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Odds and Ends

National title game preview

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: January 11, 2021, 3:15 pm ET

Monday, January 11

 

CFP National Championship | Hard Rock Stadium | Miami, Florida

Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Ohio State

PointsBet line: Alabama -8

PointsBet total: 75.5

ATL: Bama -5.6

8:00p EST | ESPN

 

After the most trying, odd-defying, bizarre college football season in history, we arrive where we ought to at the end of every college football season: With the two best teams in the sport squaring off.

This is the first meeting between these schools since the 2014 semifinal. That was the year the underdog Buckeyes, behind QB Cardale Jones and 230 Ezekiel Elliott rushing yards, upset Alabama 42-35 and went on to upend Oregon in the natty.

I'll be releasing a special championship props column in the next 24 hours. Once you're done reading, check out my title game betting preview with Drew Dinsick, my title game NFL Draft prospect breakdown with Derrik Klassen, and my title game player prop picks with Eric Froton

My play is at the bottom of the column. Let’s get into the handicap.


Ohio State offense vs. Alabama defense

(Number is NCAA rank) Ohio State offense Alabama defense
SP+ 8 9
PFF 5 7
Success Rate 3 19
Marginal Efficiency 3 25
Marginal Explosion 27 74
Points per opportunity 42 22
TO margin 9 4
Run success rate 5 19
Run marginal explosion 14 30
Pass success rate 6 30
Pass marginal explosion 58 92
FO Line yards 4 N/A
PFF pass block/rush 32 15
PFF run block/D 16 36
Havoc 48 5

 

Pos Ohio State offense PFF Grade PFF Grade Alabama defense Pos
WR Olave, Chris JR 83.8 89.7 Surtain II, Patrick JR CB
WR Williams, Jameson SO 55.8 79.6 Moore, Malachi FR STAR
WR Wilson, Garrett SO 77.6 78.1 Jobe, Josh JR CB
LT Munford, Thayer SR 91.2 81.3 Anderson Jr., Will FR JACK
LG Miller, Harry SO** 51.5 58.7 Eboigbe, Justin SO DE
C Myers, Josh RS JR 64.8 58.6 Dale, DJ SO NG
RG Davis, Wyatt RS JR 67.3 90.4 Barmore, Christian RS SO DE
RT Petit-Frere, Nicholas RS SO 82.1 61.9 Harris, Christian SO WILL
TE Farrell, Luke RS SR 67.4 80 Battle, Jordan SO SS
QB Fields, Justin JR/TR 93.3 52.1 Wright, Daniel RS JR FS
RB Sermon, Trey GR 86.3 57.2 Moses, Dylan RS JR MIKE

 

Ohio State’s win over Clemson in the semis was no fluke. The Buckeyes destroyed the Tigers 49-28 despite QB Justin Fields playing more than half the game with an unspecified injury to his torso and the whole game with an injured throwing thumb.

The former occurred on a violent second quarter collision that got James Skalski booted for projectiling his head into Fields’ breadbasket.

Fields required tending-to after that hit, but only ended up missing one play. Still, he spent the rest of the first half wincing on the sidelines, grabbing at his midsection, short-arming balls and giving himself up instead of scrambling after dicing Clemson with his legs early in the game.

After halftime, Fields looked much more himself, and didn’t appear to be in nearly the same amount of pain. He can probably thank a halftime injection for that. Ohio State has not revealed his injury, nor the severity of it. But Buckeyes HC Ryan Day has said throughout the week that he expects Fields to play on Monday night.

Despite the midsection and thumb (suffered in the Big 10 title win over Northwestern) injuries, Fields threw for 385 yards and six touchdowns in the win over Clemson, with several “wow” NFL throws.

If there is one part of Fields’ game you can project to potentially be compromised on Monday against Alabama, it would be his open-field scrambling.

Ryan Day and crew have no doubt instructed him to go to great lengths to protect himself -- one wrong hit to Fields' ribs, and Ohio State is shot. Fields was far more conservative moving around after the Skalski hit against Clemson.

