Can Ohio State upset Alabama in CFP title game? Here’s the blueprint

Pete Thamel
·10-min read

Former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer recalls the best pregame speech he ever gave. He never said a word.

In the wake of Ohio State’s 59-0 blowout of Wisconsin in the 2014 Big Ten title game, the Buckeyes entered the College Football Playoff as heavy underdogs against Alabama. They were also going up against the aura of the SEC, so Meyer showed Wisconsin’s 34-31 bowl win over Auburn that year as a way to mock the supposed invincibility of the SEC. “They’d been told for 10 years that the SEC is unbeatable,” Meyer said in a phone interview last week. “You start to believe it.”

For No. 3 Ohio State to upset No. 1 Alabama on Monday night, it needs to carry over the swagger from the 49-28 throttling of Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Justin Fields threw six touchdowns in that game and had the same amount of incompletions. Trey Sermon accounted for 254 yards and Ohio State’s front seven stifled Clemson’s offense.

As the Buckeyes enter the championship game as heavy underdogs, their upset chances are rooted in that mojo carrying over.

“What’s the power of confidence?” Meyer said. “You can’t quantify that. They put it to Clemson. No pregame meal or practice plan or lucky T-shirt you give them can compare to that confidence, real confidence.”

How can Ohio State pull an upset? We spoke to head coaches who faced or studied the Buckeyes this season to find the keys to slowing down Alabama and carrying over the performance from the Clemson game.

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, left, talk with quarterback Justin Fields during the second half of their NCAA college football game against Nebraska Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Nebraska 52-17. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, left, talks with quarterback Justin Fields during the second half against Nebraska on Oct. 24, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Nebraska 52-17. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

1) Hide your weakness

Ohio State’s glaring weakness on defense remains the safety position specifically, but the secondary in general. Cornerback Shaun Wade looked overmatched against Clemson in the CFP semifinals, as Clemson’s Cornell Powell caught eight passes for 139 yards, mostly against Wade.

Wade has said he’s looking forward to guarding Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith on Monday night. It’s the caliber of matchup that could either revive Wade’s sagging draft stock or offer another testament to his middling season. (Ohio State’s other cornerback starting, Sevyn Banks, has surged in recent weeks.)

But bigger issues come at safety. “They have some players on the back end who could be exposed,” said South Alabama coach Kane Wommack, who faced the Buckeyes as Indiana’s defensive coordinator this season. “They’re not great in the back end, especially compared to Alabama’s skill.”

Ohio State safeties Josh Proctor and Marcus Williamson will be in the crosshairs on Monday. (Marcus Hooker only played on special teams against Clemson, according to Eleven Warriors.)

Freshman corner Lathan Ransom has emerged as OSU’s nickel corner, playing well against Clemson in his most extensive action of the season. Expect Alabama’s Steve Sarkisian to attempt to manipulate matchups to expose Proctor, Williamson and Ransom.

“Along with having really good players, they stress you out a little bit schematically,” Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator, said of Alabama. “That adds a layer of complexity to it.”

2) Rattle Mac Jones

What will magnify Ohio State’s shortcomings in the secondary is if they can’t muster a consistent pass rush. The Buckeyes dominated Clemson’s offensive line, but that group was generally regarded as a middling ACC unit. Alabama’s offensive line is much better, even though star center Landon Dickerson is out.

“The guy they lost was as good as I’ve seen on film,” Lea told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “I know he was also, from what I understand, an emotional leader on the team. Obviously, that’s hard to cover. Anytime you lose a frontline guy like that.”

With Dickerson replaced by Chris Owens, the task for the Buckeyes will be to pressure Jones. Ohio State was missing two key defensive ends, Zach Harrison and Tyler Friday, against Clemson. That position group will be closely watched when the availability report comes out on gameday.

“I think the biggest thing people miss with Alabama is the offensive line,” Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz said on the Yahoo Sports College Podcast. “Mac Jones plays with a clean jersey all game long. He’s really good at sliding away from pressure and knowing when to get rid of the football.

“If you go back and study him … the only time he’s ever struggled is when he gets hit or has to be moved off his spot. That really is the critical component of that game.” (For more from Drinkwitz breaking down the detailed X’s and O’s, listen to the podcast here.)

3) What if Jaylen Waddle plays?

Well, good luck. It’s hard to overstate the luxury of talent if both Jaylen Waddle, who was regarded as Alabama’s best receiver, and DeVonta Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner, are both on the field.

It’s unlikely that Waddle would be able to play 50 snaps after being out since fracturing his ankle on Oct. 24 and just returning to practice this past week. He’s a game-time decision, but his presence creates the ultimate conundrum — do you cover the Heiman winner or the more explosive player?

“If you’ve got 17 and 6 out there, it’s a whole different beast,” Drinkwitz said.

Drinkwitz said Missouri’s game plan on defense revolved around not letting Waddle beat them. He finished with eight receptions, 134 yards and a touchdown. Smith caught eight balls for 89 yards.

