The early verdict for both teams in Miami Gardens is that Ohio State is down a running back while Alabama is up a long-lost wide receiver.
Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle fractured an ankle while playing against Tennessee in October, requiring surgery. His first play back was a 15-yard catch, putting Alabama in a good position to be the first with points on the board — Najee Harris finished a 1-yarder for his 25th rushing touchdown of the season. Waddle did appear to have some discomfort after his catch.
But Ohio State running back Trey Sermon was sent out after the first possession, grasping his left shoulder and heading to the locker room, then the hospital. Master Teague III, another running back for Ohio State, stepped up in Sermon’s absence, rushing to match Alabama’s lead.
But Alabama’s DeVonta Smith opened the second quarter with a 5-yard touchdown catch at the start of the quarter to put Alabama up, 14-7.
We knew there’d be a lot of scoring. Alabama just made it look easy (again).
And as you’d expect, Mac Jones threw the ball a lot to DeVonta Smith, the winner of this season’s Heisman Trophy.
A 32-yard pass. Then a 12-yard pass. Then someone else — John Metchie III — got to pick up nine yards on a pass before Smith caught another pass for three yards. Alabama pivoted to its ever-mighty running game from there, giving Najee Harris the ball for two quick gains that added up to seven yards and brought the Tide within 20 yards of the end zone.
Another pass to Metchie brought Alabama close to a first down, but Harris ran for 3 yards to sustain the drive. A 4-yard scamper by Harris brought Alabama to the brink of a lead headed into the second quarter, but on the next play, Justin Hilliard, an Ohio State linebacker, tore through the chaos to push Harris back two yards.
And when it came time to score? A 5-yard pass to a largely undefended Smith for a touchdown, completing a drive that went just more than five minutes.
Alabama rolled up 153 yards on its first two drives, including 127 through the air.
And now Alabama leads, 14-7, early in the second quarter.
Barely minutes into the game, Trey Sermon, clutching his left shoulder, was shuttled into the Ohio State locker room. It was only the first possession but the running back likely will not see any more action on Monday night, as he was then transported to a hospital for further examination.
A deep loss for the Buckeyes, Sermon blossomed in the last few games of the season. In the last two games alone, he rushed for 524 yards. In the first five games of this season, he rushed for a total of 344 yards.
“He’s one of those guys where you give him the seam, he can take it: I think he’s got breakaway speed and then he still has the ability to catch some out of the backfield,” Pete Golding, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, said of Sermon last week.
Luckily, Ohio State had running back Master Teague III, who suffered an injury in the first half of the Buckeyes’ Big Ten championship win and was unable to play in the Sugar Bowl. Teague was the first player from Ohio State to put points up on the board against Alabama. In the first five games of the season, Teague had 449 yards on 89 carries and six touchdowns.
And he has already proven himself by and large — after the defense forced a turnover, Teague wasted no time for the Buckeyes in landing his second touchdown of the night.
Half — half! — of Ohio State’s six passing touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson involved tight ends.
Consider the case of Jeremy Ruckert, a 6-foot-5 junior from Lindenhurst, N.Y. When the Buckeyes arrived in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, he had caught five touchdown passes this season and not one in the preceding three games.
But early in the second quarter that night, when Ohio State took the lead it would hold forevermore, Justin Fields targeted Ruckert with a 17-yard pass for a touchdown. He did it again, this time for 12 yards, just before halftime and finished the night with 55 yards on just three catches.
Ohio State’s reliance on its tight ends has been inconsistent this year. But when the Buckeyes turn to players like Ruckert, they’ve generally had positive results.
“They’ve been effective when used, but not used that often, and I think that’s probably a dimension that really stuck out to me,” Tom Allen, Indiana’s coach, said. “Honestly, you don’t think about taking any of those guys away. You’re worried about all the perimeter guys and you’re worried about stopping the run game. Tight ends, to me, that’s where you can really, truly take advantage of a defense because now you put those safeties and linebackers in conflict.”
Alabama had noticed the tight end play on film, of course. The lone outstanding question heading into Monday’s game was how much Ohio State Coach Ryan Day would use them with a title on the line.
