In the climax of the 1984 classic Ghostbusters, Gozer tells Venkman, Ray, Spengler, and Zeddemore to “choose the form of the destructor.” Anything the four men think of, that will be the form of the ruin that is to come to New York City. Despite pleas to empty their minds, Ray unfortunately remembers fondly the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and as advertised, that becomes the form of the destructor. In 2012, after facing yet another high-tempo offense, Nick Saban asked, “Is this what we want football to be?” Looking back in the mirror, Saban wasn’t lamenting college football’s direction; he was simply asking the rest of the nation to choose the form of the destructor.
Saban has won at least 13 games in seven of his 14 seasons at Alabama. He has won at least 12 games in 10 of his 14 seasons at Alabama. Since he took over in 2007 and went 7-6, Saban’s Alabama squads have finished with fewer than 11 wins just once in his tenure. After Monday night’s ritual drubbing of challenger Ohio State, Saban is now 8-3 in the College Football Playoff, missing only the 2019 postseason and making it into five of the seven College Football Playoff Championship Games in existence.
No. 1 Alabama 52, No. 2 Ohio State 24
As much as arbitrary endpoints are to be detested, in the case of Monday’s contest, they can provide a useful heuristic for the Tale of Two Games that was the National Championship Game. Ohio State punted on the first drive of the night, a crisp three-and-out, exactly mirroring their first-drive performance in the Sugar Bowl just a week ago. Alabama marched down the field, as they’re prone to do, converting a fourth-and-goal from the 1 to cap off a 78-yard, five-minute touchdown drive. Mac Jones completed six of eight passes, including a 15-yard pass to the recovered Jaylen Waddle in the receiver’s first game of the season. Justin Fields and Ohio State were able to counterpunch, and audiences again caught shades of the Buckeyes’ Sugar Bowl, where they stumbled out of the gates before rattling off five straight touchdown drives to upset Clemson. That narrative remained in play even after another five-minute Alabama touchdown drive, as the Buckeyes forced a fumble and capitalized on a 19-yard field to equalize the game.
With 11:43 left in the second quarter, Ohio State and Alabama were tied 14-14, and the game seemed destined to be a shootout. That 14-14 score masked some severe discrepancies between the two teams, though. To that point, despite the tie, Alabama had scored on two of three drives, starting at their own 22- and 25-yard lines. Ohio State had punted twice, failing to cross the 50 on two of their drives and being gifted a 19-yard field. Yards can be misleading, but in an otherwise tight game, they can provide some signal as to what might happen going forward. At that point, through four Alabama drives and five Ohio State drives, the Crimson Tide were outgaining Ohio State 8.0 to 6.6 yards per play. Pulling back a few layers, Alabama led the success rate margin 63.3% to 40.7%, and more glaringly, +0.403 EPA/play to +0.082.
Alabama then scored on three consecutive drives, sending the game to 35-17 without a glance in the rearview mirror. That end-of-half sequence is worth revisiting, as it twisted the knife in Ohio State’s chances of a second-half rebound. Alabama’s first two touchdown drives both took over five minutes and more than 10 plays, truly grueling affairs for a high-ceiling, explosive offense. The Crimson Tide in the second quarter scored three touchdowns on drives of five, five, and three plays, none taking more than three minutes of game clock. The Crimson Tide responded to the fumble and Ohio State touchdown with a drive comprised of their signature moves: they found DeVonta Smith twice for 16 and 13 yards, Najee Harris cleaned up with a 13-yard run, and then Jones found Harris for a 26-yard touchdown pass. That is Alabama at its best, and Ohio State’s defense had little response. Ohio State was en route to the loss, but that loss turned into a first-half blowout because the Buckeyes gave the ball back to the Crimson Tide with 2:29 left on the clock. Alabama was able to put the game out of reach on the ensuing drive, and the game was all over but the shouting.
