What to Watch as Alabama Plays Ohio State for the College Football Playoff Title

Alabama’s warning light: It’s the same as Clemson’s was in the Sugar Bowl semifinal game on New Year’s Day. Facing an Ohio State pass defense that was the worst in the Big Ten in 2020, Alabama should be terrified if it struggles through the air with a quarterback, Mac Jones, who has completed 77 percent of his throws this season, and Smith, who has 1,641 receiving yards.

How Indiana Coach Tom Allen thinks Alabama can beat Ohio State: “Mac Jones is good enough — he’s an elite player — and that receiver corps is extremely talented,” said Allen, whose team came closer than anyone this season to defeating the Buckeyes. “The matchup is going to be this: If Alabama can’t run the ball against their D-line, that will be huge.”

Extra point: Despite a frustrating two seasons leading the Miami Dolphins, Coach Nick Saban will arrive in Miami Gardens with an 11-7 record at Hard Rock Stadium, between his N.F.L. and collegiate head coaching careers. But as Smith put it this month, location may not matter all that much: “Just spot the ball. I’m ready.”

College Football Playoff record: 3-2

Record in playoff championship games: 1-0

Players to watch: Quarterback Justin Fields took a sack to his torso that knocked him (and perhaps a few of his ribs — the world may never know) out of place during Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl matchup against Clemson. He still finished the night with 385 passing yards and six touchdowns. Wide receiver Chris Olave and Trey Sermon, a running back, will remain key connections: Olave, who missed Ohio State’s Big Ten championship win because of coronavirus protocols, caught two touchdowns for the Buckeyes against Clemson, and Sermon has rushed for 524 yards in the last two games.

Something Ohio State loves: The defensive line. Seriously. Ohio State’s rushing defense is ranked second in the Football Bowl Subdivision, flying under the radar as weaknesses in the secondary allowed opponents to challenge the Buckeyes. Ohio State held Travis Etienne, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time leading rusher, to 32 yards. The rest of Clemson’s rushing attack gained all of 12 yards.

Something Ohio State detests: Well, the secondary, which has been giving up nearly a dozen yards a completion. That pass defense will need to look far sharper when it’s facing the Heisman-winner Smith — plus the potential return of Jaylen Waddle, who was hurt in October but could someday be a first-round N.F.L. draft pick. (Alabama Coach Nick Saban has said Waddle’s status will be a game-day decision.) And then there’s the rest of Alabama’s deep pool of pass catchers, including its tight ends and running backs, namely Harris.

Ohio State’s warning light: As the Ohio State defense consistently rushes four from the line, it may require its secondary to hold up in coverage for a longer amount of time, especially given the strength of the Crimson Tide offensive line. Shaun Wade, the leader of the Buckeyes’s secondary and a top-ranked coverage cornerback heading into this year’s N.F.L. draft, will need to step up against one of the most potent passing attacks in recent college football history.

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