For a moment, put aside the coronavirus pandemic and all of the disruptions it caused the college football season – the weekly teetering, the postponements, the cancellations, the thousands of virus cases, and the traces of contact. Now consider the two teams that have risen to a championship the staging of which is still being discussed for a long time.
There is Alabama at the highest level, whose front-runner status has been so constant over the past ten years or so that its presence in the title mix is as reassuringly familiar as it is deafening. And there’s Ohio State No. 3, the scarlet and gray force that angered the mighty Clemson on Friday night and, despite the cheeky politics that helped pave the way to the college football playoffs, sometimes ended up like some sort of 2020 upstart .
These are two programs that have been undone and subscribed over the years by expectation and ambition. Two programs with different routes through the pandemic to the game on January 11th in Miami Gardens, Florida. But in the end, two programs that got college football exactly where almost everyone thought a 2020 season was, if it happened at all, ending: one final battle between blue bloods.
Other ideas, like a playoff spot for Cincinnati, a School of the Group of Five, only turned out to be ideas, not likely outcomes. The key short-term dispute that remains to be resolved is whether a team from Alabama that worked through a Southeastern Conference schedule and rolled to 12-0 with a Rose Bowl win is better and more ready to fight than a team from The state of Ohio, which has played just six Big Ten games, including the championship and a semi-final, can be considered fresh-legged, completely inexperienced, or both.
“We’re not done yet,” said Ohio state coach Ryan Day after his Buckeyes demolished Clemson (49-28) in the Sugar Bowl. “We have a lot to do, we have to work on this film, figure out some things that we have to adjust because we have a really talented bama team that we have to play.”
Despite being on the Ohio state’s 23-1 schedule, Day hasn’t led any team in a title game showdown. Nick Saban of Alabama is in a very different place: The game at Hard Rock Stadium is the eighth title matchup of his 14 seasons in Alabama. If his team wins, he’ll have his sixth national championship at the school, a brand that corresponds to Bear Bryant, after which Alabama’s stadium in Tuscaloosa is partially named.
But the team that Saban, a former defender, has steered towards South Florida is not like its previous rivals who kept all opponents insecure and some of whom were more entertaining on defense than on offense.
Above all, this team already has more than 6,400 meters of attack surface and three of the five best Heisman Trophy candidates of the year. Saban’s first championship team in Alabama came out with 5,642 yards and star traffic jam Mark Ingram, who won the Heisman that season in 2009. (This season’s winner will be announced Tuesday night, and DeVonta Smith and Alabama quarterback Mac Jones are among the finalists.)
And while Alabama has said almost nothing about the virus’s reach on its soccer program, except when Saban himself tested positive just over a month after a false positive, the tide kept him through the season without reaching the point where a game had to be postponed or canceled.
The state of Ohio, which also put a bounty on the sports secret during a public health emergency, needed help getting its championship game on its own. The state of Ohio, hampered by the cancellations of other teams and its own outburst that forced it to miss a trip to Illinois, benefited from a last-minute change to the Big Ten rules than the six games that were originally used for qualifying required for the title matchup of the conference were not met.
The Buckeyes fought their way through that championship game but won and were given the number 3 rating by the playoff selection committee, however, the perception issues didn’t end when skeptics asked if the Big Ten had again changed a rule – this, part of their pandemic protocols – to teams like helping the state of Ohio raise more players in the postseason.
On Friday night, Clemson’s dominance in the Ohio state’s Sugar Bowl exceeded expectations that hours earlier had been viewed as reasonable or achievable. This was a remarkable result for a Buckeyes team that just a few months ago was on the verge of not playing at all this season.
The state of Ohio, considered a contender for the title long before “Household Distance,” isn’t the riot that came out of Baton Rouge a season ago when Joe Burrow, a quarterback who was undervalued by SEC coaches (and was from the state of Ohio abruptly led the state of Louisiana to 8,533 yards of total insult and a national championship. But her story, as of now, is still a story about defying the hubris that so often emanates from southern rust and sports talk radio stations and suspicion of shadowing a playoff selection process that did so may look like he has a tendency to make leisurely calls.
“Everyone who doubted us just pushed us a little more,” said Justin Fields, the Buckeyes quarterback, as he recovered from a rib grind during the Sugar Bowl. He’d stayed here after a foray into a medical side tent, had six touchdowns and led a crime that had accumulated over 1,500 feet.
These doubts may be a little quieter until January 11th. Most, if not all of the remaining are then cleared up in the kind of championship game that could have been drawn years ago, even if the exact participants were still a mystery.
After all, despite a pandemic that has changed so much of society, college football has shown this season that it can only tolerate so much uncertainty about its biggest stage.