Alabama had 15 explosive plays to Ohio State’s seven, and despite an average starting field position 5 yards behind Ohio State’s (26-yard line to the 31-yard line), the Crimson Tide gained 73% of available yards to Ohio State’s 45%. Alabama had one turnover, the fumble, which resulted in seven points for Ohio State. Outside of that, Ohio State averaged 1.5 points per drive, allowing 5.2 to Alabama. Alabama had quality possessions (with a first down inside opponent’s 40 or a big-play touchdown) on eight of their 12 drives, with one of those non-quality possessions being a turnover and three of them being obvious “run out the clock” situations. Ohio State, on the other hand, had only five quality possessions on their 11 drives. Alabama had an Eckel Margin of 36.3% and an Eckel Ratio of 61.5%, an implied postgame win expectancy of 87.5%.
Alabama’s offense stole the show with a 55% success rate overall. The passing game averaged +0.583 EPA/attempt and a 64% success rate. Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner, had a night of historic proportions; he was targeted 15 times, catching 12 balls for 215 yards and three touchdowns. Eleven of Smith’s 12 receptions resulted in a first down or a touchdown, and he averaged 17.9 yards per reception. Smith led all non-quarterbacks in the game with 19.6 total EPA. John Metchie III and Harris were also prolific in the passing game, combining for 15 receptions and 160 yards on the day. Astute readers will realize that Jones threw for 375 yards to just three receivers on the day. He found four other receivers for another 89 yards to bring his total on the day to 464 yards and five touchdowns. Jones was pressured on just eight of his 41 dropbacks, and on passes without pressure, he completed 85% of his targets. On the defensive side, linebacker Christian Harris led the team with seven tackles, and safety Brian Branch added two pass breakups and four tackles while allowing receptions on just 50% of targets.
For Ohio State, the offense showed flashes of excellence, but consistent success was out of their grasp. The Buckeyes averaged a 34% success rate, and while the passing game added value (38% success rate, +0.021 EPA/attempt), the rushing game was a disaster. Trey Sermon, the Oklahoma transfer who had come through in big ways the last couple of games, left with an injury. On 25 designed rushes, Ohio State averaged just 4.68 yards per play, gained only seven first downs, and averaged -0.117 EPA/rush. Fields completed 51.5% of his passes for a pedestrian 5.9 yards per attempt. Thirteen of his 17 completions resulted in first downs, but there were so many misses that drives stalled. Wide receiver Chris Olave caught eight of nine targets for almost 70 yards but was kept out of the end zone, and only two other players caught more than one pass. Ohio State understandably struggled to contain Smith, but Zach Harrison had four of the team’s pressures, while Sevyn Banks and Tuf Borland both accounted for a team-high nine tackles.
Alabama’s offense proved to be more than too much for Ohio State, especially accounting for the depth issues on the Buckeyes side of things, and the Crimson Tide rolled to their fifth championship of the last 10 years. 2020 was a season full of uncertainty, and there’s something not a little poetic about a juggernaut Nick Saban team coming in and wiping the floor with the rest of college football. The offseason will undoubtedly be rife with discussions of the “all-time greatest” epithet, but whether that’s merited or not, Alabama’s 2020 campaign was one of the most impressive in college football history. The Crimson Tide finished first in EPA margin, second in EPA/play offense, and 51st in EPA/play defense. Saban, after creating college football’s greatest defense in 2017, engineered one of college football’s greatest offenses in 2020. Less than a full recruiting cycle later, Saban has learned the rules of modern college football and created an offense hardly rivaled in college football history to win his seventh national championship.
These players added the most value to their teams in the National Championship Game:
- Mac Jones, Alabama: 33.9 Total EPA
- Devonta Smith, Alabama: 19.6 Total EPA
- Najee Harris, Alabama: 7.52 Total EPA
- Justin Fields, Ohio State: 4.21 Total EPA
- Chris Olave, Alabama: +6.52 Total EPA
Note: All rankings refer to F+, a combination of Brian Fremeau’s drive-based FEI ratings with Bill Connelly’s play-level SP+ ratings. Advanced Stats and leaderboards can be found at cfb-graphs.com. Follow Parker on Twitter: @statsowar.