But Fields transcended his physical circumstances in the pocket, completing 22-of-28 passes for 385 yards and six touchdowns against a top-10, Brent Venables-coached defense.

It may have been the finest quarterback performance we saw in 2020, all things considered. And this needs to be mentioned: Justin Fields is the best player taking the field on Monday night. He's drawn ubiquitous comps to Deshaun Watson. Let's wait for NFL Draft season with all that stuff.

But we can comp Fields taking Ohio State into battle against Alabama in a title game to Watson doing the same with his Clemson teams. Watson covered both his tilts with Alabama, and won one of them outright via upset. He was the best player on the field both games.

We mentioned heading into Fields' game against Clemson in the semis that Clemson's troubling No. 100 ranking in defensive passing marginal explosiveness was a defect we expected Fields and company to pick on. They did. 

Alabama’s pass defense has an extremely similar Achillie’s Heal: The Tide rank No. 92 in defensive passing marginal explosiveness. Expect Fields, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson to connect for multiple home runs through the air.

Olave will have a harder assignment than usual in this game, paired against Alabama CB Patrick Surtain (89.7 PFF grade). But Fields is a methodical pocket-passer who reads the entire field. And so long as his line holds up, he'll have options.

Alabama has suffered from poor safety play and egregious breakdowns in the back-half all year. Florida is the most obvious example of this, but certainly not the only one. Even a standout performance from Surtain won’t make Alabama immune from the aerial dingers that have been the thorn in its side.

Ohio State’s offensive line has received some criticism for a poor sack rate (No. 108). But that comes down to struggles in a few games against good defenses during a time OSU was dealing with extreme COVID absences. Since the Buckeyes only played seven games, their stats are skewed in the sample.

Ohio State's offensive line boasts three players among the nation’s very-best at their positions, C Josh Myers, RG Wyatt Davis and LT Thayer Munford. Whatever you think of it as a pass-blocking group -- and whether you put that on discontinuity or fill-ins due to COVID absences (OSU's offensive line had only one starter active for the MSU game!), Fields, the OL itself or some combo -- it is objectively a nasty run-blocking group, ranked No. 4 in Football Outsiders’ Line Yards and No. 16 in PFF’s run-blocking grades. 

Behind it, with Master Teague out with injury, RB Trey Sermon has gone thermo-nuclear the past two games against top-10 overall defenses, posting 589 yards from scrimmage against Northwestern and Clemson (524 rushing, 65 receiving) on 8.7 YPC. Going back to the Michigan State game, he’s averaged 212.0 rushing YPG in his last three.

Sermon has bloomed into the player we thought we were going to see when he signed with Oklahoma, a physical 225-pounder with good vision, nifty feet and burst, additionally providing the offense with a dangerous extra pass-catcher.

“[Sermon’s] playing outstanding football right now, there’s no doubt about that.” HC Nick Saban said. “Their offensive line does a very good job blocking the looks up front, getting a hat on a hat.”

Ohio State should be able to establish some sort of running game with Sermon. Alabama’s three-man front has one first-round war-daddy, DL Christian Barmore, and two other JAGs (starters under PFF grades of 60.0).

Alabama’s linebacking corps has been underwhelming, in part due to struggles from Dylan Moses (57.2 PFF grade) and Christian Harris (61.9) in particular. Moses' struggles coming off injury have mystified.

By the advanced stats, Moses has been slightly better in coverage, while the rest of his game has fallen off a cliff. We'll return to that come draft time, no doubt. But Alabama had better not hope it's a narrative during Monday's telecast -- because it needs Moses to help slow Sermon.

Ohio State’s offensive line should get consistent push -- Barmore being the wildcard -- and I’m not confident in Alabama’s second-level players consistently taking down Sermon one-on-one on first opportunity and/or first-contact.

That said, Barmore could change the equation if he starts blowing up the backfield with consistent penetration. He’s going to have to get by former five-star recruit and Round 1 hopeful G Wyatt Davis, who I recently learned is the son of Alvin Mack, from “The Program", which Twitter agrees is a top-three underrated sports film.

