College football will crown a champion on the second Monday of the year, same as it has throughout its recent history.
What hasn’t been the same about this season compared to those past? Oh, just about everything else.
The programs that made this stage, the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes, are two teams that have title game aspirations year in and year out. In 2020, one program’s conference spearheaded efforts to play this season during a global pandemic; the other program’s conference almost didn’t have a season at all.
That’s how unorthodox this season — one without sellouts or bands or tailgates — has been. But like all of the other previous ones, only a single program will lift the trophy after the final 60 minutes.
End of the first quarter: 7-7
Bold strategy by Ohio State not covering DeVonta Smith on the first play of the following Alabama drive, which went for 32 yards down the left sideline. Quarterback Mac Jones wasn’t done going to his favorite target, and the two connected for 12 more yards on the next play – nothing out of the ordinary for a receiver who led all FBS players in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
A wide receiver screen to John Metchie III fell a yard short of the first down, but Alabama coach Nick Saban left the offense on the field at the 10-yard line. And why wouldn’t he? Najee Harris is arguably the best running back in college football.
And that’s where the first quarter ends, with the Crimson Tide at the Buckeyes’ five-yard line and the score tied at 7.
With Trey Sermon out, the Buckeyes will have to rely on Master Teague for production out of the backfield. He helped in that regard on Ohio State’s second drive, which ended in a touchdown to tie it 7-7.
The Buckeyes used tempo following their three-and-out. Fields found receiver Chris Olave, one of his favorite targets, twice at the beginning of the drive to move Ohio State close to midfield. With time, Fields floated a pass across the middle to tight end Jeremy Ruckert, who reached to make the one-handed grab for a 36-yard completion.
On the next play, Teague went untouched into the end zone from eight yards out.
Maybe here comes a scoring barrage from both sides?
Alabama is firing on all cylinders.
The defense forced a three-and-out and then the Crimson Tide drove down the field using Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and fellow playmakers Najee Harris (who reeled off a pair of powerful runs) and Jaylen Waddle to advance near the goal line.
From one yard out, Harris barreled into the end zone to put Alabama up 7-0 with 8:07 to go in the first quarter.
Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, who broke his ankle on Oct. 24, made an improbable return in the College Football Playoff championship game and took a short pass from Mac Jones for 15 yards and a first down on his first play from scrimmage in more than two months.
After an initial diagnosis that he’d be out for the season, Waddle’s return was the subject of speculation all week when he participated in practice. Alabama coach Nick Saban said before the game that Waddle would be a game-time decision and that he would be used on a very limited basis if he could play.
Before Waddle was injured, he had caught 25 passes for 557 yards and four touchdowns and was widely considered the Crimson Tide’s most dangerous player. His injury, in a sense, cleared the path for DeVonta Smith to become the offensive focus of Alabama’s offense and launched him to the Heisman Trophy.
Waddle spent a lot of time prior to the game stretching the ankle and running sprints to see if he felt good enough to play. Though he appeared to be walking with a slight limp, he apparently was confident enough in the ankle to give it a try.
— Dan Wolken
After the Buckeyes fed Trey Sermon on the first play from scrimmage, the running back came up hurting and headed for the Ohio State locker room. ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor said it was a left shoulder injury, and that Sermon could not raise his arm.
That would be a problem for Ohio State’s offense, which risks becoming more one-dimensional without Sermon, who has come on as the Buckeyes’ top option in the backfield. Between the Big Ten championship game and national semifinal against Clemson, Sermon rushed for 524 yards – a consecutive-game record at Ohio State previously set by Ezekiel Elliott (476) in 2015.
Ohio State called tails, but the coin landed heads-side up. Alabama deferred to the second half, giving Ohio State the ball first. Quarterback Justin Fields and the Buckeyes offense went three-and-out to start the game.
Wide receiver Jaylen Waddle isn’t the only injured Alabama starter in pads for the championship game.
Center Landon Dickerson was dressed in full pads and briefly took part in Alabama’s pregame warmups less than a month after suffering a knee injury in the SEC championship game win against Florida.
Dickerson wore two bulky knee braces during warmups and had his entire left leg bandaged. While moving gingerly, Dickerson still snapped to quarterback Mac Jones near midfield during drills and later stood behind Alabama’s offensive line as the group went through the paces inside the Crimson Tide’s end zone.
Dickerson also was Alabama’s captain for the coin toss.
— Paul Myerberg
A key story line for the Crimson Tide entering Monday was the potential availability of dynamic wide receiver and returner Jaylen Waddle, who injured his ankle on Oct. 24 against Tennessee.
Waddle has been cleared medically, but his status was still unknown pregame, as the decision to play now rests with the player.
The Buckeyes will be without two defensive starters and one key specialist.
Tommy Togiai and Tyreke Smith, both starters on the Buckeyes’ vaunted defensive line, are among the 13 Ohio State players unavailable.
Additionally, Buckeyes kicker Blake Haubeil announced on Instagram that he tested positive for the coronavirus and will miss the game.
“I’m extremely upset, but at the same time I’m overwhelmingly thankful to be an individual who is asymptomatic,” he wrote. “I have spent the past four months making sacrifices, and have not seen family and friends one single time. So, to say I’m pissed off is a complete understatement.”
The Buckeyes will turn to freshman kicker Jake Seibert, who ESPN ranked as the No. 4 kicker in the 2020 recruiting class.
The scene in Tuscaloosa
Many in Tuscaloosa, Alabama appear to be eschewing recommendations against crowds or gatherings.
Videos and photos from Tuscaloosa on Monday show lines outside of area bars and restaurants hours before kickoff.