“A lot of tight ends, they may be really physical but not that effective in the pass or only effective in the pass but not effective in the run, but I think he can do both of those,” Christian Harris, an Alabama linebacker, said of Ruckert. “He can kill you any moment of the game, whether it’s the run play, put you on your back or the pass. He’s a great route runner. He’s also got some size on him, so it’s really hard to get around him when he’s trying to make catches.”
Ruckert made his presence known early on Monday with a stellar one-handed catch for a 36-yard gain that set the Buckeyes up for an 8-yard touchdown run by Master Teague III.
Tie game in Miami Gardens with a bit under five minutes to play in the first quarter.
By the way he gushed last week, you would have thought that Steve Spurrier was Najee Harris’s coach.
“I like their scheme probably better than everyone’s because of the ability to run the ball with Najee Harris,” said Spurrier, the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner who built Florida into an offensive monstrosity with his Fun ‘n’ Gun tactics.
Entering Monday’s game, Harris had 346 receiving yards and had run for 1,387. And Spurrier declared Harris was “maybe the best running back in the country” and the most underrated player on a stunningly talented Alabama offense.
Harris just made the first score of the night, a 1-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal to put Alabama in front, 7-0, with just more than eight minutes to play in the first quarter.
Mark Ingram, one of Harris’s predecessors as Alabama’s starting tailback, fairly argued that for all of the attention Alabama’s passing game has picked up this season, the Tide’s attack on the ground cannot be overlooked.
“That offensive line that they’ve got and Najee and Brian Robinson, those guys have been holding down the ground game all season,” Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, said in an interview. “So you have to respect that, and that allows our receivers, our explosive playmakers on the perimeter to get open, get outside, get one-on-one opportunities, get opportunities to run across the field and make plays because you have to respect Najee, you have to respect our run game.”
Indiana gave Ohio State its biggest scare of this season, losing to the Buckeyes by just a touchdown. About seven weeks later, Tom Allen, Indiana’s coach, is still thinking about Ohio State’s defensive line.
“They’re probably not as dynamic as they were a year ago, but they’re very, very good and there’s so many of them and there’s not really one guy who just jumps out at you,” Allen said in an interview. “It’s a group of guys that plays really hard, they’re really well-coached, they do have talent and they are good enough to stop the run game and disrupt the pass game.”
Indeed, Ohio State entered Monday night having given up just 624 rushing yards, holding opponents to about 3 yards a carry. And for as vaunted of a passing offense as Alabama has boasted this season, it is still a team that tilts toward the run, having rushed for 2,414 yards this season, about 5 yards a carry.
“Not a super complicated scheme and they don’t have to be that way because they have great players, but it’s mostly four-down fronts,” Mac Jones, Alabama’s quarterback, said last week. “I’ve been impressed watching them on film — very vertical team in terms of the D-line getting back there at the quarterback, and then obviously all 11 players rallying to the ball.”
Najee Harris, Alabama’s star running back, offered a similar diagnosis before Monday’s game: “They’re really good in dissecting things out, really good at coming down and playing the run and dropping back into coverage when they have to. Really good lateral movement, stuff like that.”
But if Alabama is hoping simply to wear down the Buckeyes, Allen has more bad news: He doesn’t see depth as a particular problem for Ohio State’s line.
“They keep rotating them in, and so they keep guys fresh,” he said. “There’s not much of a drop-off between whoever comes in, and so it’s just like next guy, next guy, next guy.”
Allen’s assessment will be tested throughout the night. Two crucial members of the line, the defensive end Tyreke Smith and Tommy Togiai, a defensive tackle, are unavailable for the game, Ohio State said.
Patrick Surtain II has the Buckeyes on edge, especially while they are looking to protect Justin Fields’ remaining body parts and relying on his arm.
“Well, you know, his thing is — of course he can do many different things with their coverages and adjustments — but in reality, he’s such a great cover guy that basically you put an ‘X’ on that guy because he’s covered up a lot,” said Kevin Wilson, Ohio State’s offensive coordinator.