Sermon’s success is Ohio State’s best defense against Alabama’s passing offense. It’s the way the Buckeyes keep the clock moving and Mac Jones and DeVonta Smith off the field. Alabama is credited for having an amazing run defense. I believe that is slightly misleading. 

The Crimson Tide rank No. 19 in defensive rushing success rate and No. 30 in defensive rushing marginal explosiveness, respectable but not dominant. Alabama’s run defense has acquitted itself a little better perceptually because opponents are constantly playing from behind, altering game scripts in such a way that encourages teams to abandon the run and throw the ball. 

If the Crimson Tide don’t create separation with the Buckeyes on the scoreboard, things could play out a little differently on Monday. Alabama only gave up two 100-yard games this year.

But as Ole Miss showed, you can run on the Tide when you stick with it. Both Snoop Connor and Jerrion Ealy went over the century mark in that game. Teams like Florida didn't try to run -- but were successful passing.

If Ohio State plays this right, both the run game and the pass game will get going against Alabama. And if that happens -- pregame narratives be damned -- they'll have the Tide on their heels.


Alabama offense vs. Ohio State defense

(Number is NCAA rank) Alabama offense Ohio State defense
SP+ 1 2
PFF 2 4
Success Rate 1 21
Marginal Efficiency 1 40
Marginal Explosion 8 109
Points per opportunity 6 58
TO margin 4 9
Run success rate 4 9
Run marginal explosion 80 109
Pass success rate 2 41
Pass marginal explosion 6 73
FO Line yards 13 N/A
PFF pass block/rush 17 1
PFF run block/D 15 10
Havoc 5 37

 

Pos Alabama offense PFF Grade PFF Grade Ohio State defense Pos
WR Smith, DeVonta SR 94.7 66.2 Wade, Shaun RS JR CB
WR Metchie III, John SO 70 55.7 Williamson, Marcus SR CB
WR Bolden, Slade RS SO 60.9 67.7 Banks, Sevyn JR CB
LT Leatherwood, Alex SR 79.4 89.7 Cooper, Jonathon RS SR DE
LG Brown, Deonte RS SR 62.2 60.9 Borland, Tuf RS SR MIKE
C Owens, Chris RS SR* 50.8 87.5 Togiai, Tommy JR NT
RG Ekiyor Jr., Emil RS SO 76.3 91.4 Garrett, Haskell SR DT
RT Neal, Evan SO 83.1 80.3 Friday, Tyler JR DE
TE Forristall, Miller RS SR 59.1 69.6 Browning, Baron SR SAM
QB Jones, Mac RS JR 95.7 59.4 Hooker, Marcus RS SO SS
RB Harris, Najee SR 89.6 57.4 Werner, Pete SR WILL

 

For all the dominant Crimson Tide offenses we’ve seen recently, this may be the best of the bunch. Alabama averaged a school-record 48.2 points per game this season, breaking last year’s record of 47.2.

Alabama’s offensive dominance starts from the inside-out. The Crimson Tide were recently awarded with the Joe Moore award as the nation’s best offensive line. Continuity (126 career starts) was key for that group. 

LT Alex Leatherwood (12 starts), LG Deonte Brown (12) and C Landon Dickerson (11) are all seniors, while RG Emil Ekiyor Jr. (12) and RT Evan Neal (11) are battle-tested sophomores.

Unfortunately, Dickerson, the Rimington winner and a team leader, was knocked out for the year in the SEC title game. That elevated Chris Owens, a senior, into the starting lineup. Owens owns an unsightly PFF grade of 50.8. He is a sub-replacement level fill-in.

Remember how Ohio State battered Trevor Lawrence last Saturday? Ohio State ransacked Clemson’s offensive line courtesy of a defensive line that boasts three starters with PFF grades of 87.5 or better, Jonathon Cooper, Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett.

The loss of Dickerson takes what had been a Tide line of four stud starters and a passable veteran (Deonte Brown) and turns it into a Tide line of three stud starters, a passable veteran, and a sub-replacement level fill-in. And the stud-for-filler swap happened at the pivot. 

