Over the past century, only Michigan has won more football games than Ohio State and Alabama, and just one victory separates the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide.
Ohio State has won 929 games; Alabama has won 928. The Crimson Tide have 15 national championships, while the Buckeyes have claimed eight.
On Jan. 11, Ohio State and Alabama will meet for only the fifth time in their storied histories — this time in the College Football Playoff National Championship (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) presented by AT&T at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.
The No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide defeated No. 4 Notre Dame, 31-14, in a CFP semifinal at The Rose Bowl Game Presented by Capital One. No. 3 Ohio State then stunned No. 2 Clemson 49-28 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
The Buckeyes won their last meeting against the Crimson Tide, a 42-35 Sugar Bowl victory in 2015.
Here’s everything you need to know about the 2021 CFP National Championship.
How Alabama got here: Playing a conference-only schedule because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Crimson Tide became the first team in SEC history to go 10-0 against conference foes during the regular season. It was the Tide’s fifth undefeated regular season under Nick Saban. Alabama won each of its 10 regular-season games by 15 points or more (seven by four touchdowns or more), including a 28-point rout of then-No. 13 Texas A&M, 17 points over No. 3 Georgia and 29 points over No. 22 Auburn. Alabama’s most difficult test was a 52-46 victory over No. 7 Florida in the SEC championship game, in which the Gators scored 29 points in the second half and piled up 462 yards of offense to nearly overcome an 18-point deficit. The Tide improved to 5-1 in CFP semifinal games with their victory over Notre Dame on Friday.
Alabama offensive player to watch: WR DeVonta Smith. The senior is a Heisman Trophy finalist and this week became the first wide receiver to win AP college football player of the year since the award was established in 1998. In the six games before the CFP semifinal, Smith had 53 catches for 955 yards with 13 touchdowns, while totaling 199 yards with a touchdown on eight punt returns. In the first 11 games, Smith accounted for 768 of his 1,511 receiving yards on yards after the catch.
Alabama defensive player to watch: CB Patrick Surtain II. The junior was Pro Football Focus’ top cornerback in the FBS heading into the Rose Bowl and No. 10 defensive player overall with an 87.0 grade in the first 11 games. According to PFF, Smith had an 86.3 coverage grade, which ranked sixth in the FBS and second in the Power 5. Before facing the Fighting Irish, Surtain had allowed only 18 completions on 43 targets over 460 total snaps. He had allowed a completion once every 24.2 snaps, which ranked third among FBS players.
Matchup that favors the Crimson Tide: Alabama’s wide receivers vs. Ohio State’s secondary. Even without injured Jaylen Waddle, the Tide’s group of receivers is a matchup nightmare for any team. The Buckeyes held up well against Clemson’s thin receiver corps, but they ranked last in the Big Ten in pass defense in the first six games, allowing 261.3 yards per game. The Buckeyes did a good job of taking Clemson’s Amari Rodgers out of the game, but the Tide have more weapons.
Individual matchup to watch: Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding vs. Ohio State QB Justin Fields. Fields put together the game of a lifetime against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, throwing for 385 yards with six touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ stunning rout. Fields looked confused in earlier games against Indiana and Northwestern, when he combined to throw five interceptions and was sacked eight times. He was pretty much flawless in every other game. Golding has been criticized for the Alabama defense’s inconsistent play, and he’ll have to put together a solid game plan to put pressure on Fields.
Alabama X factor: K Will Reichard. In the past, Alabama fans held their collective breath when the Tide’s kicker took the field in the postseason. Not this season. Reichard, a sophomore from Hoover, Alabama, was a perfect 12-for-12 on field goals, including a 52-yarder against Georgia, and 73-for-73 on extra points in the first 11 games. He is a finalist for the Lou Groza Award.
Alabama will win if: The Tide’s offensive line protects Mac Jones. Alabama’s offensive line is very good, led by tackle Alex Leatherwood and guard Deonte Brown. If the Tide can protect Jones and give him time in the pocket, he’ll probably do what he has done all season. His 3,739 passing yards were the most by an Alabama quarterback through the first 11 games, and he was completing 75.6% of his attempts with 32 touchdowns and four interceptions.
What’s at stake for Alabama: Alabama is aiming for its 16th national championship, the most in the AP poll era, and second most in college football history. Yale won 18 national titles from 1874 to 1927. Saban would win his seventh national title in the past 16 years, including six at Alabama. His seven national titles (he won one at LSU in 2003) would move him out of a tie with legendary Tide coach Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most by a coach in college football history.
