Ohio State scored a stunning upset of Clemson and Alabama cruised past Notre Dame to set up an unexpected, but exciting College Football Playoff Final. The two unbeaten teams meet on Monday night to determine the best team in college football in this most unusual of seasons.
No.1 Alabama 31-14 No.4 Notre Dame
Alabama started fast, scoring touchdowns on their first three drives. Najee Harris provided the highlight-reel play, with an extraordinary hurdle over Notre Dame cornerback, Nick McCloud, en route to a 53-yard gain. Harris rushed for 125 yards overall and gave Mac Jones the platform to open up the passing attack.
Jones passed for 303 yards and four touchdowns. Compared to other games this season, this may have seemed relatively pedestrian for the Alabama quarterback but Jones was in complete control and managed the game brilliantly, completing 83% of his passes.
If Jones was firing the bow, the since crowned Heisman trophy-winner, DeVonta Smith, was the arrow piercing the Fighting Irish defence. Smith caught seven passes, of which three were for touchdowns.
Ian Book tried valiantly to bring the Fighting Irish back, running for 55 yards and a touchdown but threw for none and was intercepted at a crucial point in the game. Notre Dame were outclassed and outmatched all over the field. The optimism built from their early season win over Clemson was dimmed in their rematch loss. Alabama turned the lights out.
"Today was about making the plays. They made them on the perimeter. Their skill players showed up today as they have all year." - Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly (via Stephen Hawkins, AP)
No.3 Ohio State 49-28 No.2 Clemson
Well, I didn't see that coming. Justin Fields, hearing the whispers of doubters (me included) following a couple of indifferent performances vs. Indiana and Northwestern, responded with the performance of his career against Clemson. Fields showed his considerable talents and heart, throwing for six touchdowns and 385 yards. He outshone his opposite number and fellow Georgia native, Trevor Lawrence, who threw for 400 yards.
Clemson were 14-7 up after the first quarter, but it was all Ohio State in the second. They scored three unanswered touchdowns to go into the break 35-14 up. Fields took a ferocious hit in the ribs from Tigers' linebacker James Skalski, who was summarily ejected from the game, his second dismissal in two consecutive years in a CFP semi-final.
After sitting out a play, Fields returned with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Chris Olave. As the injured quarterback eased his way back into the game, the Buckeyes' monstrous offensive line drove Clemson back, allowing the emerging running back sensation Trey Sermon to rush through the Tigers and ease some of the pressure on Fields.
After the teams swapped scores, this 56-yard touchdown throw from Fields to Olave put Ohio State 42-21 up late in the third quarter.
Ohio State were smarting from their semi-final loss to Clemson last year, using that game as motivation for this season. There were posters with the score from last year's loss plastered across the Buckeyes' gym all year to remind them what they were working for. This was a team who had only played six times together this season and rarely with a full squad. 22 players were missing for their Big Ten Championship win. They were finally close to full strength against Clemson and revenge was sweet.
"Everyone doubting us just pushed us a little more." - Justin Fields (via AP).
Who Will Win
Nick Saban is going for his seventh national championship, his sixth with Alabama. The Crimson Tide's offense have averaged 48 points per game, sweeping aside all twelve opponents this season. Ryan Day, having emerged from the shadow of former coach Urban Meyer at Ohio State, will be trying to win his first. Day is an offensive specialist who will be trying to unpick Alabama's defense. Saban is regarded as the best in the business, especially on defense, where he still hands-on coaches the defensive backs.
Steve Sarkisian, 'Bama's offensive coordinator, will be looking to sign off in style before he heads to Austin next season to take over as head coach of Texas.
Alabama's pass rush will look to put pressure on Justin Fields. The Crimson Tide's freshman sensation Will Anderson and sophomore Christian Barmore have seven sacks each, while Fields has been sacked twenty times in seven games this season. When the Ohio State passing offense has stuttered, the running game, on the back of their huge offensive line, has carried them to victory. Trey Sermon has emerged as a dominant back in the last two games, following up his record 331-yard performance with 193 yards against Clemson.
The X factor in that game was Fields, who arguably had the performance of his career. If he can shrug off the rib injury sustained vs. the Tigers, he could be the difference. His receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson will be stretching the Tide secondary of Patrick Surtain and Josh Jobe to get open for the big plays.
Despite all the skill players on show, this is a battle that will be won up front. Whichever team's line dominates the trenches will give them the platform for their offense to keep the ball and score points. Ohio State's enormous offensive line gave Justin Fields all day to throw against Clemson and will need to protect him and his injured ribs against the swarming Alabama defense.
Mac Jones, arguably just a level below Fields in terms of raw talent, has had the time and security to pick apart opposing defences. He has Biletnikoff award winner (for the best receiver in college football) Devonta Smith at his disposal, ably supported by John Metchie. Ominously for the Buckeyes, Jaylen Waddle may be fit for the final and if Ohio State can shut down those three, Najee Harris (the Doak Walker award winner for the best running back in college football) is a real pass-catching option and gives the Tide another threat. He scored five touchdowns alone vs. Mississippi. They are almost impossible to stop.
This is an intriguing match up and worthy final. Alabama, dominant all season, score plenty. They can also get into shootouts and concede too - see their 52-46 SEC title win over Florida and the incredible 63-48 defeat of Ole Miss in October.
Ohio State seem to have hit form at the right time. They have the most dominant offensive line in football, a traditionally stingy defense and a rising star at running back. Add Justin Fields to the mix and this is a team that could push Alabama all the way.
Will Alabama in the final be a step too far for Ohio State and did they use up all their motivation to gain revenge on Clemson? Can Alabama hold the Buckeyes' offensive line and match them up front?
Both offenses open up. Ohio State continues it's tremendous late season form but Alabama, No.1 for most of the season, has too much and wins a thriller, possibly in overtime.
Alabama 49-42 Ohio State.