For the third straight season, the last two of college football’s unbeaten powerhouses will meet for a chance to be crowned the sport’s national champions - a meeting between teams arriving in South Florida with very different 2020 stories.
In their fifth ever meeting, with three of the previous four also coming in the postseason, the top seeded Alabama Crimson Tide will take on the third seeded Ohio State Buckeyes on Monday night inside of Hard Rock Stadium in the seventh edition of the College Football Playoff national title game.
The Crimson Tide return to South Florida, where they won a national title to end the 2012 season and qualified for another title game in the 2018 season, with a 12-0 record and as the solid favorite to win their third national title in the last six seasons.
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Why? Well, start with an undefeated regular season that included wins over ranked Georgia and Texas A&M teams and then add a victory over a ranked Florida team in the SEC Championship game before a blowout win over No. 4 Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl to qualify for Monday’s showdown.
“It's pretty exciting, you know, to play back at home,” said Alabama defensive back and Plantation native Patrick Surtain II. “But it doesn't matter where we play at. We've still got to play 60 minutes of the football game and focus on what we need to do and control what we need to control.”
Alabama comes into the game thanks in part to the right arm of quarterback Mac Jones, who threw for over 4,000 yards and 36 touchdowns with just four interceptions.
Of course, their top player on offense this season is wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who caught 20 of those touchdown passes and brought home the Heisman Trophy last Tuesday as college football’s top player.
“You have guys playing any skill position and they have ability to make explosive plays,” said Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who has a chance to win his second national title inside the stadium where he once served as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. “I think sort of the advent of the spread offense, which gives players on the perimeter a much better chance to make plays.”
Smith’s final postseason game hopes to have the same memories as his first one in 2017 - when he caught the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to defeat Georgia and win the Crimson Tide’s last national championship.
“Just me being the competitor I am I wanted to just do whatever I can to help the team, and that's what it came down to,” Smith said.
Ohio State has been the true story of ups and downs - considering the fact they weren’t even supposed to play this season. A late change by the Big Ten got the Buckeyes on the field and allowed them to finish the regular season undefeated after just five games.
“It was pretty rough in the beginning, just coming here and not being able to be around everybody, and then everything gets shut down and then picks back up,” said running back Trey Sermon, who transferred from Oklahoma after last season. “It was pretty rough.”
A controversial ruling allowed the Buckeyes to qualify for the Big Ten championship game, where Sermon ran for 331 yards and Ohio State defeated Northwestern to qualify for the College Football Playoff.
Many people didn’t give the Buckeyes much of a chance against Clemson, but Ohio State relied on the right arm of another transfer - this one being quarterback Justin Fields, who threw for six touchdowns in the 49-28 beat down of the Tigers.
"Justin is such a competitive guy. He wasn't going to come off the field, and that's just the way he's wired. You were going to have to pull him off the field,” said Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, who qualified for the playoff in both seasons leading the Buckeyes. “It was a pretty amazing performance."
After losing two straight playoff semifinals, the Buckeyes are back in the title game for the first time since the 2014 season - which came after a shocking upset over an Alabama team in that year’s semifinal, the last time they met before Monday night.
“When you get to this level, you know it's going to be hard no matter how you shake it,” Day said. “You've got to be on top of your game and you've got to do a great job getting the guys prepared, playing at a high level, and that's what we're going to focus on.”
The teams will meet in a national title game played inside Hard Rock Stadium for the first time since the 2012 season, when Alabama defeated Notre Dame. It will be the 15th time that South Florida has been the site of a game deciding the national champ, including previous wins by in-state powers Miami, FSU and Florida.