Trey Sermon vs. Najee Harris: Who has the advantage?
It wasn’t that long ago that Ohio State couldn’t run the football. It was a perceived weakness for the Buckeyes early in the season. Replacing J.K. Dobbins wasn’t an overnight deal. Naturally, Ohio State’s starting running back is now getting Ezekiel Elliott comparisons.
What Trey Sermon did in the last 3 games was indeed 2014 Elliott-esque, which Alabama fans know a thing or 2 about. In that stretch, Sermon had 696 scrimmage yards (232 average) with 4 touchdowns. In Elliott’s 3-game stretch to end 2014, he had 718 scrimmage yards (239 average) with 8 touchdowns. It’s not a coincidence that Sermon’s late-season tear helped get Ohio State to its first College Football Playoff National Championship since Elliott’s late-season tear.
But for the sake of today’s argument, let’s go to the more pressing comparison.
Who has the advantage between Sermon and Najee Harris?
Similar to Mac Jones vs. Justin Fields, that question wouldn’t have been asked a few months ago. Perhaps it could still be lopsided in favor of the more proven Harris, who averaged 200 scrimmage yards in his last 2 games.
Let’s at least break it down and find out ahead of Monday night’s title game showdown in Miami:
Who has the better matchup?
To be fair, Sermon and Harris have been pretty matchup-proof lately. Sermon torched Clemson’s 16th-ranked run defense for 193 yards while Harris had 8.3 yards per carry against a Notre Dame run defense that ranks No. 17.
It certainly helps when you can turn a 3-yard gain into a 53-yard gain by ripping off plays like this:
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 1, 2021
Harris also went off for 152 rushing yards against Georgia, which has the No. 1 run defense in America. Sermon also went off for 331 yards and 2 rushing scores against a Northwestern defense that had allowed 2 rushing touchdowns in its first 7 games.
Matchup-proof, both are. It wouldn’t be surprising to see either go off Monday night.
But if this is strictly about who has the more challenging road to have a big game based on the defense, it’s Harris. Ohio State’s calling card is defending the run. The Buckeyes might be horrific defending the pass, but they rank No. 2 in America against the run having allowed just 89 rushing yards per contest. Is part of that game flow? Sure, but Ohio State still surrendered just 3.2 yards per carry in 2020.
That’s exactly what Travis Etienne put up in the semifinal matchup. The ACC’s all-time leading rusher didn’t have a carry go for more than 8 yards. The Buckeyes have proven run-stoppers in the front 7 like linebackers Baron Browning and Tuf Borland, as well as standout defensive tackle Haskell Garrett. They’re capable of containing Harris like Notre Dame, which actually performed just fine against Harris outside of his hurdle for the ages.
Sermon, on the other hand, will face an Alabama run defense that’s solid but not lights out. The Crimson Tide surrendered an average of 1 rushing score per game, and like Ohio State, benefitted from spending so much time in obvious passing situations. The biggest feather in Alabama’s run game defense cap is that in the past 8 games, it only surrendered 1 run of longer than 20 yards. In his last 3 games, Sermon has 10 (!) such runs. The old “something has to give” cliché will be said a couple of times.
But if we’re talking about an Ohio State run defense that allowed an average of just 57.3 rushing yards in its last 4 games, 3 of which were against top-15 teams.
That makes Harris’ challenge greater than Sermon’s.
ADVANTAGE — Sermon
Who can beat you in more ways?
We’re going to see Harris’ Notre Dame hurdle for a long time, but I’d argue the catch and run he made against South Carolina in 2019 was even more impressive:
South Carolina’s season is now cancelled
My goodness Najee Harris pic.twitter.com/OGffDTTFil
— Tim England (@tengland_150) September 14, 2019
Goodness, that’s just silly. Harris can do that on any given play. That’s why he has 63 catches and 10 receiving touchdowns as Alabama’s starting back the last 2 seasons. Three of those came in the SEC Championship when Florida insisted on not taking his pass-catching skills seriously. That proved to be a big mistake. In 10 of Alabama’s 12 games, Harris had multiple catches. In 9 of Alabama’s 12 games, Harris had at least 1 catches go for 10 yards. He has 11 games with 3 catches during that stretch, too.
