Alabama is loaded with stars, but Ohio State has advantages in key areas
As is the case in most (OK, all) seasons, Alabama is loaded. I guess that’s not exactly a shocking revelation when 3 of the 5 Heisman Trophy candidates are from the same team. If you’re trying to pick out the future NFL players from Alabama’s 2-deep, it’s probably easier to pick which ones aren’t going to the next level (hint: not many).
The top-ranked Crimson Tide boast arguably the top performers in the country this season at quarterback (Mac Jones), running back (Najee Harris), wide receiver (DeVonta Smith) and cornerback (Patrick Surtain II). And if not for season-ending injuries, WR Jaylen Waddle (who actually returned to practice this week) and center Landon Dickerson would be in that group, too. To top it off, Alabama won the Joe Moore Award, given to the nation’s top offensive line.
(Alabama is sort of reminiscent of 2019 Ohio State, right? Chase Young was the top edge defender in the country, Jeff Okudah was the top corner, Fields was one of the top QBs and JK Dobbins was one of the top RBs. The Buckeyes featured 3 of the top 6 in the Heisman voting last season, so it was similar star power to what the Crimson Tide have this season.)
Even against Alabama’s star-studded roster in the national championship game on Monday, though, No. 3 Ohio State (7-0) will not be a Cinderella. For one, that’s not possible with Justin Fields as your QB, as he showed in the rout of No. 2 Clemson last Friday. Also, Ohio State is in the same tier as Alabama in terms of talent (it actually has 14 5-star players on its roster, compared to 12 for Alabama).
Just like the 2019 Ohio State team, Alabama is beatable. Ohio State will have to exploit advantages in 3 key spots:
1. Up front defensively
Yes, I know I mentioned how Alabama won the award for best offensive line. But sometimes these awards are based on reputation rather than performance. Left tackle Alex Leatherwood, for example, was viewed as one of the top tackle prospects in the country coming into this season, but he hasn’t played like it. Plus, Dickerson’s performance (the No. 2 center in the country in terms of Pro Football Focus) factored into this award, but he won’t play against Ohio State; Chris Owens will start.
Ohio State’s defensive front has been terrific this season as it has not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season. The Buckeyes have let a team rush for more than 105 rushing yards only twice (Nebraska ran for 210 in the opener, and Rutgers ran for 145) and are allowing 2.29 yards per carry over the last 4. The top 2 rushers against Ohio State this season are quarterbacks from the same team (Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey of Nebraska), but that would’ve been more of a concern against Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence; Mac Jones isn’t a running threat. Travis Etienne, who rivals Najee Harris as the best back in the country, had a mere 32 yards on 10 carries against Ohio State. Clemson as a team managed just 44 yards on 22 attempts.
The Buckeyes don’t have the flashiness up front that they had in 2019 with Young, but they do have a ton of depth. Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai are two of the top defensive tackles in the country (No. 1 and No. 9 in terms of PFF grades, respectively), and backup Taron Vincent was the top DT in the 2018 recruiting class. The rotation on the outside hasn’t produced the same sack numbers as Young, but Jonathon Cooper, Tyreke Smith, Zach Harrison, Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Tyler Friday have been effective at generating pressure (even if it doesn’t always result in a sack). Even with Harrison and Friday out during the Clemson game, the Buckeyes had no issues.
Ohio State’s biggest weakness is on plays to the outside. That’s where Clemson had its success in scoring TDs on 2 of its first 3 drives, and it’s probably where Alabama will try to exploit the Buckeyes.
2. Up front offensively
Ohio State’s offensive line absolutely dominated Clemson. Trey Sermon was in beast mode, but he also had some fairly big holes on his way to 254 yards from scrimmage.
Look at the size of this hole pic.twitter.com/B55ENWCTZS
— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 2, 2021
The Buckeyes have recruited extremely well on the offensive line. When disaster struck and backup left guard Matthew Jones had to leave with an injury, the third-string left guard was the No. 1 offensive lineman in the 2020 class, 5-star tackle Paris Johnson.
That typifies the way Ohio State has been able to hold it together up front this season. It had 3 starters out against Michigan State, yet still ran for 322 yards. When the passing attack was off in the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern, the Buckeyes won the game on the ground with 399 yards, averaging 9.1 per carry. After a slow start to the season, Ohio State is all the way up to 5th in the country in rushing offense (and No. 3 in yards per attempt). It’s hard to believe that the Buckeyes are averaging nearly a half yard more per attempt than the Dobbins-led attack of last season. But it’s a testament to the work up front from tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere, guards Wyatt Davis and Harry Miller and center Josh Myers. Tight ends Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell are both excellent blockers, as well.
Alabama has a good run defense, but how many teams, especially when trailing, truly commit to the run like Ohio State can (and should)? Notre Dame had the best rushing attack against Alabama since Georgia and Ole Miss averaged 4.8 and 4.7 yards per carry, respectively, back in October.
3. Attacking the middle of the field
Ohio State could have a few issues on the outside, as Surtain, Malachi Moore and Josh Jobe are outstanding corners. It may be best for Fields to stay away from Surtain completely, though as he showed against Clemson, Fields is not shy about forcing the ball into tight windows. It will be fun watching Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson go up against those guys.
The fact that the Buckeyes were able to utilize their tight ends in the pass game so effectively against Clemson was an encouraging development, as the TEs had gone 3 games without catching a pass before combining for 3 TDs against Clemson. Alabama is susceptible in the middle of the field. Linebackers Christian Harris and Dylan Moses are having average seasons, ranking just 181st and 245th, respectively, out of 366 FBS linebackers. It’s been a particularly tough season for Moses, who was one of the top LB prospects in the country coming into this season, as he recently posted on Instagram that he has thought about quitting due to injuries and a COVID death in his family.