Seventh Day Adventure
Football Outsiders' weekly preview for people who like their football played on Saturdays

Seventh Day Adventure: National Championship Preview

Alabama Crimson Tide WR Jaylen Waddle
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

It has been a wild journey that led college football to this game and moment. The COVID-19 pandemic threatened to end the season and the Big Ten appeared to be a driving force in trying to postpone (perhaps eventually cancel) the season against the wishes of both Ohio State and the SEC. Eventually the SEC and Ohio State won out, schools to the south scheduled their seasons and insisted on playing, and eventually the Big Ten joined in late with an abridged season in hopes that Ohio State would be able to represent the conference in the playoff.

Sure enough, the playoff selection committee chose the Buckeyes despite controversy over their seven-game season, and for the second time in the playoff era the Buckeyes rewarded the committee by immediately defeating a former champion in convincing fashion. In 2014 it was Alabama getting smashed with a big second half by the Buckeyes, 42-35. This time it was the Clemson Tigers taking it on the chin, 49-28.

The Tigers looked poorly prepared to play the Buckeyes, particularly on defense, although it was on offense where they were missing coordinator Tony Elliott due to COVID protocols. Clemson's defense struggled to line up, committed some coverage busts against Ohio State's potent passing game, and showed little of the 3-3-5 flyover defense scheme they used to stymie the Buckeyes a year ago.

Meanwhile, Alabama sort of came out of nowhere this season, to the extent a team like Alabama can do such a thing. They leveraged an experienced offensive line and talented returning wideouts Devonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle with a tested and improved Mac Jones at quarterback. Waddle was lost to injury during the season, but Smith picked up the slack with 105 catches for 1,641 yards and 22 total touchdowns (20 receptions, one run, one punt return). Smith was awarded the Heisman Trophy and Jones has thrown for over 4,000 yards while star running back Najee Harris had over 1,300 rushing yards and 27 total offensive touchdowns.

This game has all the makings of a high-scoring shootout. Both teams have really strong offensive lines, talented quarterbacks, and between them will field three of the best wide receivers in the nation -- and you can make it four if Jaylen Waddle is able to practice and play in this game, which Alabama has suggested may be possible. Offense should settle this one as well, although you never want to be overconfident when coaching staffs of this quality have so much time to prepare.

All times are listed as Eastern.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T
Miami Gardens, Florida
Ohio State vs. Alabama (-8.5) -- January 11, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Ohio State (7-0) Alabama (12-0)
F/+ 2 1
FEI 3 1
When Ohio State has the ball Offense Defense
FEI 3 27
SP+ 2 5
IsoPPP+ 19 78
Rushing SP+ 9 20
Passing SP+ 4 21
When Alabama has the ball Defense Offense
FEI 38 1
SP+ 7 1
IsoPPP+ 94 12
Rushing SP+ 16 4
Passing SP+ 71 2

It's not obvious that either of these teams can really stop each other. Typically in the title game the defenses might have an initially good start before the top-notch offenses that carried their teams to the championship game solves the defensive gameplay and light up the scoreboard before the end of the game. It's rare to see a team with the sort of offense that drives a championship run get shut down in the title game. The rare exception would be Clemson in 2019, when they were playing with a beat-up cast of receivers against a pair of NFL cornerbacks from LSU.

Meanwhile, the other side of that matchup was a good window into how these things tend to go. Clemson surprised LSU's offense with a brand new 3-1-7 package matching defensive backs on all of LSU's receivers and firing linebacker James Skalski into the backfield from different angles. LSU was totally confused at first before sorting out what Clemson was up to and then precision-bombing them for 463 passing yards.

This game will feature a pair of teams with explosive offenses. Both the Buckeyes and the Crimson Tide got here by throwing the ball for mega gains to star receivers working down the field. They each have power running games, but they tend to be used to clean up what's left up front after the opposing lines have already been infiltrated and broken down by the vertical passing game. For Ohio State, Justin Fields has thrown for 1,906 yards in seven games at 9.9 yards per attempt with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. Mostly he has targeted Garrett Wilson (40 catches, 673 yards, five touchdowns) and Chris Olave (42 catches, 660 yards, seven touchdowns), with Jeremy Ruckert the other target and getting an outsized number of his targets in the red zone (12 catches, five touchdowns).

Alabama's quarterback Mac Jones has thrown for 4,036 yards in 12 games at 11.3 yards per attempt with 36 touchdowns to four interceptions. Jaylen Waddle, should he play in this game, caught 25 for 557 yards and four touchdowns this season. He was actually the main weapon for the Tide, but after he went down with injury, Devonta Smith took up the slack and finished with 105 catches for 1,641 yards and 20 touchdowns, securing the Heisman Trophy. Alabama has a deeper cast of targets around the big two then Ohio State; their passing game is more intricate and involved. John Metchie was the No. 2 guy when Waddle was out and finished with 47 catches for 835 yards and six scores.

As for those running games. Ohio State leaned on Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon, a big power back, who got 115 carries for 868 yards at 7.5 yards per carry and four touchdowns. Alabama used similarly powerful yet fluid Najee Harris, and he had 229 carries for 1,387 yards at 6.1 yards per carry with 24 touchdowns. Many of these gaudy numbers are a reflection of the quality of these two offensive lines, which are probably the two best in the country, but also opponents regularly determining (rightly) they're better off trying to force Ohio State and Alabama to work their way down the field with the run game rather than giving up big shots to a Smith or Olave.

