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McKewon: Ohio State may rule the Big Ten, but the Playoff is a tougher nut to crack

McKewon: Ohio State may rule the Big Ten, but the Playoff is a tougher nut to crack

Ohio State

Ohio State could only watch as Alabama celebrated another national championship.

Alabama put the national championship to bed around the time Heisman Trophy-winning receiver DeVonta Smith flew by Buckeye linebacker Tuf Borland untouched for a 42-yard touchdown late in the second quarter.

The play gave ‘Bama a 35-17 lead. The Tide rolled to a 52-24 win.

Ohio State, meanwhile, lost its third national title game since 2000. All three have been to SEC teams — Florida in 2006, LSU in 2007 and Alabama on Monday night.

The Buckeyes lacked a certain edge. Mostly, they lacked a full roster. Several key defensive players were out because of COVID-19 or injury issues. OSU running back Trey Sermon had one carry for 2 yards, and then left with an injury.

Coach Ryan Day, having battled to just get Big Ten football back, had a look in his eyes — and the bags under them — that spoke volumes. His words did, too.

“We need a break,” said Day, who also contracted COVID-19 in late November. “We need to get away. Guys are missing their families, and we all just need a break. We’ve already started to put together the schedule for the spring, but we all need to get away for a while. This has been a long, long road. Guys miss their families, and they deserve time to be with them.”

When OSU returns, will the program simply reload? Perhaps. Don’t doubt Day. I did before the 2019 season, and the Buckeyes steamrolled the whole league.

Don’t be surprised if Day makes coaching changes, though.

Ohio State is in the business of beating three teams: Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma. Since the playoff era began, OSU is 1-1 against the Sooners, 1-2 against the Tigers and 1-1 against the Tide. Not bad! But I think you’d be hard-pressed to say the Buckeyes have the same level of defensive coaching the other three do headed into 2021.

Scoff if you want about OU, but the improvement under coordinator Alex Grinch from the start of the season to its conclusion was remarkable. The Sooners allowed 17 points per game over their last seven contests, all wins. Four of those opponents averaged 30 or more points per game this season.

Clemson has Brent Venables, whose one bad game against Ohio State is less defining than a full résumé. Alabama’s many defensive coordinators over the years have the same boss: Nick Saban.

Ohio State’s DC? Kerry Coombs. Great recruiter of elite defensive backs. One of the nation’s best secondary coaches.

Is he one of the nation’s best defensive play-callers? Consider Monday night. Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian waxed Coombs pretty good.

The Tide have one of the all-time great passing offenses, up there with 2019 LSU and some of the Carson Palmer/Matt Leinart USC squads. But it’s hard to see how allowing the electric and fluid Smith so many easy touches all over the field is a good strategy.

Day said after the game that the Buckeyes were bullish on stopping Alabama’s run game. Fair. Najee Harris is special. But why not heat up Alabama quarterback Mac Jones with more zone blitzes? Why presume OSU could stop a red-zone offense that scored 53 touchdowns on 68 trips? The Buckeyes forced a couple of early red-zone fourth downs. Alabama easily converted them.

What OSU rarely did was even attempt to put the Tide deep behind the chains. Maybe the Buckeyes couldn’t have done it. Did they try hard enough?

At any rate, Ohio State’s secondary wasn’t up to the challenge of managing Alabama’s pass game despite using a variety of coverages. Shaun Wade doesn’t look like the next Marshon Lattimore. OSU’s linebackers are tough as nails, but slow laterally. And Borland isn’t covering Smith any day of the week, and it’s hard to say why Ohio State’s safety was rotating away from Smith on that touchdown.

“We changed up some of the looks and played some two high (safeties), which is not something we typically do a lot of,” Day said, referencing Ohio State’s preference to play man-to-man coverage. “Pressured some more the last couple games. So I thought we did mix it up a decent amount.

“But again, it’s another thing to actually execute it. When you’re playing against elite players, and this is probably one of the better offenses in college football in a long time, the margin for error is tiny.”

When you hear Ohio State’s coach talk like that, you know how good Alabama’s offense must be. But OSU isn’t in it for second place. The Buckeyes allowed 21 points per game in the Big Ten, playing the Nos. 37, 66, 93, 94, 106 and 109 offenses. Last year against league foes, it was just 13.7.

The Buckeyes won’t have Justin Fields back to lead the offense. He’s almost surely headed to the NFL to take his lumps for a mediocre franchise. Sermon will be gone. So will most of that great offensive line. Receiver Chris Olave has little left to prove. Tight end Jeremy Ruckert, who has nine touchdowns in 28 career catches, is projected as a second-day NFL draft pick if he comes out after his junior year.

Ohio State has talent. It always does. It lost a Heisman Trophy winner to LSU in Joe Burrow and didn’t skip a beat. The Buckeyes will be the runaway favorite in a Big Ten that has become beta to the Buckeyes’ alpha persona.

But OSU fought for a football season — tilting the trajectory of the entire sport — to win a national title. It starts the video game each year on the final boss.

Day’s dilemma is similar to what Frank Solich faced at Nebraska after back-to-back losses to Colorado and Miami in that 2001 season. NU’s tide began to turn there from national bully to regional powerhouse. Solich lost after that season his Heisman quarterback, many great offensive linemen and some elite defenders. He stood pat with his coaches, coordinators and approach. You know what happened next.

That likely won’t happen at Ohio State next year. Top recruits too often congregate at the same schools, and the NFL is too pliant to draft players from the same teams, for OSU to experience a hard fall like Nebraska once did or LSU did in 2020.

But the Buckeyes don’t play for No. 2. I’m not even sure they play for the Big Ten title. How do you play for something you win all the time?

Ohio State caucuses with this league. But in terms of excellence, it’s an independent. So are Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and perhaps even Georgia. One day, the siloed nature of the sport may further erode our joy in it unless the CFP is expanded and more teams get to define themselves as worthy.

A conversation for another day. For now — watch Ohio State’s coaching staff. Especially on defense.

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