Not good heading into a matchup against one of college football’s best defensive lines. This will be the first time all year Bama doesn’t have an advantage in the trenches. And I think that will end up being a bigger factor in this game than many are talking about. 

For the first time in a few years, Alabama doesn’t have a dual-threat at quarterback. The offensive line has adapted well to a signal-caller that is mostly confined to the pocket, only allowing QB Mac Jones to be sacked once every 42.1 drop backs.

But Jones’ lack of wiggle will be tested against the Buckeyes. Lawrence is far more athletic, of course, and he was a sitting duck at times against the relentless Buckeyes pass-rush.

Jones leads the nation with a 203.0 passer efficiency rating and posted an 83.5% adjusted completion percentage in the regular season. When pressure has gotten through, he’s dealt with it well, logging a 14/1 TD/INT rate on 85 dropbacks.

But again, Jones mostly worked with an intact, Joe Moore-award winning offensive line behind Landon Dickerson, and he didn't face a defensive line like this. 

One area where Jones falls short of a prospect like Joe Burrow is in tight-window throws, due in large part to less arm strength. If Jones is pushed off his spot more on Monday, will it effect his accuracy and decision-making?

He's played with fire at times this year, throwing balls while under heavy duress. As the numbers above testify, he's thus far succeeded. But Ohio State's pass-rush will get home quicker, so Jones better be prepared to make those snap-decisions even snappier.

Because Ohio State’s defensive backs have struggled, and because WR DeVonta Smith in particular is such a singular talent, the key to Alabama’s passing attack definitely has more to do with how much time Jones is afforded to make his decisions and throw than any other one factor.

Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian echoed that idea this week: “I think one of the keys to passing the football is doing a great job up front. We’re going to have to protect well when it’s time to throw the football so we can allow Mac the time and the receivers time to do their thing down the field.”

When Jones gets time to throw, big advantage for Alabama. Smith, the Heisman winner, will fillet overhyped first-round prospect Shaun Wade if they’re matched up across from each other.

Ohio State's secondary issues go far beyond Wade's 2020 regression following his move from the slot to the perimeter to offset the losses of Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette. This season, in stark contrast to season's past, the Buckeyes have no cornerback with a PFF grade of even 68.0. 

Buckeyes CB3 Marcus Williamson has an ugly 55.7 grade. If Williamson is matched up against Slade Bolden, no big deal. If Jaylen Waddle plays and Williamson is drawing John Metchie or Waddle in coverage, the Buckeyes are in trouble. 

Waddle has returned to practice and is said to be a game-time decision. Don’t expect him to be 100-percent if he plays. But Alabama may try to force the issue if Waddle is anywhere close. The Crimson Tide no doubt know that Ohio State’s defensive weakness lies at corner, and that the more OSU corners are on the field at any given time, the better Alabama's chances are of scoring.

Even with Ohio State's pass rush constantly harassing Lawrence, and even with Clemson’s receiving corps down this year, Lawrence still managed to throw for 400 yards against the Buckeyes in the semifinals. As is his custom on the perimeter, Wade, like Jose Canseco in the outfield, lost a few balls in the lights.

Ohio State’s struggles in the secondary have manifested in a No. 73 ranking in defensive passing explosiveness. This is the area of the game Alabama needs to cash in. So long as the protection holds up, they will.

But Alabama RB Najee Harris has a trickier assignment. The Buckeyes’ nasty defensive front hasn’t allowed a 100-yd runner this season (the last time they did was against Jonathan Taylor in the 2019 Big 10 title game). The Buckeyes shut out the lights on All-American RB Travis Etienne to the tune of 68 combined rushing yards in two playoff games against Clemson the past two seasons.

What Alabama’s run game is awesome at is consistently gaining positive chunks of yardage, not necessarily breaking off huge gains. The Tide rank No. 4 in rushing success rate, but No. 80 in rushing marginal explosiveness. This is because Najee Harris’ only weakness as a player is a lack of long speed. 

