MIAMI (AP) — Trying to figure out which of Nick Saban’s Alabama teams is best is akin to picking Michelangelo’s greatest work of art or Ernest Hemingway’s best novel.
They are all excellent in their own way.
The first to win a national championship came in 2009 and is still the only Alabama team to finish unbeaten under Saban in 14 seasons of unprecedented dominance.
The 2011 national champions had maybe the greatest defense of college football’s modern era of high-powered offenses. The current Crimson Tide team has one of the most prolific and talented offenses in the history of the sport.
“Every team is different. Every team has its own personality,” Saban said Sunday. “But it’s hard to compare teams.”
The top-ranked Tide (12-0) are set to face No. 3 Ohio State (7-0) on Monday for the College Football Playoff championship in search of their sixth national title with Saban as coach.
The final game of this taxing and strange season played through the coronavirus pandemic is on schedule to take place at Hard Rock Stadium, home of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, with 16,000 fans in attendance as planned. Because of COVID-19, which caused the postponement or cancelation of nearly 130 games, nothing has been guaranteed this season. But Alabama arrived in South Florida on Friday and Ohio State got to town Saturday.
The usual day-before-the-championship-game news conference with the coaches was held Sunday morning via Zoom. No sharing of a stage, posing with the trophy and staged handshakes this year.
“It certainly has been a strange road to get here,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.
The Buckeyes faced the prospect of no fall football at all when the Big Ten postponed in August, and then they managed to get in only six games before making the playoff. Day acknowledged earlier this week that Ohio State was dealing with some new COVID-19 cases.
There was even some concern early in the week that the game might have to be pushed back.
If the Buckeyes do upset Alabama to win their first national title since 2014, they will have played the fewest games of any national champion since Minnesota finished 8-0 in 1941.
Alabama had only one game postponed this season, though it was because of COVID-19 issues with LSU. Saban tested positive for the virus — twice. The first time it was deemed a false positive after further testing and he was able to coach against Georgia. The second time he had to miss the Iron Bowl against Auburn.
Otherwise the Tide dynasty has rolled along as close to business as usual as possible considering the circumstances.
“Our team has shown a lot of maturity and perseverance throughout the season,” Saban said. “We told our players basically the team that shows the maturity to be able to handle disruptions is going to have the best chance to be successful in the end, and consistency in performance is always a key to success, and that perseverance has shown up in the way we’ve been able to play with consistency.”
And consistently great against an unusually difficult schedule.
Because of the pandemic, the Southeastern Conference decided to play only league games this season. Facing 11 SEC games and Notre Dame in the playoff, the Crimson Tide have had an average margin of victory of 29 points. Only one of their games was decided by fewer than 15.
Alabama’s offense features five All-Americans, including Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and two more players (quarterback Mac Jones and running back Najee Harris) who finished in the top five in Heisman voting.
“This is a great offense. It is a complete offense,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said. “They have great players, but they also have a great scheme and they understand how to attack defenses. People have tried numerous different things against them, and they always have an answer.”
Another championship would give Saban seven overall, including a BCS title at LSU in 2003, breaking a tie for the most all time with Alabama’s other coaching great, Paul Bryant. The Bear won six championships in 25 years leading the Tide from 1958-82.
The 69-year-old Saban is 169-23 at Alabama, with no signs of slowing down.
“One of the best football coaches in the history of college football,” Day said.
HOW IS FIELDS FEELING?
The storyline of the week for Ohio State is how quarterback Justin Fields was doing after taking a brutal shot to the side in the second quarter of the Buckeyes’ semifinal victory over Clemson. Fields missed only one play against the Tigers and ended up throwing six touchdown passes.
But it’s a story with few details. Fields has said he was feeling better than expected the day after the game and he will be good to go Monday night.
Day provides no injury updates for his players, so it is still unclear exactly what the damage was to Fields.
“Justin has had a good week of practice,” Day said. “He’s done a really good job preparing, and I think that’s the thing that he felt like he did a good job going into last game, was just preparing at a high level, and he’s continued to do that this week.”
This will likely be Fields’ last game, as the junior is expected to be one of the first players selected in the NFL draft in April.
College Football Playoff national championship: No. 1 Alabama (12-0) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (7-0), Monday, 8 p.m. EST (ESPN) at Miami Gardens, Florida.
Line: Alabama by 8 1/2.
Series record: Alabama 3-1.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
The Crimson Tide will play for their sixth national championship under coach Nick Saban, 13th overall in college football’s poll era (1936-present) and first since 2017. Alabama is 2-2 in CFP championship games. A sixth title at Alabama for Saban would match Paul “Bear” Bryant’s total with the Tide, but it would give him a record seven overall. He also won a BCS title at LSU in 2003.
For Ohio State, it would be its seventh national championship of the poll era and first since 2014, the inaugural season of the playoff.
Alabama’s interior defense, led by DT Christian Barmore, vs. Ohio State interior offensive line with OG Wyatt Davis and C Josh Myers. The Crimson Tide had a couple of bad games defending the run early in the season against Mississippi and Georgia, but they have gotten much better since as Barmore’s play as improved. Davis, an All-American, and Myers have been Ohio State’s best blockers, leading the way for RB Trey Sermons’ late-season surge (636 yards in the last three games).
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ohio State: QB Justin Fields. The junior is coming off the best game of his career and maybe the best game a quarterback has had this season. Fields threw six touchdowns and had only six incomplete passes in the Sugar Bowl against Clemson. He also took a nasty hit to the side that left him aching throughout the game. Fields’ mobility is big part of his game. If he’s limited, it takes away a key weapon for the Buckeyes.
Alabama: WR DeVonta Smith. The Heisman Trophy winner has been close to unstoppable in the second half of the season and had three more touchdowns on seven catches for 130 yards against Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl. Tide offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian gets the most out of Smith and keeps defenses guessing by lining him up wide, in the slot and often sending him in motion.
FACTS & FIGURES
Alabama receiver Jaylen Waddle, who broke his ankle on Oct. 24, returned to practice this week for the first time. Saban said Sunday that Waddle practiced to “some degree” and whether he plays will be a game-time decision. The coach also said Tide freshman defensive back Malachi Moore is questionable to play because of an undisclosed injury. He missed the semifinal against Notre Dame. … If Ohio State wins the national championship, it will have played the fewest games of any title winner since Minnesota in 1941 went 8-0. … Ohio State is 23-1 under second-year coach Ryan Day, including three victories in 2018 when he filled in as acting coach while Urban Meyer was suspended … Saban spent two seasons in the early 1980s as an assistant coach with Ohio State under Earle Bruce. … Alabama QB Mac Jones has completed 77% of his passes. The NCAA record for a single season is held by Colt McCoy, who completed 76.7% of his throws in 2008. … The Tide is the first team to have players with at least 20 rushing touchdowns (Najee Harris, 24) and receiving (Smith, 20).