Analysis: Alabama may have to play its best game yet to beat Ohio State

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

The next week will be full of distractions for Alabama football, as quarterback Mac Jones made clear Friday night.

Jones fended off one reporter asking about the Heisman Trophy, which will be awarded Tuesday night, with an answer straight out of the Nick Saban playbook: “That’s a rat-poison question.” 

Jones didn’t get a lethal dose, certainly not compared to his teammate, DeVonta Smith, the presumptive front-runner. However, with the way the rest of Friday night unfolded, even a drop of distraction might be dangerous. Ohio State crushed Clemson 49-28 in New Orleans, dominating on both sides of the ball and changing the perception of its season with by far its best performance.

Former Alabama player Barrett Jones  made a good comparison: Ohio State displayed a singleness of purpose against Clemson, which eliminated the Buckeyes a year ago, that mirrored the focus that the 2009 Alabama team had against Florida in the SEC championship game.

So far this season, Saban hasn’t worried about his team’s focus.

Nick Saban celebrates Alabama's 31-14 win over Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl.

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"It will be kind of up to them to see how we manage (preparation), how we get ready to go down to Miami and play in that game,” Saban said. “I'm really proud of the way our players have handled disruptions all year long. I know this has been a difficult season for fans, players, coaches managing their team. But I think this is good for everyone when we have these games, people have something to be interested in, and players have the opportunity to compete.”

There will be no shortage of story lines.

Alabama has played 12 games, Ohio State seven. That’s not a reflection on Ohio State’s willingness to play. From the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the Buckeyes coaches and administration, well aware that this year’s OSU team had championship potential, fought to play. But there is a toll associated with five extra games. Alabama is favored in Miami, but how different would it be with Jaylen Waddle, Landon Dickerson and LaBryan Ray? Ohio State has injuries, too, and there is no way to prove the extra games caused the Alabama players to get hurt, other than the math of playing 20 extra quarters.

Dabo Swinney waved that flag before playing Ohio State. Saban, as he usually does, will keep any public comments strictly in neutral. 

Saban did not know which opponent Alabama would be facing when he made his postgame comments after theCrimson Tide's victory over Notre Dame in its own semifinal. But his analysis of Alabama’s performance seemed presciently accurate in terms of facing Ohio State.

"I think you have to be able to play every style,” Saban said. "I think that if people get a bead on you in terms of what is successful against you, you don't have answers for it, then everybody's going to do it and they're going to take a lot of things away.

"I think the thing that was a little tough for us in the second half is we didn't run the ball very effectively in the second half. We wanted to try to take the air out of it at the end of the game. We didn’t have much success. They had the ball for almost the entire last eight minutes of the game.

"We have to be able to finish a little bit better, regardless of what style of defense anybody is going to try to play against us. I'm sure we'll learn from it and hopefully do better the next time."

With one “next time” to go, Alabama has done everything possible, but, as Saban notes, it hasn’t played the perfect game yet, and it might have to come close.