Interestingly, Ohio State’s only big weakness as a run defense is giving up big runs. The Buckeyes rank No. 9 in run success rate against but No. 109 in rushing explosion against. This glitch in Ohio State’s defense was a major issue this year, with Ohio State ranking outside the top-50 in tackling.

It manifested a few times against dual-threat quarterbacks, such as in the opener when both Nebraska quarterbacks, Dylan McCaffrey and Adrian Martinez, ran for more than 80 yards. But Ohio State neither has to worry about the bruising Harris turning on the after-burners, nor Mac Jones suddenly turning into Jalen Hurts

But Alabama may have to worry about the dual-focus of Sarkisian heading into this game after he took the Texas HC job. For his part, though the Longhorns did seem to spend the week busy making assistant coaching hires, Sarkisian insists he prepared fully for Ohio State.

“Quite honestly, my week for me would be a normal game week as if I hadn’t taken the Texas job. My focus is on the game. I’m prepping for the ballgame,” Sarkisian said. “Any of the spare time that I do have, that’s getting my attention for the job at Texas, whether that’s staffing or recruiting, things of that nature. But I would say my week has been as normal as it could be, and has been, of game planning and prepping for the ballgame.”

This may be a non-factor, or it may be a small-factor. Not a lot was made of Clemson OC Tony Elliott missing the semifinal game against Ohio State with COVID-19. But Clemson's offense at times looked discombobulated and out of rhythm, ultimately managing only 28 points. 

The situations are not equal, of course. But I guess the larger point is Alabama really needs for Sarkisian to call an A+ situational game. And he had a really busy week outside of Alabama football.


Special Teams

  Ohio St ST Alabama ST
SP+ 86 14
PFF grade 75 17
FG value 119 8
Punt eff. 11 96
KO eff. 25 43
PR eff. 120 10
KR eff. 125 116

This is an area of the game where Alabama has a clear advantage heading in. It’s an area of the game that may could up costing the Buckeyes points on Monday.

Alabama ranks No. 27 in the nation in special teams efficiency, and No. 14 in SP+’s rankings. Ohio State’s special teams units were abysmal this year, with the Buckeyes ranking No. 110 in special teams efficiency and No. 86 in SP+.

Ohio State actually has good punt and kickoff coverage teams, ranking in the top-25 in both areas. But field goals have been an adventure -- Ohio State ranks No. 119 in FG value per kick and is just 6-for-10 on attempts this year, with two misses between 20-29 yards -- and has gotten very little out of KR Demario McCall and PR Garrett Wilson.

Alabama is kicker-rich with K Will Reichard, who was perfect on a combined 90 extra point and field goal attempts this year, with four FGs of 40+ yards. Alabama’s special teams advantage rests solely in Reichard’s superiority over Ohio State’s cast of kicking characters.

Alabama PR DeVonta Smith is a threat to take it to the house always -- and the Crimson Tide were a top-10 punt return unit this fall -- but Ohio State, as stated, covers punts well. Alabama has used two punters this year, this facet is a minor weakness, but Ohio State doesn’t return punts well enough to exploit it.


The Pick: Ohio State +8

I keep coming back to Ohio State’s ability to control the line of scrimmage on offense and defense. And then I remember that they’ll have the best player on the field touching the ball on every offensive play.

I’m banking on Fields being healthy, and on Ohio State’s pass rush making up for its deficiencies in the secondary again, and I’m hoping Ohio State’s kicking issues don’t come back to bite them in a close matchup where margins could be tight.

But a close matchup is what I think we have here. My adjusted line says we’re getting nearly a field goal of line value on the spread, and I’ve outlined a few areas of the game where the underdog has the advantage.

I believe we’ll see a highly competitive title game that comes down to the wire. And I think a touchdown-plus is a line too generous to pass up on a live ‘dog.


2020: 70-70-1 (50.0%) ATS*

Bowls: 14-15 (48.3%) ATS*

Lifetime (2014-Present): 610-539-17 (53.1%) ATS*


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Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!