College football will crown a champion on the second Monday of the year, same as it has throughout its recent history.
What hasn’t been the same about this season compared to those past? Oh, just about everything else.
The programs that made this stage, the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes, are two teams that have title game aspirations year in and year out. In 2020, one program’s conference spearheaded efforts to play this season during a global pandemic; the other program’s conference almost didn’t have a season at all.
That’s how unorthodox this season — one without sellouts or bands or tailgates — has been. But like all of the other previous ones, only a single program will lift the trophy after the final 60 minutes.
Follow along for updates and analysis as the game plays out. As always, be sure to follow USA TODAY Sports on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to stay up to date on the latest college football news.
Alabama running away from OSU
Ryan Day decided to become aggressive and go for it on fourth down with some tempo in hopes of catching the Alabama defense off-guard. The Crimson Tide were able to make a stop, and they took over with a short field ahead for the offense, which had no problem finding the end zone once more.
Najee Harris now has more than 150 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns to match DeVonta Smith, whose return is officially questionable.
For those who pay attention to the wagering aspect of sports: that touchdown cashed the over at most sportsbooks, with the total hovering around the mid-70s.
With 52 points, the Crimson Tide could possibly surpass the record for most points in a CFP game (63, set by LSU against Oklahoma in last season’s semifinal).v
Is there a better time for the first touchdown of your career than in the national championship game? Probably not, and it’s exactly how Slade Bolden celebrated his first collegiate score. The 5-yard touchdown reception he had on a swing pass to the left extended Alabama’s lead back to three touchdowns at 45-24 with 2:52 left in the third quarter.
Brian Robinson Jr. ran just as hard as Najee Harris in relief of the Alabama bell cow. More importantly for the Crimson Tide, the clock continues to dwindle.
Something to monitor: Mac Jones appeared to twist his ankle on a 10-yard rush during that drive and came up limping. Perhaps we shall see former five-star recruit Bryce Young in this game, either due to injury or score.
Ohio State quickly answers with TD; DeVonta Smith goes to locker room with hand injury, questionable to return
If there were a prescription to begin offsetting a 21-point deficit and an opponent that just drained seven minutes off the clock, a three-play drive ending in a touchdown would be a suitable antidote.
Justin Fields found receiver Garrett Wilson for 17 yards on the first play. An Alabama offside penalty preceded a Fields rush up the middle for 33 yards. Fields connected with Wilson once again on the next snap for a 20-yard score, making it a 38-24 game with 6:45 left in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Smith was moved from the injury tent after a lengthy stay to the locker room, and Alabama said he was questionable to return with a hand injury.
As one may have predicted, it is the Najee Harris show now. The tailback touched the ball seven times on the first drive of the second half, and the Crimson Tide settled for a field goal to make it 38-17.
Will Reichard, a Lou Groza Award finalist, continued his perfect campaign (13-for-13 on field goal attempts) by knocking through a 20-yard field goal. In all, Alabama’s drive took up more than seven minutes, going 75 yards on 16 plays.
DeVonta Smith exited with an apparent finger or hand injury. Jaylen Waddle is trying to play but is certainly limited.
Some noteworthy numbers from the game’s first half:
DeVonta Smith: 12 catches, 215 yards, 3 TD
Justin Fields: 6-15, 90 yards
Mac Jones: 25-30, 343 yards, 4 TD
Master Teague: 12 carries, 62 yards, 2 TD
Turnovers: 1 (Jones fumble)
Total yards: Alabama 389, Ohio State 190
Alabama on fourth down: 2-2
The Buckeyes had kept pace with Alabama in the first half, until coach Ryan Day kicked a field goal on fourth-and-goal in the second quarter to make it 21-17. Alabama scored twice before halftime and now leads by three scores.
The Crimson Tide receive the ball to start the second half. To avoid making a tough climb even more difficult, Ohio State’s defense will have to make sure the offense and Justin Fields get the ball back in short order.
It will be interesting to see whether Nick Saban and Steve Sarkisian keep their foot on the gas and continue airing it out or whether they shift into cruise control and feed Najee Harris all second half.
