MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Five months ago today, this Ohio State football season looked like it would never take place, thanks to some serious bumbling by the home office of the Big Ten, as well as many of its 14 conference presidents who figured Covid-19 was too tough an opponent to tackle.
In mid-September, the conference then changed course and gave college football fans in the Buckeye state what they wanted, what they worship every Saturday, even if they were not allowed to worship it in person, albeit with a very late October start.
Then there were the misses during the season, as meetings with Maryland, Illinois and rival Michigan dropped off the schedule one by one. There was controversy, such as did the outclassed Wolverines cancel on purpose, knowing another beating was coming their way, and were the 6-0 Buckeyes good enough or deserving enough to make the College Football Playoff field?
They were definitely the former, if not the latter, having won the Big Ten with a gutty, come-from-behind over Northwestern before a convincing and satisfying upset of No. 2 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s night.
But Monday night, this resilient and likely mentally exhausted team in Scarlet and Gray began running out of enough healthy star players needed to keep up with top-ranked Alabama.
Some, like Buckeyes defensive linemen Tyreke Smith and Tommy Togiai, were among 13 players left back in Columbus due to Covid-19.
Others, like Trey Sermon, who came on like gangbusters over the final three games to give the Buckeyes’ a game-breaking star running back, and All-American guard Wyatt Davis left Monday’s game with injuries in the first half – Sermon’s on the very first play.
And then when it was said and done, these Buckeyes simply ran out of gas when they most needed another gear.
They had nobody, healthy or otherwise, who could stay within the same zip code of Heisman Trophy-winning receiver DeVonta Smith, who pretty much ended the Buckeyes’ trying season and national championship hopes all on his own with just one half of play. Cornerback Shaun Wade, who said during the week leading up to the game, he wanted to cover Smith in man coverage, was left in his wake for most of the night.
Through this season of so much uncertainty, so many questions without answers, one thing was obvious by the time this warm night ended at Hard Rock Stadium: The Alabama Crimson Tide was just too good, too fast and too talented for the outmanned Buckeyes, who finish this abbreviated season with a 7-1 record.
There is simply no doubt about this: Alabama was by far the best college football team in the land this season. They finished with this 52-24 trouncing of Ohio State, a 13-0 record and national title trophy to prove it, as the Crimson Tide rolled to 621 total yards in the process.
No team seriously challenged the Tide this season, including the Big Ten’s best team.
“This is a great team,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said. “This is great for our fans and great our players. This game is really about what this team did all along this season.”
His smooth and slim receiver, Smith, the 6-foot-1, 175-pound senior, also was the best player in the land this season. He had 12 receptions for 215 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone (he didn’t play in the second half after injuring his hand) to prove it.
When Alabama quarterback Mac Jones looked Smith’s way, he usually was running free somewhere in the Buckeyes’ secondary. Jones passed for a championship game record 464 yards on 36-of-45, torching Ohio State’s secondary whenever he dropped back.
If there was an omen, it came on Ohio State’s first offensive play.
Sermon took a handoff and headed off left tackle. By the time he got up from the tackle, it appeared to be some sort of a shoulder injury that kept him out of the rest of the game.
Then All-American guard Wyatt Davis, one of the team’s true leaders, went down with a leg injury before the first half and did not return.
In between those two injuries, the Buckeyes were outscored 35-17 and it was obvious who would end with confetti in their hair on this night.
The Buckeyes didn’t force an Alabama punt until 10 seconds remaining in the first half and when they did, they ran into the punter.
Without two of their offensive stars, and with quarterback Justin Fields appearing to be less than 100 percent, I can honestly state that a halftime deficit probably never looked so unsurmountable in Ohio State’s 130-year football history.
Fields, who looked so invincible in the 49-28 win over Clemson in New Orleans just 11 days ago, was human on this night, especially with no running game to speak of with Sermon’s absence, although he did have plenty of bright spots and battled to the end. Now the Georgia transfer likely will take his game to the NFL, after two seasons as the best dual threat the Buckeyes probably have ever had at the position.
Ohio State held Alabama to a field goal on the first possession of the second half, but the problem was the Tide ate up 7:13 of the clock on the drive.
So, they faced a 21-point deficit and only 22 minutes remained in the game.
In other words, it was basically over.
But through it all, this Ohio State team never stopped fighting.
The Buckeyes took only three plays, two of them passes to Garrett Wilson, to drive 75 yards to make it 38-24. Wilson caught a 20-yard pass for the touchdown but that was as close as they could get.
However, on the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes just couldn’t get a stop of Alabama’s balanced and potent offense in order to stay in the game.
To illustrate how beat up and thin they became by night’s end, the Buckeyes played the fourth quarter with original fifth-string tailback Marcus Crowley getting most of the carries.
So, this strange and crazy football season finally came to an end in South Florida Monday night, after months of positive Covid tests, contact tracing, missed games and missed opportunities.
“The culture of our program, the leadership of our program, the way that our kids fought for a season and then came back, dealt with all the adversity along the way of games being canceled, guys being out… It was very, very difficult,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said.
The good news: The Buckeyes won another BIG championship and avenged their extremely painful 2019 loss to Clemson.
The bad news: There was no win over Michigan, something Ohioans count on and revel in to keep their thoughts warm each winter.
The worse news: Alabama exacted its revenge for that CFB playoff semifinal loss to the Buckeyes six years ago in the Sugar Bowl.
The Tide were national champions once again, the seventh title for Saban and his sixth at Alabama, as he surpassed legend Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“I really haven’t thought about that because I was always thinking about what is next,” he said as the confetti fell just before midnight.
As the crimson-colored confetti fell, the Buckeyes slowly walked, while many limped, to their locker room in the gloom of defeat.
But given how they felt five months ago today, when there were no games to look forward to, when their season they had worked so hard to prepare for had been canceled, reaching this moment really had to count for something.
Even if it all ended with a resounding thud.
[Editor’s Note: Jeff Snook, a 1982 graduate of the Ohio State School of Journalism, has written 14 books about college football.]
[Photo via Ohio State Twitter]