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Ohio State has the fifth-ranked scoring offense in the country. It is led by quarterback Justin Fields, who could be the second pick in the NFL draft. It averages 544.9 yards per game, the fourth-highest mark in the sport.
And the Buckeyes will boast the second most-potent attack Monday night at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
They enter as the other guys, overshadowed by top-seeded Alabama’s 48.2-points-per-game unit that includes the Heisman Trophy winner (Devonta Smith), the nation’s award-winner for the top quarterback (Mac Jones), running back (Najee Harris) and offensive line.
“They’re as talented an offense and play as clean as I’ve seen,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.
In many ways, it is apropos of the state of college football that these are the two teams left standing. Spread offenses and tempo dominate the game now. Defense no longer wins championships. It’s become Arena League Football — only outdoors.
Last year’s champion, LSU, put up 42 points in the final game. The year before, Clemson scored 44, and Alabama lost for the first time in the title game under coach Nick Saban in 2016 despite putting up 31 points. In third-seeded Ohio State’s semifinal victory over Clemson, the Buckeyes allowed Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers to score 28 points — and were commended for it. Day even admitted coaches can’t expect to shut teams down anymore. The goal is to limit them. He even equated holding teams to field goals as stops.
“It really isn’t about how many yards you give up,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “You can let them drive the entire length of the field, but if they kick field goals or you get turnovers along the way, good things are going to happen. I think that really is where it’s at.”
The game has obviously changed, both coaches agreed. Just eight years ago, Saban and Alabama won it all behind a defense that was one of the most stifling in recent memory, allowing just 7.8 points on average. His reputation was carved out by developing elite defenses and a punishing ground game. But he adjusted with the times, and now the Crimson Tide are known more for their ability to develop elite offensive talent on a yearly basis.
“Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore,” Saban admitted earlier this season.
By late Monday night, the new champion will be determined by offense. Reaching the 40s is almost a must.
Either Alabama (12-0) can call itself one of the historic program’s great teams as the Crimson Tide’s ninth undefeated champion. Or Ohio State (7-0) mimics the 2014 team, defying the doubters who questioned it even belonging in the playoff, and pulling off consecutive upsets as a significant underdog.
Each program has faced numerous questions, despite neither entering the showdown with a loss. There was a lengthy period Ohio State wasn’t sure it would have a season. The Big Ten was initially against playing during the COVID-19 pandemic and started its season in late October. The Buckeyes had three games canceled, played extremely short against Michigan State and against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game due to the virus. Until the league changed its rule that teams had to play at least six games to be eligible for its title game, Ohio State was going to be left out.
“Some days you woke up, you didn’t know which direction you were going in,” Day said.
Alabama missed the College Football Playoff a year ago for the first time. It had nine players drafted in the top three rounds, including starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, star wide receivers Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy, and offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. The Crimson Tide wasn’t ranked No. 1 to start the year, a rarity in the Saban era.
It responded how those familiar with Alabama would expect — by winning its 12 games by a combined 578-228. By dominating the best conference in the country. It treated Notre Dame like a JV team in the playoff, its 31-14 victory not doing the one-sided nature of the game justice.
In the two semifinals, Alabama and Ohio State combined for 881 yards of offense against quality defenses. Expect similar numbers Monday night, and that may be a conservative estimate.
“This is [not] a game you go in and say, ‘Hey, I just stopped this guy, we’re going to win the game,’ ” Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding said. “That’s not the case.”
It used to be a defense-first coach like Saban’s nightmare. Now it has become part of his recipe for success.