It didn’t even take an entire half for DeVonta Smith to make College Football Playoff championship game history – and this is a player who caught a game-winning touchdown in such a game three years ago.
Smith, with 11 catches and counting, set the record for most receptions in the title game. He has 173 yards and two touchdowns, with Mac Jones flipping him a 5-yard pass to make it 28-17.
The Crimson Tide will have the ball at least once more before half, so stay tuned…
…well, would you look at that. Alabama scored again. And guess who? DeVonta Smith, from Mac Jones, for 42 yards (with a linebacker covering him, thanks to some wily coaching). So make that 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns for the Heisman winner.
Alabama defensive back Jordan Battle, one of the team’s top defensive backs, will be unavailable for the rest of the game as he’s been ejected for targeting.
Battle led with his helmet and delivered a crushing hit on Ohio State’s Jeremy Ruckert across the middle. The pass was broken up, but an official’s flag quickly hit the ground after the collision, giving the Buckeyes a first down. (It was the second time Battle had been called for targeting this season.)
Ruckert was able to shake the hit off, but the Buckeyes had to settle for a field goal – the first of freshman Jake Seibert’s career.
For each punch Alabama has thrown, Ohio State has jabbed back. Ryan Day has his guys prepared for a high-powered dogfight, even without players at key spots. The Buckeyes cut the Crimson Tide’s deficit to 21-17 with less than six minutes left in the first half.
If Ohio State had stopping DeVonta Smith in the game plan, it is not showing.
Smith is already up to 124 receiving yards on nine catches, including two grabs for 29 yards on the Crimson Tide’s latest touchdown drive. But it was the receiving prowess of his teammate Najee Harris that pushed Alabama across the end zone. Mac Jones floated a pass to Harris near the left sideline. Harris bobbled, collected and began his race toward the end zone, evading a pair of defenders by cutting back inside and leaping over another into the end zone.
Alabama leads 21-14 with 9:00 remaining in the first half.
The Buckeyes were going to need turnovers to have a chance in this one, and they got one at a pivotal time in the second quarter while down a touchdown.
Just as Kirk Herbstreit mentioned that Mac Jones had not faced much pressure yet, shorthanded Ohio State got home and forced a fumble when linebacker Baron Browning hit Jones and jarred the ball loose. Browning fell on the pigskin and a pass interference penalty on the Buckeyes’ first play moved the ball to the 4-yard line. Master Teague then plowed ahead for his second touchdown of the game to make it 14-14 with 11:43 left in the first half.
We’re not yet 20 minutes into the game, but Ohio State is hanging right with the Crimson Tide thus far.
After the Buckeyes fed Trey Sermon on the first play from scrimmage, the running back came up hurting and headed for the Ohio State locker room. ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor said it was a left shoulder injury, and that Sermon could not raise his arm. Taylor later reported that Sermon was ruled out for the game and was being taken to Broward General Hospital.
That’s a problem for Ohio State’s offense, which risks becoming more one-dimensional without Sermon, who had come on as the Buckeyes’ top option in the backfield. Between the Big Ten championship game and national semifinal against Clemson, Sermon rushed for 524 yards – a consecutive-game record at Ohio State previously set by Ezekiel Elliott (476) in 2015.
Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian apparently wants to go out in style. The new Texas head coach, wrapping up his Crimson Tide responsibilities in the national championship game, called a play that faked a handoff to Harris, and had Smith leaking out the left side for a lob pass and an easy score to make it 14-7.
Bold strategy by Ohio State not covering DeVonta Smith on the first play of the following Alabama drive, which went for 32 yards down the left sideline. Quarterback Mac Jones wasn’t done going to his favorite target, and the two connected for 12 more yards on the next play – nothing out of the ordinary for a receiver who led all FBS players in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
A wide receiver screen to John Metchie III fell a yard short of the first down, but Alabama coach Nick Saban left the offense on the field at the 10-yard line. And why wouldn’t he? Najee Harris is arguably the best running back in college football.