“He can play a guy one-on-one, so that allows the defense to then bracket other receivers or that allows the defense then to cheat with linebackers and safeties to outnumber you and out-gap you in the run game,” he added.
The Alabama cornerback, who was named the defensive M.V.P. of the Rose Bowl, had 34 total tackles, 20 solo, 2.5 tackles for loss, one interception, eight pass deflections and one touchdown in 12 games this season. He is up for a slew of awards and is expected to go early in the N.F.L. draft.
Surtain grew up in South Florida, graduating from American Heritage High School and was a five-star recruit to Alabama. His father, who was an N.F.L. cornerback for Miami and Kansas City, was his high school football coach.
Surtain was “a guy we recruited hard,” Wilson said. “I know Coach Coombs was disappointed when we didn’t get half and those guys were dealing trying to get him in here.”
Playing at Hard Rock Stadium for Surtain is a homecoming, and he is hoping to make a certain Surtain Senior in South Florida proud.
“I’m just looking forward to impress him,” he said of his father, adding that his family would be in the stands. “I know they’re going to be happy to see me. I’m going to be happy to see them. It’s going to be a great moment.”
Ryan Day is one of the new guys on the Big Ten head coaching block.
Four seasons after he arrived at Ohio State as a co-offensive coordinator, and in his second season as the man atop the school’s celebrated football program, he’s got the Buckeyes playing for a national title.
It is not unprecedented for a second-year Ohio State coach to reach such heights — Jim Tressel, for instance, led his 2002 team to a national title just as quickly — but it does mean that coaches are still figuring out Day’s style and quirks.
Tom Allen, the coach at Indiana, which played Ohio State closer than anyone this season, had unreserved praise for his rival.
“He’s very thoughtful, and I think that carries over into his play-calling,” Allen said in an interview last week. “You didn’t see the lulls in his teams. I’ve seen Ohio State teams in the past that were super, super talented, but they played well when they needed to, and they sometimes lulled. He expects them to play their best.”
Pay attention early on, Allen said because Day will signal “where he thinks he’s got you schematically within the first six to eight plays of the game.”
“They’ll adjust from there as you adjust to that,” he said. “I would be disappointed if they didn’t get off to a fast start.”
Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban, was similarly impressed.
“He’s a very good offensive sort of play caller,” Saban said recently. “He’s got a great scheme on offense, certainly does a great job of coaching his players to execute that scheme. They’re very well-coached in every phase, and their team plays with great intangibles, discipline, toughness, play hard. Seem to have great togetherness on their team. So I think those are all great indicators of what a great job Ryan Day does as a head coach.”
Speaking of Ohio State coaches, it’s often lost to history that Saban spent two seasons on the staff in Columbus, where he coached defensive backs in 1980 and 1981.
Less than two hours before the College Football Playoff’s championship game, the N.C.A.A. said one of its most influential committees had postponed plans for a Monday vote on proposals that would let student-athletes profit off their fame.
The decision was expected after Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, urged the body, the Division I Council, to delay consideration of the plan in light of concerns that the Justice Department detailed in a letter on Friday.
In a statement on Monday evening, the N.C.A.A. said “judicial, political and enforcement issues” had influenced the council’s decision to wait.
“The council remains fully committed to modernizing Division I rules in ways that benefit all student-athletes,” said M. Grace Calhoun, the council’s leader and the athletic director at the University of Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, external factors require this pause, and the council will use this time to enhance the proposals.”
The existing proposals would open up potentially lucrative opportunities that have not previously been available to student-athletes, like earning money from social media posts. They would have certain limits and would, for example, forbid students from promoting sports betting. They would also allow colleges and universities to block agreements between players and companies if they conflict with “existing institutional sponsorship arrangements” and require students to disclose their name, image and likeness “activities to an independent third-party administrator” — provisions that prompted concerns among supporters of new rights for student-athletes.
In a letter to Emmert on Friday, the assistant attorney general who oversees the Justice Department’s antitrust division said the government wanted to ensure that any N.C.A.A. rules “will allow college athletes to benefit from robust competition for their talents.”
