Breaking down the CFP Championship, who has the edge between Ohio State and Alabama?

Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Mac Jones throws a pass during win over Mississippi State
Photo of Andrew Ortenberg

Andrew Ortenberg

NCAAF · 1 year ago

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I'm an editor here at Pickswise who was raised in a household full of sports fanatics. Since I unfortunately never had LeBron James' jumping ability I wasn't able to make it to the NBA, and chose writing about sports as the next best thing. An avid sports bettor myself, I'm excited to get to write about the industry as it gets set to take off across the country. Buckle up.

The 2020 college football season has just one game left, the National Championship showdown between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Alabama Crimson Tide. The Crimson Tide steamrolled Notre Dame to get here, seemingly for the millionth year in a row, while Ohio State pulled off an upset against Clemson. Oddsmakers once again have the Buckeyes as underdogs of more than a touchdown, but clearly that didn’t deter them last week.

There was a little bit of drama with this game earlier this week, as COVID-19 issues within the Ohio State program threatened to delay it, but it appears as of now the game will be played on Monday night as scheduled. We’ll have a lot of great content leading up to the game, and you can of course view our picks for the side and total in our betting preview here. Right now we’ll be talking about a few keys to the game, which we’ll be breaking down below:

Justin Fields’ health

The elephant in the room here is the health status of Fields, who was electric in leading Ohio State to their upset victory while tossing six touchdowns. Unfortunately, he took a huge shot to the ribs in that game, and likely won’t be 100 percent for this one. Earlier this week, Fields had this to say, via Michael Casagrande of AL.com:

But the days that I didn’t expect to wake up kind of hurting was two or three nights after the game. I mean, I really haven’t thought about how this injury is going to affect how I’m going to play. I’m just thinking about getting as much treatment as possible and trying to get my body right so it’s 100 percent to be able to perform at a max level come Monday night.”

That certainly doesn’t sound like someone who will be playing at full strength, and Fields also said after the Clemson game he was in pain on nearly every throw. He didn’t run as much after the injury, and that could be a big setback since Alabama sometimes struggles to contain mobile quarterbacks. There obviously won’t be an advantage for Ohio State here, and this could turn into a huge edge for Alabama if Fields is limited in any way.

Can either ground game have success?

If Fields isn’t quite himself, the Buckeyes will need another big game from running back Trey Sermon, who has dominated in their last two contests. Ohio State pushed Clemson around in the trenches, but they might not have as much success against the big boys Alabama has up front. In their most recent game, the Crimson Tide did a great job of shutting down Notre Dame’s usually potent rushing attack.

Notre Dame averaged over five yards per carry during the regular season, they averaged just 3.7 against Alabama. For the season the Crimson Tide are allowing only 3.21 yards per carry, which ranks 11th nationally. On the flip side, Ohio State only allows 3.20, ranking them one spot ahead.

As such, the Buckeyes do have some hope of slowing down the sensational Najee Harris, who bowled over Notre Dame to the tune of 8.3 yards per rush attempt. If that’s the case, that’ll put more on Mac Jones’ shoulders and the game could come down to how he fares against OSU’s secondary.

How will Ohio State’s pass defense hold up?

Which brings us to our final key. While Ohio State was very strong against the run this year, they were mediocre against the pass. They allowed 7.3 yards per pass attempt on the season, which was middle of the pack among all D1 teams. That was especially troubling since they played a relatively soft slate of opposing Big Ten offenses, including teams like Northwestern, Michigan State, and Nebraska which didn’t have real passing games to speak of.

The couple of times the secondary was challenged they didn’t fare well, and there were major red flags. One of those red flags was when they played Indiana, and they let sophomore Michael Penix Jr. throw for 491 yards and five touchdowns. They let Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, who mostly struggled this season, have one of his best games of the year, averaging 9.4 yards per attempt.

Mac Jones nearly won the Heisman this year, and one of his receivers Devonta Smith actually did win the award, so needless to say this Buckeyes secondary has me concerned. They were able to hold Trevor Lawrence somewhat in check, but only because they got consistent pressure. If Alabama’s offensive line plays better than Clemson’s, they won’t be able to replicate that formula.

The bottom line

Fields’ health is a major concern, and I don’t see the Buckeyes having much success on the ground either. Their secondary has been exploitable, and Jones and Smith should take full advantage of that. For all these reasons, we’re leaning to Alabama on the spread.

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