So yeah, consider that my way of saying Harris is an extremely versatile player. That’s not news.
Sermon is certainly a capable pass-catcher, as well. He had 61 receiving yards in the semifinal game, though that was nearly double Sermon’s entire season-to-date total for receiving yards (34). Even at Oklahoma, it wasn’t necessarily a major part of Sermon’s game.
You could argue that Sermon might have more top-end speed, and his ability to hit the home-run play — especially in the last 3 games — slightly edges Harris. But Harris is clearly a better pass-catcher out of the backfield.
If Ohio State’s No. 2 run defense bottles up Harris in the ground game, Steve Sarkisian is certainly capable of using the All-American more as a receiver. I’m not so sure the same could be said for Sermon if he gets bottled up in the ground game.
Both need to be accounted for, but it’s Harris who is less likely to be taken out of a game.
ADVANTAGE — Harris
Who has more experience on the big stage?
Because of Sermon’s time at Oklahoma, this is actually extremely close. In fact, there might not be a gap at all between the senior tailbacks.
Harris has been Alabama’s starter the last 2 years. During that time, he started in 2 “big-stage games.” What are those? Any conference championship/New Year’s 6/Playoff game. Sermon has the exact same amount at Ohio State in 2020.
Before 2020 is where it gets interesting. Sermon started the 2018 Big 12 Championship for Oklahoma — he had 3.6 yards per carry on 18 rushes — and he also started against Alabama in the 2018 Orange Bowl. He even had a touchdown in that game, though with Alabama leading from the jump, he only had 9 carries.
Harris didn’t start as a true freshman with Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs ahead of him on the depth chart, but he was monumental in the 4th quarter of the title game against Georgia. Even though he was essentially still the No. 3 back as a sophomore, Harris actually outgained Sermon in the 2018 Orange Bowl (45-14) in their lone head-to-head tilt. Both players were obviously in significantly different roles then.
So if you add up all the numbers from the “big-stage games,” here are the totals:
Extremely close, no? It’s basically a tie with Harris having the additional game.
Here’s the one thing that I’ll give to Harris, though. How many national championships has he played in? Two. How many has Sermon played in? Zero.
That doesn’t mean that Sermon will struggle, by any stretch. Elliott didn’t have much big-stage experience before he went off for 3 consecutive games of 200-plus rushing yards in 2014. Sermon could cap a similar run Monday.
But I’ll give the slight edge here to Harris, who played a pivotal role in a national championship comeback late, and while he was considerably frustrated with his lack of touches in a reserve role against Clemson as a sophomore, Harris has still been on that stage twice.
ADVANTAGE — Harris (slightly)
So who has the advantage?
It’s funny because we started this by talking about Sermon doing his best 2014 Zeke imitation. Here’s a question; When was the last time that Alabama allowed a running back to gain 100 yards in either a conference championship or a bowl game? The correct answer is Elliott in 2014.
(Kyler Murray eclipsed the 100-yard mark in the 2018 Orange Bowl while Sermon had the aforementioned 19 yards, but the point is that Alabama is preparing to stop a tailback.)
That’s 12 consecutive instances in which a tailback failed to hit 100 rushing yards against Alabama on the big stage (that’s including the 2019 Citrus Bowl). Do I believe Sermon is destined to finish below the century mark? No, but as long as Saban is on that sideline, it’ll take an all-world effort to get there.
Still, I’ll take Harris in this spot.
This is exactly why he made the surprising decision to back to school when he seemed like an obvious early NFL departure. Harris’ sample size of taking over games and doing ridiculous things feels like a safer bet than Sermon, who has capitalized (greatly) against defenses locked in on shutting down Fields.
This could prove to be a lost cause if Ohio State’s defensive game plan is to follow the Texas A&M mindset and put a bunch of extra defenders and make Jones beat them. I’m not sure that’d be very smart with Jones playing at such a high level, but that’s what the Alabama is in 2020. It’s pick your poison. Lately, that’s been Ohio State, too. But I think it’s Harris who caps off his prolific career in grander fashion.
Harris came to Alabama in hopes of starting in games like this, though that hasn’t been the case until now. It’s like they say, though.
The third national championship’s the charm.