For a program drenched in football triumphs and accolades, Ohio State knows what it’s like to be an underdog in a big spot.
It hasn’t happened often. These days, since Urban Meyer transformed the Buckeyes and passed the baton to Ryan Day, it’s happening less. But when the national championship takes place Monday night, the Buckeyes once again will assume the role.
As it stands now, they are 7.5-point underdog against Alabama, which has looked largely unbeatable the last two months. The total sits at a robust 74.5.
For a championship game, this spread is significant. And yet, given what we witnessed against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, it no longer feels insurmountable. After all, Ohio State was a touchdown underdog to Clemson and responded with an echoing 49-28 victory.
This is not the first time this team has delivered in a spot like this. In fact, in this specific matchup, it is vaguely familiar. In 2015, Ohio State closed as a 7.5-point underdog against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes won that game outright.
Since 2012, Ohio State is a spectacular 8-1 outright as a ’dog. This is a position, as rare as it might be, in which the Buckeyes thrive.
History shouldn’t dictate how you wager on this game. The trends dating back a decade won’t help the Ohio State secondary slow DeVonta Smith or tackle Najee Harris.
But the performance and the mentality are noteworthy, especially considering the most recent outcome. And at the very least, despite Alabama’s brilliance, it does give the gambling world much to mull over.
What about the status of Justin Fields?
Let’s start with those ribs. Fields took a brutal helmet to his right side in the first half. Based on his response, I just assumed broken ribs. Watching him get on and off the exercise bike was painful. We don’t have a diagnosis and we probably won’t until after Monday’s game. Day declined to say anything meaningful about the injury other than Fields will play. Not shocking.
If you’re going to bet on Ohio State, you have to start by playing doctor. Fields will have about nine days to recover, which could be a) enough time if his ribs aren’t broken or b) probably not enough if they are.
While he was extraordinary even after he was injured, completing 11 of 16 throws for 222 yards and four touchdowns, asking him to do that again against a much better secondary is asking a lot.
Here’s the part of the injury that is concerning. If it does linger, Ohio State will likely limit his mobility to protect him. (This would be smart.) It would also largely diminish one of his greatest assets. Also, can he hold up? One hit in a game that will probably feature plenty of them could alter its course drastically.
Can Ohio State slow the Alabama offense?
The simple answer is probably not. There’s a reason the total is almost 75. However, Notre Dame delivered a blueprint on how at least to try. The Irish sat on the ball, delivered a few long drives and limited the Tide’s possessions. They did not generate enough offense to win, but it was a sound strategy.
Harris still rushed for 125 yards on only 15 carries. Smith still caught seven balls for 130 yards and three touchdowns. The finely tuned machine did what finely tuned machines do.
My chief concern for Ohio State is its secondary. Cornerback Shaun Wade had a brutal game, and the rest of the group has been a liability all year. The best way for Ohio State to cover up these issues is to do precisely what it did against Clemson: Apply enough pressure with its front four to make Mac Jones uncomfortable. The problem? Alabama has a much better offensive line. Even without injured center Landon Dickerson, this unit is pretty special.
How can Ohio State cover or win this game?
It starts with running back Trey Sermon, who has blossomed into a star over the last few games. After running for 331 yards against Northwestern, Sermon torched Clemson with 193 rushing yards and 61 receiving yards. The Buckeyes’ offensive line played exceptionally against Clemson. I believe any upset bid, especially with Fields’ status somewhat unknown, starts here.
Ohio State doesn’t have a wideout of Smith’s caliber, but Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are a difficult matchup. Alabama counters with cornerback Patrick Surtain II, a potential top-10 pick this year. This secondary and defense, however, has given up plenty of big plays. Florida and Ole Miss showed us that.
Day, a brilliant offensive play caller, has plenty of pieces to play with. Ohio State also has a couple of really solid tight ends, and I expect that to be a fixture of the offense also.
This is no magic formula. Allow really good players to make plays in space. Ball control. And hope your dynamic quarterback is healthy enough to facilitate it all.
The verdict: Alabama
While Ohio State is one of the few teams capable of matching Alabama athletically, I think the status of Fields coupled with the brilliance of ’Bama will be too much to overcome. I’ll lay the 7.5. I’ll also be on Alabama first half.