And that’s where the first quarter ends, with the Crimson Tide at the Buckeyes’ 5-yard line and the score tied at 7.
With Trey Sermon out, the Buckeyes will have to rely on Master Teague for production out of the backfield. He helped in that regard on Ohio State’s second drive, which ended in a touchdown to tie it 7-7.
The Buckeyes used tempo following their three-and-out. Fields found receiver Chris Olave, one of his favorite targets, twice at the beginning of the drive to move Ohio State close to midfield. With time, Fields floated a pass across the middle to tight end Jeremy Ruckert, who reached to make the one-handed grab for a 36-yard completion.
On the next play, Teague went untouched into the end zone from eight yards out.
Maybe here comes a scoring barrage from both sides?
Alabama is firing on all cylinders.
The defense forced a three-and-out and then the Crimson Tide drove down the field using Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and fellow playmakers Najee Harris (who reeled off a pair of powerful runs) and Jaylen Waddle to advance near the goal line.
From one yard out, Harris barreled into the end zone to put Alabama up 7-0 with 8:07 to go in the first quarter.
Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, who broke his ankle on Oct. 24, made an improbable return in the College Football Playoff championship game and took a short pass from Mac Jones for 15 yards and a first down on his first play from scrimmage in more than two months.
After an initial diagnosis that he’d be out for the season, Waddle’s return was the subject of speculation all week when he participated in practice. Alabama coach Nick Saban said before the game that Waddle would be a game-time decision and that he would be used on a very limited basis if he could play.
Before Waddle was injured, he had caught 25 passes for 557 yards and four touchdowns and was widely considered the Crimson Tide’s most dangerous player. His injury, in a sense, cleared the path for DeVonta Smith to become the offensive focus of Alabama’s offense and launched him to the Heisman Trophy.
Waddle spent a lot of time prior to the game stretching the ankle and running sprints to see if he felt good enough to play. Though he appeared to be walking with a slight limp, he apparently was confident enough in the ankle to give it a try.
— Dan Wolken
Alabama wins toss, Ohio State’s first possession
Ohio State called tails, but the coin landed heads-side up. Alabama deferred to the second half, giving Ohio State the ball first. Quarterback Justin Fields and the Buckeyes offense went three-and-out to start the game.
Wide receiver Jaylen Waddle isn’t the only injured Alabama starter in pads for the championship game.
Center Landon Dickerson was dressed in full pads and briefly took part in Alabama’s pregame warmups less than a month after suffering a knee injury in the SEC championship game win against Florida.
Dickerson wore two bulky knee braces during warmups and had his entire left leg bandaged. While moving gingerly, Dickerson still snapped to quarterback Mac Jones near midfield during drills and later stood behind Alabama’s offensive line as the group went through the paces inside the Crimson Tide’s end zone.
Dickerson also was Alabama’s captain for the coin toss.
— Paul Myerberg
A key story line for the Crimson Tide entering Monday was the potential availability of dynamic wide receiver and returner Jaylen Waddle, who injured his ankle on Oct. 24 against Tennessee.
Waddle has been cleared medically, but his status was still unknown pregame, as the decision to play now rests with the player.
The Buckeyes will be without two defensive starters and one key specialist.
Tommy Togiai and Tyreke Smith, both starters on the Buckeyes’ vaunted defensive line, are among the 13 Ohio State players unavailable.
Additionally, Buckeyes kicker Blake Haubeil announced on Instagram that he tested positive for the coronavirus and will miss the game.
“I’m extremely upset, but at the same time I’m overwhelmingly thankful to be an individual who is asymptomatic,” he wrote. “I have spent the past four months making sacrifices, and have not seen family and friends one single time. So, to say I’m pissed off is a complete understatement.”
The Buckeyes will turn to freshman kicker Jake Seibert, who ESPN ranked as the No. 4 kicker in the 2020 recruiting class.
The scene in Tuscaloosa
Many in Tuscaloosa, Alabama appear to be eschewing recommendations against crowds or gatherings.
Videos and photos from Tuscaloosa on Monday show lines outside of area bars and restaurants hours before kickoff.