Fourth quarter: Ohio State trails Alabama 52-24 with National Championship on line

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MIAMI, Florida (WCMH) — Two of the most storied programs in college football will square off when No. 3 Ohio State faces No. 1 Alabama on Monday in the National Championship.

The Buckeyes are playing in the title game for a second time in seven years and have a chance to win their ninth title.

“I think we’re going to come out with our hair on fire and play as hard as we possibly can,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said.

OSU won it all in the 2014-15 season and upset No. 1 Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl to advance to the title game. That game was the first time the two schools played since 1995.

Alabama remained perfect (12-0) by handling Notre Dame 31-14 in the Rose Bowl while the Buckeyes (7-0) rolled Clemson 49-28 in the Sugar Bowl.

The Tide are making their fifth national championship appearance in the last seven years and have won two College Football Playoff National Championships. Ohio State won the inaugural CFP title by beating Oregon 42-20.

Here’s a breakdown of where each team has advantages and disadvantages.

Ohio State Offensive Advantages

JUSTIN FIELDS — Any Ohio State offensive advantage has to start with Fields who thrusted himself into the conversation for best Buckeyes’ quarterback ever after throwing a Sugar Bowl record six touchdowns against Clemson while playing through excruciating pain after taking a vicious hit to the ribs that led to the targeting ejection of Clemson’s James Skalski.

“The fact that he came back after that and had the type of game he had says a lot about the type of leader he is,” guard Wyatt Davis said. “The amount of respect he has for his brothers to just not quit, I think that’s why he’s so respected on this team and he’s held at a high standard.”

Fields ranks fifth in pass efficiency, fourth in completion percentage, and is the most accurate passer in football this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Fields has shown moments of poor-decision making, including three interceptions against Indiana and two against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship. But he made virtually no zero decision-making errors versus the Tigers completing 22 of 28 passes with a staggering passer rating of 257.6.

OFFENSIVE LINE Fields’ talent is undeniable, but part of his success, and Ohio State’s success at running the football, is due in large part to the Buckeyes’ offensive line. Ohio State runs and throws the ball for an average of 272 yards a game — the only team in the country to eclipse 250 yards in both areas.

Ohio State offensive tackles Nicholas Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford rank first and second in lowest quarterback pressure allowed by power five conference tackles.

“Those two guys are so valuable to our team and what we do every week,” center Josh Myers said. “I think they don’t get enough recognition for what they do.”

Fields ranks 138th in the country in the time it takes to throw the ball. Part of that is due to his ability to scramble and extend plays, but it’s also thanks to the amount of time his line gives him in the pocket.

The line also gives running back Trey Sermon holes to run through and get to the second level where he excels. Ohio State ran for nearly 400 yards against Northwestern and 254 yards against Clemson, two of the best rush defenses in the country.

“[Trey] never came into my office, never said a word, just kept working, and then when his opportunity came to be the guy, he took it and ran,” Ryan Day said.

Running for more than 150 yards will be key in Ohio State being successful against the Tide.

“I’m confident in my ability and I know that I prepare well for each game,” Sermon said. “Those guys are great up front. They make my job easy.”

TIGHT ENDS — Ohio State’s tight ends are also arguably the best duo in the country. Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert showed what they’re capable of against Clemson combining for 66 yards and three touchdowns, and even just their presence on the field throws defenses off. When Ohio State has 12 personnel, two tight ends, it throws roughly 42 percent of the time and runs the other 58 percent making them balanced and unpredictable.

Alabama’s Offensive Advantages

OFFENSIVE LINE — Just like Ohio State, Alabama’s success on offense starts with its offensive line, which was given the Joe Moore Award for best o-line in college football.

“Alabama has a very good offensive line,” OSU defensive end Jonathon Cooper said. “We compete against the best here at Ohio State . . . I feel like we go against an amazing offensive line every day in practice, so I feel like it just makes us even more prepared.”

The offensive linemen aren’t the only Tide players to win an award either as shown below, including Heisman winner DeVonta Smith.

“This is a great offense. It is a complete offense,” OSU defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “They have great players, but they also have a great scheme and they understand how to attack defenses.”

But the Tide will once again play without the best center in the country in Landon Dickerson who suffered a season-ending injury in the SEC Championship.

DEVONTA SMITH — Smith is the first wide receiver to win the Heisman since Desmond Howard won it in 1991. Smith paces the nation in receiving yards (1,600), receiving touchdowns (20), and receptions (105).

Smith has the most 15+ yard receptions against single coverage since 2019, according to Pro Football Focus. Jaylen Waddle, who may return for the championship game after dealing with an ankle injury throughout the season, has the most yards after catch (10.0) per reception since 2018, per PFF.

“With DeVonta, he’s a great player. Very shifty, fast . . . He can do everything. Really looking forward to that matchup,” OSU cornerback Shaun Wade said.

MAC JONES — Mac Jones is the most efficient quarterback in college football. Jones has a pass efficiency rating of 203.3, is one of only two quarterbacks this season to throw for more than 4,000 yards and has the second-most passing touchdowns (36) this season.

“The evolution of [Alabama’s] passing game and the passing attack and the variety of things that they do offensively is exceptional,” Coombs said.

Jones is not mistake-prone either throwing 36 touchdowns compared to four interceptions, the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in all of college football. Only Mac Jones ranks ahead of Justin Fields when it comes to PFF’s highest-graded quarterbacks since 2019.

