The most unpredictable college football season in over a century threatened to deliver a very familiar finale when No. 1 Alabama advanced to the 2021 College Football Playoff Championship early Friday night. All that was left was for No. 2 Clemson to reach the final as well, setting up another rematch of teams that have already squared off in three of the last five title games.
But in an appropriate twist for this chaotic pandemic season, the Crimson Tide’s opponent will be No. 3 Ohio State. The Buckeyes delivered a stunning 49-28 knockout over the Tigers on the back of a big night by Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who threw six touchdown passes and bested Clemson superstar Trevor Lawrence, the presumed No. 1 pick in the next NFL draft.
Ohio State, a seven-point underdog in the Sugar Bowl, was playing without several starters due to coronavirus contact tracing. Yet the Buckeyes picked apart Clemson’s vaunted defense, avenging Ohio State’s bitter semifinal loss to Clemson a year ago in a game marked by controversial calls.
“It didn’t sit well in our mouth when we lost that game,” said Ohio State Coach Ryan Day of the 2019 Fiest Bowl. “So to come out and win the way we did [tonight], it was big.”
Alabama earlier earned its fifth trip to the national championship in six years by steamrolling No. 4 Notre Dame 31-14 in the Rose Bowl, which this year was relocated to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, from its namesake home in Pasadena, Calif., due to rising Covid-19 infection rates in Southern California.
Ohio State will appear in its first title game since winning it all in 2014 in spite of a season filled with coronavirus challenges. The Big Ten conference initially canceled the 2020 season, only to reverse course and mount an abbreviated season a few weeks later. Like almost every team in college football, the virus created problems for Ohio State throughout the year. Strict conference protocols struck three games from the Buckeyes’ schedule and the team needed a last-minute exception from the conference’s leadership to overcome those same rigid rules and earn a berth to the Big Ten Championship.
The Buckeyes were still reeling from a lengthy outbreak on their own team at the coin toss in New Orleans on Friday. Although wide receiver Chris Olave, who shoulders the bulk of Ohio State’s passing attack, returned to action after missing the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 19, 13 other scholarship players were deemed unavailable hours before kickoff, including stud running back Master Teague.
Day indicated that dozens more were still playing catch up after missing practices in early December following a Covid-19 cluster. It’s unclear how many Buckeyes contracted coronavirus, as Ohio State doesn’t disclose results from its daily antigen testing.
“”Full strength” is a floating target right now because there’s guys who come off of the isolation and then they have a protocol to get back onto the field,” said Day this week. “You don’t just play football after not doing anything for ten days.”
Any lapse in fitness was hard to detect on Friday night, as Ohio State racked up 254 rushing yards and stymied Clemson’s secondary with 385 yards through the air. Fields relied heavily on deep balls, with six passes–including two touchdowns–stretching over 25 yards. Fields absorbed a punishing target hit by Clemson linebacker James Skalski; Fields missed just one play despite experiencing visible pain.
Following the hit, Day asked Fields if he would be able to keep playing. “He said, ‘I don’t have a choice. I have to,” recounted Day. Fields later said that his ribs hurt after “each and every throw.”
Ohio State’s defense prevented Lawrence from matching Fields. Although Lawrence passed for 400 yards, he completed just two throws longer than 25 yards and struggled mightily in the second half as his offensive line imploded. He was sacked once and fumbled three times under mounting pressure from the Buckeyes.
The Tigers had the benefit of being more battle tested than the Buckeyes. Clemson played 11 regular season games to Ohio State’s six. That disparity greatly irked Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, who voted the Buckeyes 11th on his final USA Today Coaches Poll ballot of 2020.
“There’s nobody out there that would say that somebody who’s played 11 games versus somebody who’s played six is better physically or something like that because it’s a long season,” said Swinney after the College Football Playoff selection committee published its final rankings. He added: “I just don’t think it’s right that three teams have to play 13 games to be the champion and one team has to play eight.”
The Rose Bowl game also delivered drama–but not on the field. Organizers relocated the game six days before kick off due to spiking Covid-19 infection rates in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until Wednesday that the city of Pasadena agreed to allow the Texas semifinal to keep the “Rose Bowl” name despite the geographic weirdness.
To help make up the lost revenue from hosting the Tournament of Roses and the adjacent New Year’s Day Rose Parade, game organizers agreed to donate $2 million to the city of Pasadena. The last time the “Granddaddy of Them All” kicked off outside California was 1942, when the game was moved to Durham, N.C., in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Alabama entered the 2021 Rose Bowl Game as a 17-point favorite with six All Americans on its roster and an offensive coordinator fresh off winning the Broyles Award for the top college football assistant coach.
Alabama’s duo of Heisman Trophy finalists, quarterback Mac Jones and wide receiver Devonta Smith, connected for three touchdown passes. Notre Dame’s defensive showing was aptly summed up when Alabama running back Najee Harris literally hurdled a Fighting Irish defender — setting
on fire in the process — to collect 53 of his 126 rushing yards.
The loss cements an unfortunate aspect of Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly’s legacy. In his ten seasons with the team, he has yet to win a “New Year’s Six” bowl game or national championship in four tries.
Write to Laine Higgins at [email protected]
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