Step one for each defense in this game will need to be denying space for the deep, play-action shots these offenses love to take. If that means presenting honest fronts for Harris or Sermon to work on, so be it. The team with the best coverage discipline will be at a major advantage; it'll be hard to win this game if you let the other team's receivers get loose down the field. Step two will be bowing up on third downs and in the red zone. Clemson set the blueprint for all of this when they beat Alabama in 2018 by playing two-deep coverages and giving up gobs of yards against the Tide run game only to make several short-yardage and goal-line stands to deny the Tide points.

For Ohio State, this is going to be particularly tricky. Notre Dame already tried to address the Tide offense by playing Cover-3 (as Ohio State did against Clemson) and forcing Alabama to work their way down the field against some late box additions against the run and a closed middle of the field. The problem with Notre Dame's approach was they left a lot of space in the flats and their defensive backs couldn't close and tackle Smith. Another solution could be to play Cover-2 on Smith's side, wherever he goes, but Alabama may have Waddle aside from their other receivers to help Harris overwhelm the rest of the defense. Another issue for Ohio State is their personnel packaging. The Buckeyes normally play a base 4-3 defense, but quite frankly their linebackers don't run and cover well enough to employ that approach against Alabama. Ohio State got away with that approach against Clemson because they could play the linebackers wide in space and defensive tackles Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett could still stymie the Tigers' interior offensive line in the run game. This ain't gonna happen against Alabama; allowing the Tide to power the ball inside to Harris may result in fewer Alabama points than when Jones is throwing to Smith, but it's not going to stop them.

The Buckeyes will probably need a nickel package and potentially to play Baron Browning as a jack linebacker off the edge to boost their pass-rushing. They've lacked great edge rushing sans Chase Young, and preventing Jones from having six-second pockets would certainly be a huge boost in winning this game.

Alabama's defensive approach is also complicated but less multi-faceted. The stresses Ohio State presents are extreme; they can burn a team deep down the field due to Fields' arm strength and accuracy throwing to the ultra-dangerous Olave and Wilson, or if you spread your defense deep and wide to counter they can run with power behind the offensive line and tight ends and involve Fields in doing so. Most everyone has needed to outnumber the Buckeyes both in the box and deep, which is geometrically next to impossible.

Disguise would be one way to go; giving Fields (who has been prone to lock down on receivers and throw questionable balls) some different looks before shading safeties over his top two targets might yield early turnovers the Buckeyes could not recover from. Alternatively, if the Tide can hold up in the run game while playing two deep safeties with eyes on Wilson and Olave, that's going to make for a long day for the Ohio State offense. Alabama held Notre Dame's Ian Book and Kyren Williams to 15 carries for 57 yards and 16 carries for 64 yards respectively. Fields and Sermon are perhaps a level up but the Fighting Irish overall offensive front is about as tough as it gets.

Alabama hasn't been as solid up the middle of the field since 2017 when they had Daron Payne at nose tackle and Minkah Fitzpatrick as the safety. Nick Saban has always liked to address the spread by playing with a limited box and leaning on his inside linebackers and nose tackle, but the Tide may not have the advantages needed to do so and win. They can force Ohio State to run the ball, but can they prevent Fields and Sermon from bringing enough efficiency to keep the Buckeyes on the board? And how healthy is Fields after taking a helmet to the ribs in the semifinal?

Both of these teams have learned from the Clemson and LSU titles and will field elite skill talent in their passing attacks -- skill talent that neither defense can really check without committing deep safety help. Both offenses have also maintained physical rushing attacks and have the offensive lines and power backs to clean up light boxes left behind by each other's personnel. The big question mark is whether either team has matching physicality up front on defense and if either team can set a trap early with their game plan to generate a turnover to make the difference in a potential shootout.

Alabama is a more multi-faceted on offense and will be less awed and challenged by Ohio State's sheer amount of NFL athleticism and physicality than previous Buckeyes opponents. That said, the Buckeyes are peaking at the right time, and if Fields is healthy you have to wonder if a desire to get Waddle involved actually throws the Tide off, much like when Oklahoma tried to force the issue with Marquise Brown against Alabama in 2018 and fell too far behind before adjusting with the backups.

Watch for:

  • Both of these teams have NFL-rich offensive lines that have dominated previous opponents. Can either defensive front match up against these lines?
  • How will each defense approach the challenge of preventing explosive gains from these elite passing attacks?
  • The health of two key stars: Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle.
  • One of these teams is going to bring a surprising game plan conceived to limit the opponent -- which team will it be, and can it give them enough to hold on later in the game when the offenses inevitably heat up?

FEI Outright Pick: Alabama by 6.8

FEI Pick against the spread: Ohio State (+8.5)

Ian's Pick against the spread: Alabama (-8.5)

FEI's Picks against the spread in the regular season: 47-39-1

FEI's Picks against the spread in the bowl games: 14-11

Ian's picks against the spread in the regular season: 47-39-1

Ian's Picks against the spread in the bowl games: 15-10

Comments

3 comments, Last at 12 Jan 2021, 1:26pm

1 A lot seems to hinge on…

A lot seems to hinge on which lines win. OSU's d-line overwhelmed 2019-2020 Clemson O-lines which handled 2020 ND and 2019 LSU just fine. It happens rarely, but Alabama looks out of sorts in games in which their line doesn't stomp the opponent. It's always interesting to see whether Alabama's award-winners can handle the faintest whiff of adversity, because sometimes they can't.