Set aside, for just a moment, the coronavirus pandemic and all of the disruptions it dealt to the college football season — the week-to-week teetering, the postponements, the cancellations, the thousands of virus cases and the contact traces. Now consider the two teams that have ascended to a championship whose very staging will long be debated.
There is top-ranked Alabama, its front-runner status over the last dozen or so years so consistent that its presence in the title mix is as reassuringly familiar as it is mind numbing. And there is No. 3 Ohio State, the scarlet-and-gray power that upset mighty Clemson on Friday night and, despite the brash politicking that helped clear its path to the College Football Playoff, has sometimes wound up acting like some sort of 2020 upstart.
These are two programs that have been lifted and scarred through the years by expectation and ambition. Two programs with divergent paths through the pandemic to the game on Jan. 11 in Miami Gardens, Fla. But, in the end, two programs that got college football to precisely where mostly everyone figured a 2020 season, if it happened at all, would end: a final bout between blue bloods.
Other ideas, like a playoff berth for Cincinnati, a Group of Five school, proved to be only notions, not probable outcomes. The central short-term dispute left to settle, then, is whether an Alabama team that grinded through a Southeastern Conference schedule and rolled to 12-0 with a Rose Bowl victory is better and more battle ready than an Ohio State team that played just six Big Ten games, including the league championship, and a semifinal and could be seen as fresh-legged, woefully inexperienced or both.
“We’re not done,” Ryan Day, Ohio State’s coach, said after his Buckeyes demolished Clemson, 49-28, in the Sugar Bowl. “We have a lot of work to do, got to get on this film, figure out some things to adjust because we got a really talented Bama team that we got to go play.”
Although he is 23-1 atop Ohio State’s program, Day has not led a team in a title-game showdown. Nick Saban of Alabama is in an altogether different place: The game at Hard Rock Stadium will be the eighth title matchup of his 14 seasons at Alabama. If his team wins, he will have his sixth national championship at the school, a mark equal to Bear Bryant, for whom Alabama’s stadium in Tuscaloosa is partly named.
But the team that Saban, a former defensive back, has steered toward South Florida is not like his previous contenders, all of which unnerved opponents and some of which proved more entertaining on defense than offense.
Most notably, this team already has more than 6,400 yards of total offense and three of the year’s top five Heisman Trophy candidates. Saban’s first championship team at Alabama made do with 5,642 yards and the star tailback, Mark Ingram, who won the Heisman in that 2009 season. (This season’s winner will be announced on Tuesday night, and wideout DeVonta Smith and quarterback Mac Jones of Alabama are among the finalists.)
And although Alabama has said almost nothing about the virus’s reach within its football program, except when Saban himself tested positive just more than a month after a false positive nearly kept him away from a showdown against Georgia, the Tide made it through the season without reaching the point where it needed to postpone or cancel a game.
Ohio State, which also placed a premium on athletic secrecy during a public health emergency, needed help to reach even its league championship game. Hampered by other teams’ cancellations and its own outbreak that forced it to miss a trip to Illinois, Ohio State benefited from a last-minute Big Ten rule change when it fell short of the six games originally needed to qualify for the conference’s title matchup.
The Buckeyes struggled through that championship game but won and received a No. 3 seed from the playoff selection committee. Its perception problems did not end, though, as skeptics questioned whether the Big Ten had again changed a rule — this one, a part of its pandemic protocols — to help teams like Ohio State field more players in the postseason.
On Friday night, Ohio State’s dominance of Clemson in the Sugar Bowl went far beyond expectations that would have been deemed reasonable or attainable hours earlier, a striking outcome for a Buckeyes team that just months ago was on the brink of not playing at all this season.
Ohio State, thought of as a title contender well before “social distancing” was a household term, is not the star-crossed insurgency that rumbled out of Baton Rouge a season ago, when Joe Burrow, a quarterback who had been undervalued by SEC coaches (and had transferred from Ohio State), abruptly led Louisiana State to 8,533 yards of total offense and a national championship. But theirs is still a story, so far, of defying the hubris that so often bubbles from Southern gridirons and sports talk radio stations, and the suspicions that shadow a playoff selection process that can look like it has a bias toward making the cozy calls.
“Everybody doubting us just pushed us a little more,” Justin Fields, the quarterback for the Buckeyes, said as he recovered from a rib-crunching shot during the Sugar Bowl. After a trip to a sideline medical tent, he had stuck around, finishing with six passing touchdowns and leading an offense that accumulated 639 yards.
Those doubts may be a little quieter between now and Jan. 11. Most, if not all, of the lingering ones will be sorted out then, in the type of championship matchup that could have been penciled in years ago, even if the precise participants were still a mystery.
After all, despite a pandemic that has reshaped so much of society, college football has spent this season showing it can tolerate only so much uncertainty surrounding its biggest stage.