Alabama football: 5 biggest concerns the Crimson Tide should have about facing Ohio State
With just 60 minutes of football remaining in what has been an unforgettable 2020 season, the Alabama Crimson Tide have only the Ohio State Buckeyes standing in the way of an 18th national championship — not to mention the 6th in Nick Saban’s 14 seasons at the Capstone and his 7th overall.
“Only” is a relative term, of course. The Big Ten champs had plenty of juice to knock off the ACC champion Clemson Tigers in the Sugar Bowl last week, and are riding as high as it gets in the face of Round 13 of Joyless Murderball.
Not to rain on the impending victory parade through the streets of Tuscaloosa, but there are plenty of ways the Buckeyes could pull the upset:
5. Justin Fields’ pain tolerance
One can debate the merits of James Skalski’s tackling method from Clemson to Columbus, but no one can question the toughness that Justin Fields showed after taking the crown of Skalski’s helmet to his lower ribs and back in the Sugar Bowl. Fields missed, what, two plays before coming out of the medical tent and promptly throwing a 6-yard touchdown dart. In fact, Fields threw for 222 yards and 4 scores after the injury, and he finished 22-for-28 for 385 yards and an Ohio State bowl-record 6 touchdowns.
Fields said postgame that he did receive painkilling shots to dull the ache in his back and ribs, and acknowledged that leaving the game wasn’t really an option. After writhing in pain for several minutes on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf and wobbling to the sideline, Fields was asked this by Buckeyes coach Ryan Day: “How are you doing? Are you going to be able to make it?”
“I don’t have a choice,” Fields said. “I have to.”
4. Steve Sarkisian’s focus
Look, Nick Saban has had to deal with a coordinator bolting for a head coaching job before. Monday will actually be the 6th time Alabama has played for a national championship with a coordinator on his way out for a head-coaching position — going back to 2011, when offensive coordinator Jim McElwain accepted the Colorado State job.
Still, the last time Sarkisian was in the offensive coordinator mix during a situation like this was in the lead-up to the January 2017 CFP title game. Sark was called off Alabama’s seemingly endless bench of “analysts” to abruptly replace Lane Kiffin after Kiffin was dispatched by Saban to his new Florida Atlantic job a game earlier than anticipated. Alabama played well that game with Sark, sticking with Clemson throughout before falling 35-31 in Tampa, but it was still a huge distraction for all involved.
As we mentioned Saturday when analyzing Sarkisian’s move to Austin, this isn’t necessarily that. With the early recruiting period passed, Sark isn’t as actively luring potential 5-stars to Texas as he would have been in the old days when National Signing Day was the first Wednesday in February. Plus, well, Sark seems more attuned to going out the right way than Kiffin was 4 years ago. Sarkisian wants that ring for the road, but there are only so many hours in the day for The Process.
3. Chris Olave and Trey Sermon going off
Trey Sermon has rushed for 524 yards in the past 2 games. That’s the best 2-game stretch by an Ohio State running back … ever. Slowing him down obviously will be a challenge.
Chris Olave is a problem, too: an SEC-caliber receiver (perhaps the biggest compliment we can give him …) paired with a QB who apparently doesn’t need a fully functional ribcage to deliver him the rock downfield. Olave hauled in 6 receptions for 132 yards and 2 touchdowns against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl — including a 56-yard gem that broke the back of the Tigers in the third quarter.
Although Olave’s 42 receptions for 660 yards and 7 touchdowns are pedestrian compared to, say, DeVonta Smith’s numbers, it is also because the Buckeyes have only played 7 games. His 94.2 yards-per-game average would rank 3rd behind Smith and Ole Miss WR Elijah Moore in the SEC, and at 15.7 yards per catch Olave is fractionally ahead of Smith’s SEC-best 15.7 YPC average. But Olave actually only played 6 games, missing the Big Ten title game with COVID-19, so his numbers are even sweeter.
Olave’s route-running error was a key component in the CFP semifinal loss last year to Clemson, so his huge performance in the 2020 rematch was even sweeter.
“We were really nervous, when we went down with COVID, we weren’t going to get him back,” Day said. “He practiced, didn’t really practice fully. So it was a little dicey going into the week, but started to get his legs back underneath him toward the end of the week and then comes out and plays the way he does in a big spot.
“One of the more clutch players, I think, as a receiver in maybe the history of Ohio State football when you think back on it. Wow, what a player he is.”
He has a bit of an underdog story as well. Olave was a 3-star recruit from California, the No. 68 receiver in the 2018 class.
2. Believing the hype
Either way you slice it, this will be a heckuva week for Smith and Mac Jones. The duo are likely going to be arm-wrestling over the Heisman Trophy on Tuesday — and with it the mountain of rat poison that accompanies Mr. Stiff Arm. Unless you’re the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner from Southern Cal, the Downtown Athletic Club’s annual award is the first line of your eventual obituary — a collar that fits a little tight when you’re trying to prepare for a huge test in Ohio State.
Two days later, Jones (O’Brien and Maxwell), Smith (Biletnikoff and Maxwell) join teammates Alex Leatherwood (Outland), Najee Harris (Walker) Patrick Surtain II (Bednarik and Thorpe) and Will Reichard (Groza) virtually at the NCFAA’s College Football Awards show on ESPN.
That’s a lot of potential hardware, not to mention the resultant hype that comes with it. Alabama won’t have departed for South Florida until after all that is wrapped up, but it still is an awful lot of distraction for a program that tries very hard to eliminate distraction.
1. A down game for the Tide on offense
Well, it could happen. The Buckeyes aren’t slouches on defense, allowing just 96.7 yards per game on the ground over 7 games and giving up just 21 points per contest. Now, look, Alabama hasn’t been held to 21 points in a game since Jan. 7, 2019, when Clemson humbled the Tide 44-16 in Santa Clara, Calif.
But if Ohio State can solve the Rubik’s Cube of both Harris and Jones/Smith in the same game? Maybe force a couple turnovers and even a pick-6?
However unlikely that might seem, it is possible.