Now, a mere two bowls shy of the entire New Year’s Six dinner set before he exits for the NFL, he will appear for Ohio State against Alabama in a national championship game come Monday in Miami Gardens, Fla., featuring Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and giving Sermon two appearances against Alabama in playoff games at Hard Rock Stadium alone. That’s not to mention his appearance as an Oklahoma running back in a regular season game against Ohio State, a 31-16 win in Columbus in 2017 of which he said Thursday, “I remember everything about that game.”
How? It’s one keen memory bank given the hubbub of recent years, during which the omnipresent transfer from Oklahoma epitomizes the 21st-century mobility of college football, as the players who provide the games have inched toward shreds of power.
“I mean, it’s a crazy feeling,” he said, and to think he said that before the Orange Bowl of December 2018, about the idea of appearing in two College Football Playoff games in life.
Now, as he makes it five, four while active, he could epitomize something else rather novel for the 21st century: the guy who stops by a place for a cameo but winds up remembered in that place only forever, a tighter-window version of, say, Burrow, that transfer who played two LSU seasons to become remembered around Baton Rouge for the next 100 years (or more).
Sermon matters in this game as a part of keeping the mighty Alabama offense off the field. He matters as a way to reduce pressure on Fields, the Ohio State quarterback who took a wincing whack in the Clemson game. If he winds up mattering forever to the throngs who follow the Buckeyes, it would wind up so very 21st century, an era when the brains of college football followers have grown nimbler to the news of players hopscotching the country, awfully kinetic when compared with those four-year slogs of last century.
In a rapid frame, he would have struggled for four games in 2020, then thrived for four games including three huge games, then said farewell and thanks.
As a back who chose Columbus last tempestuous March and began with games of 48, 56, 68 and 60 rushing yards, he spent his last three with 112, 331 and 193, the last two in the Big Ten championship game (against Northwestern) and the playoff semifinal (against Clemson). Such possibilities have turned up in part because Master Teague III, Ohio State’s second-team all-Big Ten running back with two 100-yard games in the fall, left the Northwestern game with an injury and could not play in the Sugar Bowl.
“I mean, there’s no pressure,” Sermon said Thursday, three weeks after romping through a very good Northwestern defense and saying: “They brought me here for a reason. They know that I’m a” — and he paused for a tick — “a great player and I can make an impact, and I just had to really just believe that in myself as well, just trust my coaching and just trust my teammates around me.”
“Yeah, I mean, it started at the Michigan State game,” Ohio State Coach Ryan Day said of Sermon’s 112 yards there Dec. 5. “That was the first one where he kind of — I guess ‘coming-out party’ is the best way to put it. I think it was where he got his confidence. And then these last two games, he’s been excellent. He’s been a difference-maker. He really wasn’t early on. I think he was kind of finding his way. But, wow, I mean, whether it’s in the passing game, whether it’s protection and obviously running the football, he’s been special. But again, you’ve got to give a lot of credit to our offensive line and our tight ends. There was a point there [against Clemson] where we weren’t going to run Justin [Fields as he winced in pain but kept playing], and the defense knew it. We weren’t getting the extra hat. It was ugly, but we had to make it work, and those guys played good.”
“He’s playing outstanding football right now. There’s no doubt about that,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said.
“First and foremost,” Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses said, “I think that Ohio State has a really great offensive line. They open up the holes for their running back, Trey Sermon, to get through, and I feel like that’s why he’s had the majority of his success, and I feel every great running back will say that about the guys up front.”
Sermon, 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, says that about the guys up front.
A player not given to long answers or splashy language, he hails from Marietta, Ga., in the Atlanta suburbs, where the caliber of high school football can be striking to a first-time observer. He went to Sprayberry, the same high school that produced current NFL players Jabari Zuniga, Jerick McKinnon and Rodrigo Blankenship, who kicked as a Bulldog in that same Oklahoma-Georgia Rose Bowl where Sermon got started with playoffs. It’s also the high school of Travis Tritt, the country singer, and Chuck Nevitt, the 7-foot-5 NBA tower, and Christopher Martin, principal trumpet, New York Philharmonic.
Given four stars by the people who give stars and recruited by all the titans who recruit, Sermon chose Oklahoma for opportunity. He rushed for 744, 947 and 385 yards, the third year stalled by an ACL injury. He got two rushes for 34 yards in the wild January 2017 Rose Bowl, Oklahoma’s 54-48 double-overtime loss to Georgia.
Then he got a first try against Alabama, before which he said, “I just want to see how I match up against these defenders,” calling them “great players as well.” He never got much chance. Tagovailoa proved masterful as usual, and Oklahoma proved behind 28-0 early in the second quarter, and the game’s tenor altered to where rushers get, say, nine carries for 19 yards.
Yet he will get another chance in the same city and the same stadium because it’s 2021 and because he does know how to choose a team.