When both are healthy, what can you do?

“I don’t know that you can play man, you can’t tilt a safety one way or the other,” Drinkwitz said. “I don’t know that you can play zone. They can run through zone. You can’t play 2-man. They’re going to hand off the ball to the unbelievable tailback [Najee Harris] that they have. It’s pick your poison. I don’t know.”

4) How do you slow Alabama down?

Missouri and Notre Dame were the only two teams to hold Alabama under 40 points this year, as the Tide finished first in the Power Five with 48.2 points per game.

Lea’s Notre Dame team gave up touchdowns on the first three drives and then were able to relatively slow Alabama down from there in a 31-14 Tide win.

He described Notre Dame’s game plan as “built a triangle,” with three deep defenders. That put a stress on their linebackers to make tackles and also perform in coverage. In the secondary, the game plan revolved around “leverage the overs and keep the middle closed.” In other words, stop the run and don’t get beat over the top.

Lea chuckled at the amount of one-play drives he saw on film. By stopping those and managing the line of scrimmage, he hoped to force them into longer drives and occasionally throw them behind the chains with a pressure. “We wanted to force them to drive and see if we can get the field goal kicker out there,” Lea said.

Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, center, celebrates with teammates DeVonta Smith, left, and John Metchie III, right, after scoring a TD against Missouri on Sept. 26. (AP)
Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, center, celebrates with teammates DeVonta Smith, left, and John Metchie III, right, after scoring a TD against Missouri on Sept. 26. (AP)

5) Exploit a glaring advantage

Wommack brought up an interesting point that could be part of a blueprint for Ohio State to win the game. He mentioned the ability of Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields to run the ball. Fields appeared fine after his crushing hit in the Clemson game, and the talk about Fields’ injury seemed to be more driven from media inquiries and Saban family conspiracy theories than any specific reality.

Can Fields’ legs be the difference? The mobility of the quarterback and his ability to create explosive plays with his legs is one of the few places in this game where Ohio State has a distinct advantage over Alabama. They have an edge in other places, but not this glaring.

“The outlier in the game is Justin Fields’ ability to move the football with his feet,” Wommack said. “If he can find ways to extend plays and create things with his feet and obviously being able to create enough to extend plays with his feet and throw the ball down the field. As good as Mac Jones is, that’s the outlier. [Fields] can create something that no one else on the field can.”

6) Can Ohio State hold up inside?

One of the areas where Wommack said that Indiana zeroed in on against the Buckeyes was blitzing their interior line. He said one of the ways they got to Fields to rattle him and force him into some mistakes — he threw three interceptions in that game — was pressuring up the middle.

Wommack was clear to say, “This is all relative,” meaning that the OSU’s guards weren’t quite as dynamic as in past years. “Our linebackers blitzing one-on-one against their guards created negative plays and got into the backfield. It helped force some interceptions and takeaways on our end.”

Can Alabama’s linebackers exploit similar matchups? That will be one of the fundamental tensions of the game. Ohio State blew Clemson’s defensive front off the ball in the CFP semis, as the Buckeyes averaged 5.8 yards per rush.

Alabama doesn’t have the caliber of front-seven personnel it did earlier this decade, but that group should put up more resistance in the box than Clemson’s underwhelming group. OSU needs to give Fields the luxury of time.

7) Keep the mojo rolling

It was interesting that things finally clicked for Ohio State against Clemson. Part of Ohio State’s inconsistency in the regular season has been understandable, as they’d been shuffling lineups because of COVID-19 issues all season.

Perhaps a touch of tempo helped build some synergy, as multiple times Ohio State broke off chunk plays from hurry-up tempo situations. Some of that was running up to the line after a sugar huddle and snapping the ball almost instantaneously to mitigate Clemson’s sign-stealing operation.

Will OSU continue to hurry up? The Alabama defense doesn’t have the same reliance on sign-stealing and late calls as Clemson. But will we again see a mix of tempos to keep Alabama off balance?

8) Who gambles on fourth down?

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson is broadcasting the game in ESPN’s “Film Room,” a cool annual tradition where they have coaches dive into the X’s and O’s and broadcast the game in a non-traditional manner. (He’ll be joined by former Auburn coach Gene Chizik and Liberty’s Hugh Freeze.)

Clawson said he was struck by how few times Ohio State and Alabama went on fourth downs this season (both went for it just seven times). That puts the teams in the bottom 10 in attempts.

Yes, this is a bit clunky because Alabama has played 12 games and OSU just seven. And, yes, Day’s decision to go on fourth down against Indiana instead of making it a two-score game was aggressive bordering on reckless. But the number still stands out.

Clawson attributed some of this to the programs controlling the game. Will they take on more risk on Monday night?

“To me, it’s going to be very interesting to see if either of these teams change their fourth-down approach knowing the caliber of offenses they are going against,” he said. “Do they manage the game different?”

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