NAJEE HARRIS — Harris has the most rushing touchdowns (24), third-most rushing yards (1,387), averages six yards per carry and can do super-human things like this hurdle.

“Najee is a great running back,” OSU defensive tackle Haskell Garrett said. “Great, dynamic running back, very powerful, big running back, great speed. He brings a lot to their offense.”

Harris is also a receiving threat totaling 346 yards this season and racked up three receiving touchdowns against Florida in the SEC Championship.

Ohio State Defensive Advantages

DEFENSIVE LINE — The Buckeyes’ defensive line ranks first among teams in the power 5 (PFF) and their quarterback pressure rate of 50 percent is also the best in the nation.

Ohio State showed what it could do against Clemson making Trevor Lawrence uncomfortable throughout the game by forcing early throws and three fumbles.

Ohio State’s front four is especially good at stopping the run. The Buckeyes held the ACC’s all-time leading rusher Travis Etienne to 42 yards on the ground and only allow 89 yards a game — second best in the country.

Haskell Garrett is the No. 1 ranked defensive lineman in football (PFF) and he, along with Jonathon Cooper, set the tone for how the Buckeyes’ play up front.

Zach Harrison is expected to play after missing the Sugar Bowl, but OSU could still be thin with players who might be on the COVID-19/injury list.

LINEBACKERS — Ohio State’s versatility, depth and experience in the linebacker corps is unmatched in college football. Pete Werner, Tuf Borland and Baron Browning have played more than 110 games combined, not to mention six-year veteran Justin Hilliard who overcame two torn biceps and a ruptured Achilles to be a major catalyst this season, especially in OSU’s last two games.

Browning can play defensive end if needed and OSU can rotate Hilliard where Coombs sees fit because of his athleticism and open-field tackling prowess.

Another benefit for Ohio State’s linebackers is not having to worry as much about facing a mobile quarterback. The Buckeyes had to game plan for Lawrence’s running ability, but Mac Jones is less of a threat to take off or have designed runs called for him.

Ohio State Defensive Disadvantage

SECONDARY — Alabama’s passing attack will be a problem for OSU. The Tide rank No. 1 in pass efficiency (191.1), No. 5 in pass yards per game (349) and No. 1 in yards per play (7.8).

That spells trouble for an Ohio State team that allows an average of 281 yards through the air (116th in nation). But more troublesome for OSU is that it gives up 7.3 yards per pass attempt because Bama ranks No. 1 in yards per pass attempt (11.0).

The secondary could be in for a long day too if Jaylen Waddle is able to return from injury since Waddle, who has the most yards after the catch per reception since 2018, can limit the number of double teams DeVonta Smith faces against Wade and OSU’s single-high safety.

“Playing against teams like this, they’re going to end up scoring. That’s part of the game. You see it in the NFL. Everybody scores,” Wade said. “So, playing games like this, you just got to get your stops, and make sure you get your stops on 3rd down, so that’s what we focus on.”

The key for Ohio State’s defense will be stopping the run and making Alabama one-dimensional like it was able to do against Clemson.

Alabama’s Defensive Advantages

DEFENSIVE LINE — Alabama’s defensive front is solid. The Tide rank No. 13 in rush defense (110 yards allowed per game) and 24th in sacks per game (2.8). Christian Barmore has the most quarterback pressures this season by a power five defensive tackle (34), according to PFF.

LINEBACKERS — Like OSU, the Crimson Tide are stacked at linebacker.

Inside linebacker Christian Harris was a semifinalist for the Butkus Award given to the the nation’s top linebacker while middle linebacker and senior Dylan Moses is Alabama’s anchor on defense. Moses was a finalist for the Butkus Award in 2018, tore his ACL before the 2019 season and has been up and down this year, but his instincts and football acumen make him a problem for OSU.

“He’s really smart with the adjustments they make on the field, and I know he plays really hard,” OSU tight end Luke Farrell said. “He’s not afraid to come put his face in there and hit you.”

True freshman Will Anderson Jr. has been historically good with the most quarterback pressures by a true freshman since 2014 (56), per PFF.

Alabama Defensive Disadvantage

PASS DEFENSE — Notice pass defense was said instead of secondary. There are parts of Alabama’s secondary that are exceptional. But as a unit, the Tide allow 242 yards passing a game (79th in the nation). Bama is also below average at yards allowed per attempt (6.7) and yards allowed per completion (11.4).

Patrick Surtain III is the highest-graded cornerback in football (93.) since 2018, per PFF. He will likely go up against Chris Olave who had six catches, 132 yards and two touchdowns against Clemson.

“Surtain, he’s a great player, one of the best players in the country,” Olave said. “It’s going to be a tough match-up, but we’ve got to compete. It’s going to be fun.”

Alabama’s other cornerback, Malachi Moore, has been impressive during his freshman season leading the team in interceptions and forcing 11 incompletions from the slot, the most in college football (PFF). But Moore is questionable to play with an undisclosed injury after missing the Rose Bowl.

Moore’s absence could mean more targets for Jameson Williams and Julian Fleming.

JUSTIN HOLBROCK SCORE PREDICTION: Ohio State 45 Alabama 42.

These are two of the most explosive, dynamic offenses to ever play college football. I don’t see how either team will slow down the other, so I expect a high-scoring game ending with a game-winning touchdown or field goal in the last few seconds.

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