The last-minute missive clearly frustrated Emmert, who described it as a “massive monkey wrench” for a debate that has unfolded inside the N.C.A.A, but also in statehouses and on Capitol Hill.
As a high school senior in Georgia, Justin Fields knew immediately that something was wrong when he was tackled in front of his bench during a playoff game. As he looked down at his throwing hand, he saw his right index finger bent at a grotesque angle. Fields rose to his feet and held his hand up to his coach.
Fields did not play another down in high school. The star quarterback had surgery, did his best to mentor his replacement for the next two weeks as the team advanced, and even broached the idea of returning to play running back. But his coach said no.
Echos of three years ago resonate as Fields, the Ohio State quarterback, enters Monday night’s national championship game against top-ranked Alabama in uncertain physical condition. He took a crunching blow — a helmet to the back of the ribs — in a semifinal win over Clemson on Jan. 1.
After he lay on the turf for several minutes, Fields was helped to the sideline and received an injection or two, he told reporters after the game. The shots allowed him to continue playing, which he did superbly, even as he moved gingerly and often winced when he threw.
Ohio State has refused to disclose any details about the injury or what treatment Fields might need to play against Alabama, leaving open ethical questions about whether Ohio State is putting its hopes for winning a championship ahead of the health interests of its players.
On New Year’s Day, Alabama beat Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl. By the next night, Nick Saban knew he needed a new offensive coordinator: Steve Sarkisian had accepted an offer to become the next coach at Texas.
Working for one team and landing a job with another is a tricky, familiar circumstance for big-time programs during the postseason. Alabama had a Sarkisian-style situation not too long ago, actually. Near the end of the 2016 season, Lane Kiffin, then Alabama’s offensive coordinator, accepted the top job at Florida Atlantic.
Ultimately, Alabama used an interim offensive coordinator for that title game. But in an interview last week, Kiffin, now the head coach at Mississippi, said he thought Sarkisian had been able to better balance the role he’s leaving with his new job in Austin.
“When we got a head job before, there wasn’t Covid so there was active recruiting going on, so you’re literally recruiting and going back and forth between the schools and stuff,” Kiffin said. “And there’s hardly any recruiting because of the early signing period,” which ended on Dec. 18. (For more on how the early signing period is no longer all that early, we explored that subject in February.)
For his part, Sarkisian insisted before the game that he had not been distracted by his impending move.
“Quite honestly, my week for me would be a normal game week as if I hadn’t taken the Texas job,” he said. “My focus is on the game. I’m prepping for the ballgame. Any of the spare time that I do have, that’s getting my attention for the job at Texas, whether that’s staffing or recruiting, things of that nature.”
And Saban, who famously complained about assistants being distracted a couple of years ago, said on Sunday he had no objections to how events had proceeded this time.
“I think our coaching staff has done a really good job working with our players,” Saban said. “Sark is the one guy that has shown great maturity, I think, in how he’s handled his situation, moving on to be a head coach, which is what he’s worked for, and we’re happy for him relative to the opportunity that he’s created for himself by the great job that he’s done for us here. But I have no complaints at all with the way our coaches have sort of handled the situation.”
The bar-lined Strip in Tuscaloosa, Ala., is usually filled with Crimson-clad football fans during championship games, who storm the street if the Crimson Tide win. The mayor of Tuscaloosa, the home city of the University of Alabama, was hoping that fans would stay home on Monday night as the city struggles with virus cases and limited capacity in hospitals.
“We’re probably in our most precarious position since the pandemic began in early March,” Mayor Walt Maddox said in a Zoom interview last week.
“When your hospital has four available I.C.U. rooms left, that’s as serious as it gets,” he added.
Health officials encouraged avid football followers to adopt Coach Nick Saban’s philosophy: “Do your job.”
“Our job is to social distance, wear a mask, follow the occupancy orders,” the mayor said of those who would choose to watch the game in the company of people outside their immediate household. “And, if we are successful Monday night, that we don’t flood the streets and create a block party environment.”
But it appears that fans did not get the message, as bars along the Strip had crowded lines at 3 p.m. Eastern on Monday.
