My favorite scheduled evening on the U.S. sports calendar gets underway in a few hours. It’s the national college football championship, at 7 p.m. STL time on ESPN. It’s No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 2 Ohio State as two unbeatens rock on at Hard Rock Stadium near Miami.
It’s Alabama coach Nick Saban vs. Ohio State coach Ryan Day.
It’s Saban vs. Bear Bryant, with Saban making his bid for a SEVENTH national championship to move ahead of the iconic Bear Bryant, who has six.
It’s a competition of two wickedly sensational offenses, with award winners and stars all over the field. Over the past five NFL Drafts, Alabama has produced more NFL picks than any program in the nation, 48 — and that includes 16 first-round selections. Ohio State is second to the Crimson Tide with 45 draft choices over that time, 15 going off the board in round one. LSU (37 players) and Clemson (31) are next on the most-drafted list.
The betting line has fluctuated this past week, with Covid-based rumors around Ohio State pushing the opening 7-point spread (Alabama favored) to as high as 9. As I type this early Monday afternoon, Alabama is minus 8 or minus 8.5 depending on where you browse for prices. The over-under has held pretty steady at 75 points, though I;ve seen 75.5 at one shops, Westgate.
In the semifinals the Crimson Tide took down 4th-ranked Notre Dame 31-14 but didn’t cover as 18.5-point favorites. And before that Bama failed to cover as 16-point faves, winning by only six over Florida. Ohio State clobbered Clemson in a semifinals upset, and you contrarians will surely keep this in mind: underdogs went 5-1 against the spread in the first six national championship games. Moreover: Sababan is 0-4 against the spread in Alabama’s four previous shots in the championship game during the current format.
So … the temptation here is to invest in Ohio State. Alabama is the superior team, with an almost unstoppable offense that averages 48 points per game. But if the Ohio State offense was the real deal in the 49-28 trouncing of Clemson — instead of a one-off — then the Buckeyes can score with anybody. Yes, even Alabama. And for entertainment purposes, I’m not zeroing in on who will win the game; I believe that team is Alabama.
No, my friends. This is about winning the wager.
This is about making a decision to take Ohio State and the points.
It pretty much comes down to this: can we trust Ohio State to be at peak form again, just as we witnessed during the ass-kicking of Clemson? Or will will see the Ohio State squad that (a) labored early against Rutgers; (b) let Nebraska and Penn State hang around; (c) barely held on to defeat Indiana; (d) trailed Northwestern at the half in the B1G championship?
I’m inclined to think Ohio State found its mojo against Clemson, but I’m waffling on that. And no team can get away with sluggish early starts or loose defensive play while leading games and still survive the expected onslaught by Alabama — which has the most consistently high-level offense that many have seen in modern college football.
Alabama has played a tougher schedule, going 3-0 vs. Top 10 opponents and 6-0 against Top 30 teams. Ohio State is 1-0 and 4-0 respectively in such games.
There are legit reasons for taking Ohio State and the points:
1–Alabama had trouble with two teams this season, Ole Miss and Florida, and that’s relevant to Monday’s game. Mississippi scored 48 points and rolled up 647 yards (379 passing.) Florida assaulted the Bama defense for 46 points, and 462 yards (405 through the air.)
2–Ohio State is similar to Ole Miss and Florida in that the Buckeyes have very good receivers, a quarterback that can throw deep in a vertical passing game that inflicts substantial damage. And unlike Ole Miss and Florida, Ohio State has a mobile quarterback in Justin Fields; he can wreck a defense with his running.
3–On top of that, Ohio State has another weapon in the late-season breakout star at running back, Trey Sermon. In his last three games Sermon has galloped for an average of 212 ground yards per game, and 9.03 yards per rushing attempt. Ole Miss actually runs the ball well when motivated to do so. Florida doesn’t even try to run much. But if Florida and Ole Miss could burn Alabama through the sky without the threat of an imposing running back, then what does it say about Ohio State’s chances tonight? If Fields is on point with his accuracy, connecting deep, and romping upfield on scrambles and designed runs … and if Sermon is going full-speed tank, it could be a very difficult night for Alabama’s defense.
4–And the ability to run the football and consume the clock is paramount in the mission to upset Alabama. Notre Dame had only half the formula, but the good part is something Ohio State can put to use. The Irish were able to slow down the game and hog the ball to prevent Alabama from pumping out its usual 45+ points. But Notre Dame didn’t have the explosive, downfield, big-play passing game it needed to topple Alabama. Keeping the ball on the ground may keep you relatively close to Alabama, but the strategy won’t win the game. An opponent would need 40+ points to beat Bama. Just like Notre Dame, Ohio State can keep possession of the football and keep the Alabama offense in the garage. But unlike Notre Dame, Ohio State is a constant threat to strike on deep passes for quick points. When you can burn clock and burn the other team’s secondary, then you are a very dangerous team.
5–If Ohio State can limit Alabama’s number of possessions and launch big-strike passes — combining the best of both offensive strategies — the Buckeyes should be able to cover the spread. Or even win straight up. Ohio State on the money line at +250 is a cheeky proposition.
A couple of other points: This isn’t one of Saban’s better defenses, and the inconsistent pass rush could be a problem for the Tide. But Saban has ways to compensate. I don’t think Alabama will allow Fields to drop back and get comfortable; that was Clemson’s downfall. Saban will either bring the blitz to make Fields anxious, or mix up coverages to make Fields hesitant. And for all of my talk about Ohio State’s rushing-yards capability and deep-pass lightning strikes, it’s smart to remember that Alabama has a weapon for any scenario, any occasion.
The Tide has a deadly accurate QB (Mac Jones) when he sets up in the pocket, and he’s about as smart as any quarterback in the nation when it comes to making great decisions on choosing a target. Bama can line up Heisman winner Devonta Smith and other elite receivers — including tight ends — and beat you on offense in every possible way. (And the Tide may have crazy-good wide receiver Jaylen Waddle back off the injury list for this one. If he’s sharp, that would be unfair. Well, almost.)
The diversity on offense personified by the dual–purpose talent of running back Najee Harris. Run it, catch it, power up for tough yards, or run away with a burst of speed. Najee does it all. I have a feeling that we’ll see him take over this game. But goodness, Alabama has many such candidates.
Now, the pick: Alabama wins; Ohio State covers.
I already told you about underdogs being 5-1 ATS in the title game, and Saban’s 0-4 mark ATS when Alabama plays in the championship bout. The Buckeyes are 8-1 both straight up and against the spread in their past nine games as underdogs. This isn’t a matter of me doubting Alabama; this is a choice of following the trends and recognizing Ohio State’s very real potential of giving ‘Bama fits Monday night. But if Justin Fields relapses and panics, forget what I said. Fields is the key to the game.
Alabama 47, Ohio State 41.
Thanks for reading…
Listen to Bernie on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS, weekdays from 3-6 p.m. Or listen to the show or download the show podcast at 590thefan.com … the KFNS app is available in the app store.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.