It will be the first time the two schools have clashed since the 2015 Sugar Bowl, when the Buckeyes defeated the Crimson Tide, 42-35, in an upset in the inaugural College Football Playoff semifinals en route to a national championship. Another Buckeyes victory would be an upset, too. Alabama opened as a seven-point favorite, and the line has since widened to 8½ points.
Alabama hasn’t lost this season, so there is no blueprint to follow in that regard, but it did have two uncharacteristic wins, against Mississippi and against Florida in the SEC title game, that can provide some insight into the Crimson Tide’s vulnerabilities.
Ole Miss produced 647 yards against Alabama, the most allowed by a Nick Saban-coached team. Mississippi scored early, going 75 yards on four plays in 54 seconds on the opening possession, and then featured its running game on its next two scoring drives. Jerrion Ealy rushed for 22 yards on third and 27, which subsequently led to a fourth-down conversion and another touchdown, a three-yard run by Ealy. The third scoring drive consisted solely of 11 rushing plays for 75 yards. By the end of the game, four of Mississippi’s six touchdowns had come on the ground. Florida managed 462 yards, with three of its six touchdowns scored via rushing plays. Had it not been for five fumbles (two lost) and five sacks allowed by the Gators, perhaps Florida would have won. In total, Mississippi and Florida accounted for seven of the 13 rushing touchdowns Alabama surrendered this season.
The key for Ohio State, then, is to get running back Trey Sermon involved early and often, much like it did in the past two games. Sermon carried the ball 29 times for 331 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game, and a couple of weeks later against Clemson he rushed 31 times for 193 yards and a score.
Luckily, Ohio State has one of the best run-blocking offensive lines of 2020, per Football Outsiders. The Buckeyes’ offensive front produced the fourth-most line yards per carry (3.2), which is an attempt to give the offensive line credit for some of a running back’s performance, especially closer to the line of scrimmage. For comparison, Ole Miss ranked 50th and Florida 35th. Ohio State also made sure its running backs had holes to run through, with fewer than 13 percent of all rushing attempts stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, the eighth-best rate in the country. Ole Miss and Florida ranked 46th and 33rd, respectively. Alabama’s defense, meanwhile, ranked 56th in line yards and 80th in stuff rate, illustrating why a heavily tilted rushing strategy could work in an upset bid.
Ohio State’s offense
Of course, Ohio State’s defense needs to do its part, too. After all, Alabama won those games against Ole Miss and Florida by scoring a combined 115 points. Ohio State simply can’t allow so many points Monday night.
The first step toward disrupting Alabama’s offense is to slow down wide receiver DeVonta Smith. The Heisman Trophy winner caught 105 passes for 1,641 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, and he also scored a touchdown on a punt return. Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade, a fellow first-team all-American, will certainly have his opportunities to stop Smith, but he must perform better than he did against Clemson senior wide receiver Cornell Powell. Powell had eight receptions for 139 yards and two touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl, arguably his best game of the season.
Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner will also need to help neutralize Alabama running back Najee Harris. Werner moved from strong-side linebacker to weak-side linebacker this season in an effort to get him more involved in stopping the run. The 6-foot-3, 242-pound senior had 46 tackles, including 2½ for a loss, in seven games as a primary run-stopper in 2020. He was also instrumental in shutting down Clemson running back Travis Etienne, who managed 96 yards from scrimmage and a three-yard touchdown in the Sugar Bowl.
Werner’s ability to stop the run will face its greatest test yet, in large part because the Buckeyes must be wary of Harris’s abilities in the passing game. Harris, like Etienne, is a receiving threat out of the backfield. He caught 20 passes that resulted in a first down or touchdown this season, trailing only Etienne for most at the position, per Pro Football Focus. Harris also broke a nationwide-high 17 tackles after the catch and didn’t drop a single drop pass all season