Analysis: Final hurdle too high for Buckeyes in season of overcoming obstacles

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland is the picture of dejection after Alabama's 52-24 victory over the Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff championship game.

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — So, what to make of a bizarre Ohio State football season and a night when the Buckeyes' ultimate dream crashed against a clearly superior opponent?

It speaks to what they accomplished, and how far they still have to go.

There is no shame in losing the College Football Playoff championship game to Alabama, particularly this version of the Crimson Tide, which will be remembered as one of the best ever in college football.

DeVonta Smith, Mac Jones and Najee Harris are as good a skill-position combination as there has been. The supporting cast, including the defense, is virtually weakness-proof. It would have taken a near-perfect performance for Ohio State to have beaten Alabama, and even that might not have done it. The Buckeyes didn't come close in a 52-24 loss Monday night at Hard Rock Stadium.

Perhaps the die was cast on the first play from scrimmage. Ohio State's best hope was to use late-blooming running back Trey Sermon to chew up chunks of yardage, take the load off a less-than-healthy Justin Fields and limit the number of Alabama possessions.

Sermon was injured on his first carry — shades of Ted Ginn Jr. being injured in the celebration of his kickoff return for a touchdown against Urban Meyer's Florida Gators 14 years ago in another title game that didn't go well.

Without Sermon, who got on a historic tear late in the season, the Buckeyes weren't the same offense. Fields couldn't duplicate his six-touchdown performance against Clemson. He missed some throws, but the pass protection wasn't as solid and receivers weren't as open as they were against the Tigers. Again, credit Alabama.

Ohio State seniors Jonathon Cooper (0) and Thayer Munford leave the field after the game.

The Buckeyes' defense looked powerless to stop Alabama's offense. Usually, it's Ohio State that has the clear speed advantage over opponents. The roles were reversed in this game.

Talent prevailed, and the Crimson Tide simply had more of it. Factor in that its coach, Nick Saban, might be the best in college football history, and that's how 52-24 happens.

Under Meyer and now Ryan Day, the Buckeyes have recruited at a higher level than ever. But one program has consistently recruited at a higher level — Alabama.

In recent cycles the gap has closed, at least on paper, and Monday's game should provide more incentive on that front.

As disappointing as the performance was for the Buckeyes, it doesn't erase all that was accomplished this season, starting with the fact that there was one.

Without the push by Ohio State and aided by Nebraska and Iowa, the Big Ten almost certainly wouldn't have reinstated the season after canceling it in August. The Buckeyes essentially put themselves in isolation for the season in an attempt to fend off COVID-19. It was only partly successful. Three games were canceled, though only the Illinois game was due to Ohio State cases.

Try as they might, Ohio State's offense and quarterback Justin Fields could never muster the magic against Alabama the way they did in a Sugar Bowl win over Clemson.

Ohio State played its final four games without key pieces. Against Alabama, the Buckeyes were without defensive linemen Tommy Togiai and Tyreke Smith, as well as kicker Blake Haubeil. The uncertainty and stress of never knowing from day to day who would be available never abated.

Yet the Buckeyes never flinched. They were tested only by Indiana and Northwestern in Big Ten play, and then avenged the defeat that haunted them for an entire year. The 49-28 victory over Clemson in the CFP semifinals was proof of what this Buckeyes team could be.

Then Alabama showed the gap that still remains at the very top. The 2014 Ohio State team beat the Crimson Tide on the way to the inaugural CFP title, and the Buckeyes hoped they could repeat that magic.

The good news is that Smith, Jones and Harris and others are off to the NFL, and masterful offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is headed to Texas to coach the Longhorns. Alabama will remain the team to beat, but it shouldn't be as imposing next season.

And hey, Saban is 69. He's not going to coach forever, though his expiration date, as Dabo Swinney might say, doesn't seem to be near.

Day is only 41, though this year felt like a dog year. The Buckeyes also will lose plenty from this year's roster. Fields is almost certainly headed to the NFL, as are many of the other leaders on and off the field. Ohio State's four top linebackers are seniors.

Next year's quarterback — C.J. Stroud, Jake Miller or incoming freshman Kyle McCord — will not have thrown a collegiate pass entering the season. Day's quarterback-whispering skills will be put to the test.

For now, though, the most urgent thing on the Buckeyes' agenda is nonurgency.

“We need a break,” Day said. “We need to get away. We've already started to put together the schedule for the spring, but we all need to get away for a while. This has been a long, long road. Guys miss their families, and they deserve time to be with them.

“We'll unwind for a little while, have an opportunity to reflect on what the season has been, and then get back into it. But you can't just go back into work here. You need some time to rest and reflect.”

When the Buckeyes do, they'll look back on an unprecedented season that no one would want to repeat, but one that ultimately showed the strength of the program, even if the final hurdle proved too high.

“What these guys have learned and what our coaching staff has learned and this whole program has learned about what our culture is all about, I'm very, very proud of that,” Day said. “For the guys who were in the locker room who are going to be coming back, they have something to motivate them in the offseason, that feeling coming off the field.

“We felt that way coming off the field last year against Clemson. Now we feel that way coming off the field against Alabama. We're going to use that as a motivation.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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