The number of new coronavirus cases in Alabama this week increased 29 percent compared to two weeks ago, according to a New York Times database. About 20 percent of people who were tested in the past several weeks were found to have the virus, said Dr. Karen Landers, a health officer for the state. “That’s very very high statewide; we have a lot of community transmission of Covid-19,” she said in a phone interview last week.
Tuscaloosa, in accordance with Alabama’s guidelines, has mandated masks and set limits on bar and restaurant occupancies to curb the spread of the virus; there is a “safer at home” order but no curfew in the state.
While there is a police presence monitoring the Strip, only 69 percent of Tuscaloosa’s police officers were available as of Thursday because of exposure to or contraction of the virus, Maddox said.
The university also released guidance for how to watch the game safely on Monday, writing in a post on Twitter that “any unlawful behavior and/or violations of our health and safety protocols will result in disciplinary action.”
In Columbus, Ohio, home of the Buckeyes, about 0.6 percent of the population has tested positive for the virus each week for the past eight weeks, Dr. Mysheika Roberts, the city’s health commissioner, said in a phone interview last week. The city has been checking for occupancy and mask compliance in restaurants and bars, and planned to patrol more on Monday night.
“We have seen some issues with restaurants and bars on game day or game night, and we have issued warnings when necessary and we have even gone to court for a few cases,” she said of overcrowding and people refusing to wear masks over the past several weeks.
There is a stay-at-home order and a 10 p.m. curfew in Ohio. Dr. Roberts said Columbus’ health department was bracing for a surge in cases following December’s holiday season; the average number of new cases in Ohio rose 16 percent last week from two weeks ago, according to a New York Times database.
“Then if you put the game on top of that this coming Monday, we’re concerned about a surge that we might have after that,” Dr. Roberts said.
The mayor of Columbus is watching from home with just his immediate family. “And I encourage Buckeye Nation to do the same,” Mayor Andrew Ginther wrote in an email to the Times. “I know that is a lot to ask, but illness and possibly death have to count more than a national championship.”
Trey Sermon rushed for 331 yards in Ohio State’s Big Ten championship win this season — the most ever by a running back in a Football Bowl Subdivision championship and the most by an Ohio State player in any game.
In Ohio State’s semifinal win over Clemson, he rushed for another 193 yards on 31 attempts.
So no doubt Pete Golding, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, is on high alert. He thinks Sermon will come in full force Monday night.
“I think he runs the ball effectively, he runs behind his pads; I think he’s explosive,” Golding said in a call with reporters last week. “I think he does a nice job understanding their blocking structure up front and follows blockers and has patience when he needs to.”
“He’s one of those guys where you give him the seam, he can take it: I think he’s got breakaway speed and then he still has the ability to catch some out of the backfield,” he added.
Sermon transferred to Ohio State as a graduate student from Oklahoma in 2020. In the first five games of this season, he rushed for a total of 344 yards, averaging just over 6 yards per attempt. Including the postseason, he has four touchdowns in 2020 and 2021.
“He’s got really good balance and vision,” said Tom Allen, Indiana’s coach. “He wasn’t running with confidence early in the year, and he’s being so much more decisive right now in getting his reads and cuts.”
Ohio State beat Indiana 42-35 in November: Sermon rushed for 60 yards on nine attempts in that game. Allen added, “He has really good patience and really good balance and he’s really tough to tackle.”
When asked if he was nervous about living up to his own standards, Sermon’s answer was simple: “No.”
“I’m confident in my ability and I know that I prepare well for each game,” he said last week. “I mean, there’s no pressure.”
Golding expects Ohio State to make use of Sermon, which means everyone — everyone — on Alabama will need to be on watch.
“We’ve got to do running our feet on contacts and peppering the ball carrier and getting 11 guys to the ball, because he’s a really good player and they’ve got a good front to block for him,” he said.
As we wrote in this morning’s newspaper, Alabama’s offense this season is really, really good, particularly by the standards of Nick Saban, a defensive prodigy if there ever was one.
