After a week full of rumors and concern regarding its status, Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game has been given the official green light.
Both Ohio State and Alabama have completed their final round of COVID-19 testing and are set to arrive in Miami within the day, signaling a champion will be crowned on the game’s originally scheduled date.
But while the Buckeyes will, in fact, be boarding a plane today, it remains to be seen which players will be making the flight and which will be left behind in Columbus due to their most recent batch of problematic COVID-19 testing. A team that has now been ravaged by the virus for nearly two months will once again be forced to overcome critical losses, doing so against what is, by far, the best team the Buckeyes have faced this season.
Ohio State’s protocols prohibit the release of names of players who’ve tested positive, or even the total number of positive tests, meaning Buckeye fans will have to wait with bated breath until the program releases its status report prior to the game on Monday. Although the extent of the most recent blows remains to be seen, head coach Ryan Day did appear to confirm new COVID issues have, indeed, riddled the Ohio State depth chart during his virtual press conference on Thursday.
“Any time you deal with that and you lose people, it is a gut punch,” Day said when asked about the newest batch of positive tests. “But it’s not something that we’re not used to. We’ve played games with the majority of our offensive line out, we played the Big Ten Championship Game without some of our top receivers. We’ve had starters all over the place down at different times. We’ve found ways to work through it, and that’s just been the way it is. You can feel sorry for yourself or you can just continue to work on and push through it.”
Much of the speculation regarding the absent Buckeyes has centered around the defensive line, which was already without Olentangy Orange alum Zach Harrison in Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl win over Clemson. Despite Harrison’s absence, Ohio State was still able to dominate the Tigers up front, limiting star running back Travis Etienne to just 32 yards rushing and routinely making quarterback Trevor Lawrence uncomfortable in the pocket.
Harrison’s status for the title game remains up in the air given the unknown timing of his positive test leading up to the Sugar Bowl. The Big Ten’s positive test protocols mandate a 10-day quarantine period and an additional seven-day window of re-acclimation before a player can resume competition, putting his eligibility in jeopardy.
Further attrition along the defensive line — a unit that has been playing so well — would, indeed, be a gut punch for Ohio State as it prepares to take on one of the country’s most prolific offenses, led by an offensive line that was just named the Joe Moore Award recipient as the nation’s top unit. The Alabama line has paved the way for an offense that is averaging 535 yards and 48 points per game this season, led by a relentless passing attack that’s yet to be slowed down.
With Ohio State’s struggles in the secondary all year, it’s unlikely that much changes on Monday against a Heisman finalist at quarterback in Mac Jones, and a cache of receiving weapons headlined by Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith. That cache could, perhaps, become even deadlier as well with the news that Jaylen Waddle, an eventual first-round pick who suffered a fractured ankle in October, is practicing and will be a gameday decision.
While the Crimson Tide are sure to hit their share of big plays in the passing game against the Buckeyes, Alabama running back Najee Harris takes a backseat to no other back in the country. An All-American in his own right, Harris has run for 24 touchdowns and nearly 1,400 yards this season despite relatively limited carries. And that’s where the play of the Buckeye defensive line, whatever it looks like, will be so critical.
Ohio State’s plan to win defensively will undoubtedly mirror what it was able to accomplish against Clemson, and that starts with limiting Harris and making Alabama one-dimensional. By doing so, Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs can then shift his focus to forcing the ball out of Jones’ hand quicker than the quarterback would prefer, perhaps giving the Buckeye secondary a chance.
That’s the likely plan on paper, anyhow. Whether they are able to execute said plan while relying on unproven players and without the full rotation of athletes that defensive line coach Larry Johnson leans so heavily on has become, perhaps, the question of the contest.
Of course, Day and the Buckeyes won’t be entirely handicapped when they take the field on Monday. While most of the talk leading up to the game has been about the Alabama offense, Ohio State is fully capable of putting up points in a hurry themselves, and they might just have to in order to keep pace.
As the saying goes, it is what it is for Ohio State as kickoff draws near, and nobody is going to feel sorry for them. Whoever does make the trip to South Beach will be expected to rise to the occasion, and the Buckeyes have shown a solid track record of doing just that all season.
“The hard thing is, at the end of the day, most people don’t really care (about who’s out). They just watch the game and the result is the result,” Day said. “But for us, that’s why the story of this season is just so amazing to me, that we just continue to push through despite all of these difficult challenges along the way.
“It’s no different this week. We have a new set of challenges this week. We’re going to have to figure it out and go down to Miami and play.”
If they’re able to overcome it one more time, the story of this season for Ohio State will truly be one for the ages.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.