How Ohio State got here: The Buckeyes didn’t kick off until Oct. 24 after the Big Ten delayed the start of the season because of COVID-19 concerns. Ohio State defeated two ranked teams during the regular season: then-No. 18 Penn State 38-25 on the road on Oct. 31 and then-No. 9 Indiana 42-35 at home on Nov. 21. Three of Ohio State’s regular-season games were canceled because of coronavirus issues. The Big Ten voted on Dec. 9 to change its policy that teams had to play six games to be eligible for the conference championship game. Despite not having 22 players, including leading receiver Chris Olave and starting linebacker Baron Browning, the Buckeyes defeated then-No. 14 Northwestern 22-10 in the Big Ten championship game to win their fourth straight league title.
Ohio State offensive player to watch: While quarterback Justin Fields is the transfer who gets the most attention for the Buckeyes, running back Trey Sermon, who played for Oklahoma the previous three seasons, is equally as important. The graduate transfer from Marietta, Georgia, has carried the load in Ohio State’s past three games. He ran for 112 yards with one touchdown in a 52-12 victory over Michigan State in the Buckeyes’ last regular-season game, then he had a school-record 331 yards with two scores on 29 carries against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game. He broke the OSU single-game record of 314 yards set by Eddie George against Illinois in 1995, and his rushing total was the most ever in a conference title game. Sermon had 112 yards on 17 carries in the first half with Master Teague sidelined. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Sermon had 524 rushing yards in the past two games, the most in a two-game stretch by an OSU player in history.
Ohio State defensive player to watch: Ohio State LB Pete Werner. He was the Buckeyes’ leading tackler heading into the CFP semifinals and was instrumental in shutting down Tigers tailback Travis Etienne. Werner moved from outside linebacker to inside this season and had 37 tackles, 2½ tackles for loss and 1 sack in the first six games. He’s very good in coverage against tight ends and running backs and will be important in trying to slow down Alabama’s Najee Harris.
Matchup that favors the Buckeyes: Ohio State DT Haskell Garrett vs. Alabama C Chris Owens. Garrett was shot in the face and spent two days in the hospital in early September. The senior from Las Vegas wasn’t medically cleared to play this season until only four days before the opener. He has emerged as one of the best interior linemen in the country with 17 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and 1 interception in the first six games. According to Pro Football Focus, Garrett was the highest-graded defensive lineman in the FBS with a grade of 92.1 before the CFP semifinals. Owens was thrust into the starting lineup when starter Landon Dickerson tore his ACL against Florida in the SEC championship game.
Individual matchup to watch: Ohio State CB Shaun Wade vs. Alabama WR DeVonta Smith. Wade opted out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft, but changed his mind and has been the leader of OSU’s secondary. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks him as the fourth-best cornerback prospect for the 2021 NFL draft. Wade was named an All-American by ESPN and The Associated Press, and he is OSU’s first winner of the Big Ten’s Tatum-Woodson defensive back of the year award.
Ohio State X factor: Fields took a vicious shot to the ribs by Clemson senior linebacker James Skalski with 5:57 to go in the second quarter. Skalski was ejected for targeting, and Fields was slow to get up and looked to be in pain. He missed one play before returning to throw a touchdown to wide receiver Chris Olave for a 28-14 lead over the Tigers. He wore extra padding on his left side for the remainder of the game. Fields had been nursing a thumb injury, but he looked ready to go. Will the rib injury linger over the next 10 days before he faces the Crimson Tide? It didn’t seem to bother him as he threw for six touchdowns against Clemson.
Ohio State will win if: The Buckeyes play like they played against Clemson. They completely dismantled the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl, grabbing a 35-14 lead at halftime. Fields was in complete control and utilized his running backs and tight ends to exploit Clemson’s defense. Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs put together a great game plan to put pressure on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a Heisman Trophy finalist, and the Buckeyes will need to pressure Jones as well.
What’s at stake for Ohio State: The Buckeyes are 23-1 in coach Ryan Day’s second season. After waiting 34 years to win a national title, Ohio State can win its third since 2002. It defeated Miami 31-24 in two overtimes to win the 2003 Fiesta Bowl under Jim Tressel, and then beat Oregon 42-20 to win the first CFP under Urban Meyer in 2015.