Kerry Coombs, the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, laid out the situation last week:
They have great players, but they also have a great scheme and they understand how to attack defenses. People have tried numerous different things against them, and they always have an answer.
I think their kids play hard. I think they play physical. They run the ball well. They throw the ball obviously extremely well. They have great skill.
For us, this is the biggest offensive line that we’ve faced, but they’re also very gifted, very athletic, they can run, and they do a great job. It’s going to be really, really important for us to we’re fitting the right gaps, that we have inside hands with great pad level and that we — because if you misfit a gap or you get high in your pads or your hands are outside, they’re going to take advantage of it.
And then obviously we’re going to have to do a great job in coverage with the skill of the receivers and the quality of the quarterback.
Indeed, while DeVonta Smith, the latest winner of the Heisman Trophy, will rightly get plenty of attention tonight, don’t forget that the running back, Najee Harris, finished fifth in the Heisman balloting this season.
“He’s a very patient back, and he finds the holes,” Pete Werner, an Ohio State linebacker, said last week. “It might look cloudy at some times, but then you see him get 6, 7, 8 yards when he should have gotten zero. He’s a very good back. He’s good at making you miss, and they just do a very good job utilizing him in the run and pass game to make him a real threat from a defensive perspective.”
The east parking lot at Hard Rock Stadium has been a virus testing facility since March, closing for games for the N.F.L.’s Miami Dolphins and the University of Miami football teams. It also shut down for the Orange Bowl, though it is typically open seven days a week.
Now, it is pausing virus testing and vaccinations on Monday to make way for the College Football Playoff title game between Alabama and Ohio State.
The stadium became a drive-through vaccination site on Friday, as announced by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida last week. On Sunday, Florida health officials reminded people of the pause on Twitter, sparking an uproar that the state was again prioritizing money over public health.
“Maybe you close it a little early,” Governor DeSantis said of the facility for Monday’s game at a news conference Wednesday. “But I think you can still do it, even on that day.”
The game is kicking off eight hours after the state shut down the vaccine clinic at noon.
“I would say that the whole season has been a balancing act and the championship game will be one, too,” said Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, adding that he was happy the site was able to offer vaccines and host the game as well.
The @HardRockStadium testing & vaccination site will close at noon tomorrow to accommodate for the CFP National Championship game:
❌ COVID-19 testing not available
✅ Vaccine appointments from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.
The site will resume normal operational hours Tuesday, Jan. 12. pic.twitter.com/82tmoOqvC9
— FL Division of Emergency Management (@FLSERT) January 10, 2021
The number of new cases in Florida, which has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic recently, increased 58 percent this week compared to two weeks ago, according to a New York Times database. Deaths have increased 44 percent during that same time period. Miami-Dade County, where the College Football Championship is, is the most populous county in Florida and has had the third highest rate of daily cases per 100,000 residents of any county over the past week.
Still, Hard Rock Stadium, in Miami Gardens, planned to welcome upward of 14,000 spectators to watch the championship game. Florida has no travel restrictions, meaning fans could come from all over without quarantining.
Local governments cannot enforce mask mandates, occupancy limits or curfews for their districts, as the governor prohibited them from prescribing penalties to those violating coronavirus recommendations.
The policies in Florida concerning the virus contrasted sharply with California’s handling of fans at the Rose Bowl, which was eventually moved because health officials would not allow fans to attend the game at the urging of football officials.
The Rose Bowl, which moved to Texas, had been held in Pasadena, Calif., every year since its inception, apart from the game following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
State leaders in Florida have operated under the same “re-opening” standards they set in September.
Appointments for vaccines in Miami-Dade, which are available to residents 65 and older, filled up 20 minutes after registration opened on Thursday, the mayor’s office said. Residents from all over the state are scrambling to get the vaccine, as the governor has made it available to a wider range of individuals than most states.
“Getting these vaccines into the community is the best way to protect our most vulnerable and fast-forward us toward the end of this pandemic and the restoration of our economy,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.
Though Hard Rock Stadium will be at 20 percent capacity with rules in place about physical distancing and wearing masks, television footage from the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl — which had similar rules — showed clusters of unmasked fans.