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After long road to CFP final, Buckeyes determined to end with title

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State coach Ryan Day said the COVID-19 pandemic has made it a "strange road" to get to the national championship game.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – They are about to reach the finish line, which this season is no small accomplishment.

An Ohio State season that wasn't even supposed to happen will culminate Monday with the Buckeyes playing in the College Football Playoff championship game against Alabama.

On the eve of the game, Ohio State coach Ryan Day could be feeling all sorts of emotions – pride, satisfaction, relief. He won't allow himself to do that. Not yet.

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“If you start to talk about those, think about those, focus on those, it's just a distraction towards playing in this game,” Day said in a Zoom news conference Sunday morning with Alabama coach Nick Saban. “I think regardless of what happens Monday night, you take the next couple of weeks and reflect on the season. Now is not the time for that. Now it's all about playing in this game, playing well, because that's what matters.

“Any minute focusing on something like that is just a distraction towards playing in this game, and we can't let that happen. We've got too good of an opponent.”

No. 1 Alabama (12-0) is a touchdown favorite over the No. 3 Buckeyes (7-0).

Both coaches spoke about the obstacles of just getting this far in a pandemic-ravaged season.

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“I know this has been a challenging year for all teams in college football, and I think there's a lot of folks out there that we need to thank for making the season be what it is,” Saban said.

The Crimson Tide played close to a full schedule. The Big Ten configured a shortened season after reversing its earlier postponement. Three COVID-caused cancellations left the Buckeyes with only six regular-season games. Critics, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney most prominently, questioned their worthiness for the CFP. Ohio State rolled over Swinney's Tigers as if they had a point to prove with a 49-28 victory in the semifinals at the Sugar Bowl.

“It just kind of emphasizes the point of just how chaotic this past three, four, five months have been,” Day said. “Some days you woke up, you didn't know which direction you were going in. Certainly there was a time where we didn't think we'd have a season, when we weren't sure if we were going to restart a season, which goes to show you how strong our guys have been.

“Every program has gone through some different version of it. It certainly has been a strange road to get here.”

As it has been every game late in the season, Ohio State will be short-handed because of COVID protocols. It hasn't been disclosed how many players the Buckeyes will be missing.

Another key issue for Ohio State is the status of quarterback Justin Fields, who took a nasty shot to his back in the Clemson game. Day said on Sunday that Fields has practiced well this week.

The Buckeyes' offense will have to click the way it did against Clemson because nobody has stopped the Crimson Tide. Alabama's 31 points against Notre Dame in the other CFP semifinal were the fewest it has scored all season, and the Tide were mostly content in the second half of that game to play conservatively because the game was in hand. Featuring Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith at receiver, Mac Jones at quarterback and Najee Harris at running back, the Tide have no offensive weak links.

“They're as talented an offense and play as clean as I've seen,” Day said.

The Buckeyes have plenty of talent, too, and they aren't satisfied just to be one of the last two teams standing.

“No one ever talks about getting to the national championship,” Day said. “They talk about winning the national championship. Along the way, there are certain goals that you have to reach to get to this point, but the ultimate goal is to win this game.

“When you have your goals of beating your rival (Michigan), of winning the conference, of winning the semifinal and then finally this game, you have to check off those boxes. But ultimately this is the final goal.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch