The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Alabama football dynasty collects another title with a 52-24 rout of Ohio State

Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban won his sixth national championship with the Crimson Tide. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — As a jalopy of a college football season in a pandemic managed to lumber to a finish Monday night, it also managed to showcase a player so dazzling and precise he looks like he never spent a moment lumbering, not even in practice — no, especially not in practice.

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Somehow, with the football kingdom of Alabama claiming a sixth national championship in the past 12 seasons by 52-24 over Ohio State, and with Coach Nick Saban claiming a record seventh within the same lifetime, one player shined. Somehow, with Alabamian excellence stretching as usual from the players to the coordinators to probably the water staff and surely back to the coach, one slender marvel of a 175-pound player radiated.

After all the disruption in college football, it was all domination for Alabama

Wide receiver DeVonta Smith didn’t act alone in the Alabama symphony at Hard Rock Stadium in the College Football Playoff national championship game before a scattered 14,926, but he did epitomize a mastery of detail and standard that helps mark the Saban era. The first wide receiver to win the Heisman Trophy in 29 years did run his clever, pinpoint routes and flash his frightening speed as the Crimson Tide proved confounding to the Ohio State defense and to anyone trying to keep stats.

Smith kept lining up on this side of the line or that side, turning up on this side of the field or that side. It began to look like there might be three of him.

By the end of the first quarter, he had caught five passes for 78 yards. By halftime, he had caught 12 for 215, the numbers ringing like machines in Las Vegas.

By the end, even while missing almost the entire second half and going to the locker room and returning with a bandage on his right hand, he had the 12 for 215 on his way to the record books and the NFL.

“Smitty obviously had a great . . . half,” Saban said, stopping himself before noting his star played only half the game after dislocating a finger. “. . . Heaven knows what he’d have done if he’d have played the whole game. You’re talking about the ultimate warrior.”

As offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian called his last mad, maddening designs before making off for the coaching job at Texas, and as quarterback Mac Jones cemented a season of dreams with 36-for-45 passing for 464 yards and five touchdowns, and as running back Najee Harris continued to look merely formidable, Smith caught three touchdowns by halftime.

He caught a five-yarder that he carted inside the left pylon after a nifty plot in which he edged toward the backfield early in the play, then floated quickly out to the left to field Jones’s flip. That gave Alabama a 14-7 lead.

He caught another five-yarder that he carted inside the right pylon after a presnap bit of candy during which he motioned right, then motioned left behind the offensive line, then motioned back right to catch the quick pass. That gave Alabama a 28-17 lead, and that’s not to be confused with the beauty just before that, 44 yards to Smith from Jones up the right sideline.

And he caught a 42-yard touchdown on which he lined up left of Jones, then wound up lost to the Buckeyes on the deep right hash mark, blazing behind linebacker Tuf Borland to take a flawless throw from Jones. That gave Alabama a 35-17 halftime lead.

“Just with covid and everything going on, it just made things tougher,” Smith said in an on-field interview with ESPN as the confetti fell. “It just made us more together as a team, being around each other more, waking up in the morning and getting tested, just being there for each other and keeping our bubble small. Just the discipline of this team is just like no other. We just finished writing our story.”

If the college football viewer in 2020-21 had to cope with sudden cancellations and postponements here and there and over there and over there, too, and had to cope with sudden lineup changes because of positive coronavirus tests and contact tracing, at least the sight of some of the most artful passing and catching yet played in college made itself available. It made itself so gleaming Monday night that, by halftime, Smith already had surpassed the record for receptions in a championship game in the seven-year College Football Playoff concept, ahead of Hunter Renfrow’s 10 for Clemson in 2017, a mighty effort that did require four quarters.

So the game ratified Smith’s Heisman Trophy, and it upheld the Alabama offense as a starship that hovered over all its games, and it furthered a season in which Alabama fans felt barely a palpitation. During 13 wins, the Crimson Tide trailed in just two games — against Mississippi in the first half (before winning, 63-48), and against Georgia in the first half (and at halftime — before winning, 41-24). Other than that, it stayed ahead or tied.

Beyond that, the events of Monday night also exemplified a misshapen season in which depth charts kept getting jostled moments before kickoffs. That happened to Ohio State (7-1), which had to type out a 13-strong list of unavailable players, including two starters along the defensive line, nose tackle Tommy Togiai and end Tyreke Smith. Not only had those players helped cook up the pressure that inconvenienced quarterback Trevor Lawrence in Ohio State’s 49-28 win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl of Jan. 1, but full strength remains a good policy when coping with an award-winning Alabama offensive line and the Smith-Harris-Jones (and others) beast it protects. On the plus side, defensive end Zach Harrison did return, having missed the New Orleans frolics in the Clemson backfield.

And on the other side of that, it seemed hard to imagine anyone pressuring Jones much anyway given the way he let go of the football with such accurate haste. Often he threw pop passes along the line, and often those went to Smith, including the lid-lifter on the second play. That one went quickly out to the left, where Smith caught it and made a breathtaking passage around three Ohio State defenders in the last little prism of space available on the left side of the field, stopping only 22 yards later.

Ohio State’s offense did okay but couldn’t keep up. It got help early in the second quarter on a fantastic defensive play by blitzing Buckeye Baron Browning, who hugged Jones briefly, popped out the ball and hopped on it himself at the Alabama 19 to set up a touchdown. Running back Trey Sermon, with 524 rushing yards in his previous two games, exited after one carry for two yards with an injury, but previous starter Master Teague III returned and performed credibly.

“They’re very good schematically,” Ohio State Coach Ryan Day said of Alabama, “and they have really good personnel.”

Quarterback Justin Fields, so smashing with six touchdown passes in the Sugar Bowl, passed for 194 yards and rushed for 67 while operating with a heartless margin of error. Any stall of any possession seemed lethal given the opposition ready to take the football and dazzle.

Story by Chuck Culpepper. Updates below by Des Bieler...