returned to practice during the runup to the title game after an ankle injury in late October. Expect him to be a gametime decision tonight.

And a not-insignificant part of Alabama’s passing game is also running back Harris, who can routinely leap tall buildings — err, opponents — in a single bound.

He has his own positional versatility, which Alabama uses to great effect. You’ll notice he doesn’t line up like a traditional running back to catch this touchdown (top of the screen):

When he does run the ball, defenses must contend with a player who can make something out of nothing, like this:

And if all those scoring threats aren’t enough, consider that Alabama’s kicker has also been great. Will Reichard is 77-77 on PATs and 13-13 on field goals. An oddity of Saban’s run at Alabama is that the Tide led the FBS in missed kicks from 2007 to 2019. They’ve more than fixed that problem.

We didn’t forget about the defense

If Vegas can be used as a guidepost, defense will matter — but not exactly in the way you might think. The total is set at 75, the highest total for a championship game in the Playoff or BCS eras.10

While Alabama has reoriented how it plays the game, so has the rest of the sport. Even Saban, a longtime defensive coach, admitted the game has changed. “It used to be that good defense beats good offense. Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore,” he said in a recent interview with ESPN.

Alabama ranks fifth in defensive SP+ while Ohio State is seventh, but these are not the impenetrable units you might think they are.

For the first time since 2012, the Buckeyes don’t have either a Bosa brother or Chase Young coming off the edge. The strength of their defensive line comes from the interior with Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett, who dominated a Clemson offensive line that is not elite. They form the basis of a defense that is 16th nationally in rushing success rate allowed. But what goes on behind those guys in Ohio State’s defense has left a lot to be desired, and they’re 71st nationally in passing success rate allowed. The Buckeyes play a below-average percentage of man coverage (29.3 percent of snaps, 79th nationally), and they live most of the time in their base 4-3 defense. The Buckeyes might have to play more nickel11 than usual simply as a way to match all the firepower that Alabama has.

Alabama looks on paper to be the far superior defense, but that’s largely propped up by a stretch in which it allowed only four offensive touchdowns in the span of 26 quarters, from halftime of the Georgia game until the SEC championship against Florida. Then the elite Gators offense scored six touchdowns in their losing effort. 12 But while defenses are not able to sit on good offenses, they can break serve against them, and that may be the key in the national championship game if it ends up being close late.

In high-leverage situations, can either defense get off the field on a couple of third downs in the red zone and turn, for instance, six scores by the other offense into four touchdowns and two field goals instead of six full touchdowns? That can be all the help their elite offenses need to come home with the title.

CORRECTION (Jan. 11, 2021, 2 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly omitted current Maryland head coach Mike Locksley from the list of recent Alabama offensive coordinators.

Footnotes

  1. A late Irish touchdown proved significant to some of us, but it was the only thing that made the final score somewhat respectable.

  2. Pro Football Focus passing grades of 61.4 and 55.8 respectively.

  3. Fields is 12th in average time to throw (2.78 seconds) and fourth in average time in the pocket (3.14 seconds) among quarterbacks with a minimum of 94 dropbacks. Some of that is due to the fact that Fields is simply being protected and waiting on routes to develop, but it is one of the knocks on him looking forward to the NFL draft.

  4. Both Fields and Alabama quarterback Mac Jones target receivers at least 20 yards down the field around 14 percent of the time, per Pro Football Focus.

  5. Only four of Sermon’s rushes went for fewer than 5 yards, and one of those was a touchdown.

  6. Ohio State hasn’t said how hurt his ribs actually are yet, but he took a big hit late in the first half of the Sugar Bowl against Clemson and said that it hurt to throw even short passes for the rest of the game.

  7. In layman’s terms, more receivers to the short side of the field than to the wide side of the field.

  8. He told reporters in 2014: “My philosophy hasn’t changed at all. I’ve always asked for this. Why don’t we throw the ball on this look instead of running this play where we can’t block everybody? Which is what we do now. It’s a pro philosophy, and Lane’s got experience as a pro coach. That’s his background, that’s what he does.”

  9. Smith is the first wideout to win the award since Desmond Howard in 1991.

  10. Since 1998.

  11. With the defense subbing a linebacker off to gain a fifth defensive back.

  12. Remember what Saban said about good offenses against good defenses?

Richard Johnson is a freelance media personality based in Brooklyn. The Gainesville, Florida, native is a college football lifer who recently fell back in love with the Jacksonville Jaguars and regrets it every day. He appears as an analyst on the SEC Network show “Thinking Out Loud,” and his work has appeared in For The Win and the Washington Post, among other places. He also co-hosts the “Split Zone Duo” podcast.

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