Opinion: All of a sudden, college football title game with Alabama, Ohio State full of mystery

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The previous decade of college football was defined by the Alabama-Clemson rivalry, with Ohio State often playing the role of third wheel. For most of this disjointed season, there was every reason to believe the 2020s would start the same way — with the Buckeyes not quite good enough to upend the sport’s power dynamic. 

But Ohio State’s dominant 49-28 win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl has changed the narrative in a dramatic way, setting up a national championship game with Alabama on Jan. 11  that has a real air of mystery around it. 

Are the Buckeyes potent enough to actually pull this off? 

“This team showed what they’re made of,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. 

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Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there would have been no doubt about Ohio State’s ability to win the national title this season. The Buckeyes came so close last year to beating Clemson in the semifinals, and they knew they’d be returning perhaps the most talented passing attack in school history led by quarterback Justin Fields and receiver Chris Olave. Everything was lining up for a historic run. 

Ohio State Head football coach Ryan Day, left, quarterback Justin Fields (1), and linebacker Tuf Borland (32) get ready to lift the Sugar Bowl Classic Trophy after defeating Clemson 49-28.

But from Aug. 1 until Jan. 1, very little went as planned for the Buckeyes. Between the Big Ten shutting down and starting back up, the shortened schedule, opponents needing to cancel games and Ohio State’s own COVID-19 outbreak, the Buckeyes never seemed to get enough rhythm or momentum to reach their potential. 

But the real Ohio State showed up on Friday at just the right time.

“We hadn’t played a team like Clemson coming in,” Day said. “We hadn’t played a lot of games. We hadn’t played our best game on offense or defense. There was a lot of anxiety coming into the game.”

Now, the anxiety shifts to the Crimson Tide. Because after 12 games, we know what Alabama is: One of the most efficient and dynamic offenses in the history of college football, a team that scored in the 60s twice, the 50s four times and in the 40s on another four occasions. If anything, Alabama’s 31-14 win over Notre Dame was actually a bit of a low ebb, mostly because they got away from their full-throttle offense in the second half to try to run out the clock. 

“We have to be able to finish a little bit better and hopefully do better the next time,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. 

The scary part for Alabama is that we don’t know if Ohio State has even reached its peak yet. The Buckeyes have only played seven games, and until the Sugar Bowl it looked like they were still struggling to find themselves. There’s simply no one who could have watched Ohio State stagger to a 22-10 win over Northwestern in the Big Ten title game and figured they’d come back 13 days later and put 639 yards on Clemson.

But in any kind of Playoff in any sport, getting hot at the right time is dangerous. And Ohio State seems to be smoldering.

“They were awesome,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “They absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage.”

If there’s one thing we know for sure, the championship game at Hard Rock Stadium outside of Miami will match two heavyweight offenses trading blow-for-blow. From Alabama’s standpoint, it projects as even more of a dangerous matchup than the Florida team that scored 46 points on them in the SEC championship game. 

As good of a season as Florida quarterback Kyle Trask had, Fields is a better runner and more complete player who was highly accurate on deep balls Friday with touchdown passes of 56 and 45 yards in the third quarter when Clemson was threatening to make it a ballgame. 

And he did it with what appeared to be injured ribs after taking a hit in the second quarter that left him hobbling around and wincing, even doing something as simple as getting on an exercise bike on the sideline. 

It’s unclear exactly what kind of injury Fields sustained and whether it’s something that will limit him over the next week or so as Ohio State prepares for Alabama. He’ll need to pull off another performance like this and then some to give the Buckeyes a chance to win their first national title since 2014. 

Alabama coach Nick Saban after the  Rose Bowl win over Notre Dame.

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But one thing you won’t hear from Alabama is any disrespect for Ohio State or commentary about how the Buckeyes only played six games to get into the Playoff. Nick Saban is too smart and experienced for that. Whereas Swinney almost seemed to revel in poking Ohio State in the eye by ranking the Buckeyes 11th on his Amway Coaches Poll ballot and complain about the unfairness of their shortened schedule, Saban is going to focus on correcting his own team’s issues and ignore all the other noise. 

If Saban felt as if his team would have its hands full with Clemson, what transpired on the field Friday should give his players even more of a sense of urgency to get every detail right in its preparation for Ohio State. 

You never want to preordain a matchup in college football as a classic. But if this performance were a true representation of what the Buckeyes are capable of against another elite team, they’re more than just up an upstart elbowing their way into the conversation. They are good enough to win it all.