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Ten Keys for Alabama

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Ten keys to victory for Alabama in the national championship game versus Ohio State.

1. Get DeVonta Smith the Ball -- It sounds obvious, throw it to the Heisman Trophy winner, but it couldn't be more important. Simply put, Smith makes Alabama go. He makes Mac Jones even better. When Smith has more than 80 yards receiving in his career, Alabama is 17-1. When he has at least eight receptions in a single game, the Crimson Tide are 9-0. Make it a point to consistently throw the football to Smith. Whether short conversions or chunk gains, his mere involvement puts extra pressure on opposing defenses and creates opportunities for others. When Smith does have the football in his hands, there is a good chance something special is going to happen. Smith leads the nation by a wide margin in catches of ten yards or more, while Ohio State finished 12th in the Big Ten in such plays allowed. Clemson's Cornell Powell had 139 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches and Trevor Lawrence threw for 400 yards. There will be downfield opportunities.  

2. Swarm Trey Sermon -- Trey Sermon runs hard and physical. He has keyed Ohio State's recent peak, with an astonishing 524 yards rushing and three touchdowns in the Big Ten Championship Game and Rose Bowl. Stopping him starts up front. Ohio State has been so dominant in the trenches that Sermon sometimes has two or three full yards before any contact ensues; Alabama's front must prevent that from happening and cannot allow him to get in stride. Crowding the line of scrimmage can help stop Sermon before he ever gets going. If Sermon does get into the open field, all defenders must rush to the football. Sermon often runs through individual tacklers. The Crimson Tide can't ever assume he is down or that one or two defenders have him covered.

3. Stay Ahead of the Sticks -- Quarterback Mac Jones has been exceptional this season, on pace to set a new single season FBS passer rating record. He leads the nation with 77% completions, one of the most important stats for Alabama. Running back Najee Harris has been spectacular as well. He is averaging over six yards per carry. Their collective balance and proficiency has helped keep the Crimson Tide in 3rd-and-manageable situations. It is why Alabama leads the nation with a third down conversion rate of 59.26%, the highest success rate in college football in at least the last decade. If the Crimson Tide can remain effective on first and second downs, relying on the continued accuracy of Jones and the downhill running of Harris, more of the same will be on the way for an Alabama offense averaging 48.2 points per game.

4. Force Checkdowns -- Ohio State has two very good perimeter options in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. That duo has combined for 82 receptions for 1,333 yards and 12 touchdowns. No other Buckeye has more than a dozen catches or 140 yards. Olave, especially, and Wilson are, by far, the favorite options for the uber-talented Justin Fields. It has been a banner season for Olave who missed the Big Ten Championship Game where Fields struggled. He has played in six games and has five 100-yard outings, scoring twice in the one appearance where he didn't reach the century mark. In the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson, Olave caught six passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns. The pressure will be on Patrick Surtain II to limit Olave's production and force Fields into corresponding adjustments.  

5. Get Off the Field Defensively -- Given that Ohio State will likely try to play defense with its offense, keeping Mac Jones, Najee Harris, DeVona Smith on the sidelines with long offensive drives, it will be critical for Alabama to win on third downs. The Crimson Tide have struggled there this season, ranking 76th nationally with a success rate of just 41.4%. Alabama must do better, which won't be easy against the talented, versatile attack of the Buckeyes. Don't let Justin Fields move the sticks with his legs. Preventing multi-conversion drives would allow the Crimson Tide to dictate tempo and use their dynamic offense to determine the style of game that is played. For as good as Ohio State is offensively, it's unlikely the Buckeyes want to get into an all-out sprint with Alabama. The Crimson Tide defense can force Ohio State's hand.

6. Redzone Defense -- Maximizing scoring opportunities is a must in big games. Having to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns cost Ohio State in its last defeat, a Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson in last year's College Football Playoff semifinal. Given the Buckeyes' shaky situation at kicker, keeping them out of the endzone will be even more important. Alabama has been good at doing just that this fall; the Crimson Tide rank in the top five in Power Five, allowing just 50% of opponent's redzone trips to result in touchdowns. Win where it counts. When Ohio State is near the goaline, Alabama will need to keep an eye on tight end Jeremy Ruckert as five of his 12 catches this season are for scores.

7. Don't Give up the Big Play -- Make Ohio State work for every point and every yard. In Alabama's last three losses, Auburn, LSU and Clemson, the three Tigers combined for 130 total points. It wasn't just long throws from Joe Burrow or Trevor Lawrence that hurt the Crimson Tide, either. Auburn scored on interception returns of 100 and 29 yards. Momentum is a funny thing in college football as a sudden moment can overturn a full quarter's worth of dominance. Alabama must keep Ohio State from hitting the home run plays, something the Buckeyes certainly did against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. Not only did Ohio State pace the Big Ten by a wide margin in plays of 20, 30 and 40 yards or more, the Buckeyes also tied for the conference lead with eleven forced fumbles.

8. Pressure Justin Fields -- Chris Allen, Will Anderson and Christian Barmore have given Alabama a good pass rush this season, with that trio alone combining for 20 sacks. The pass rush has come on especially well over the second half of the year. It's a trend that must continue and one that should, looking at some of Ohio State's struggles. Though the Buckeyes have been truly elite at run blocking, Ohio State ranks 12th in the Big Ten in sacks allowed. Timely blitzes could keep the Buckeyes off balance and prevent Justin Fields from settling into a downfield rthythm. Baremore is the x-factor to watch as his interior rush has presented challenges for opponents. He has five sacks over his last five games.

9. Penalties and Special Teams -- Keep an eye on the areas of the football game that often go overlooked. Hidden yardage usually plays a major role in games between relatively evenly matched teams. First, credit where credit is due. Alabama kicker Will Reichard has been tremendous this season, going 13-for-13 on the year. DeVonta Smith is as good as it gets in the return game as is Jaylen Waddle, if he goes. What is interesting is that Ohio State ranks 125 nationally in punt return coverage, second-to-last in the country, a potential stat to remember. The Crimson Tide are last in the SEC in punting, however, an area which obviously needs to be better on Monday night. Alabama can't give the Buckeyes bonus yards via field position. In the Crimson Tide's last five losses, they have 45 total penalties. They can't give Ohio State help through the officials, either.

10. Start Strong -- While Ohio State's victory over Clemson was an impressive one, Alabama needs to erase that momentum early and show the Buckeyes that this is a new game against a better foe. Confidence is a big deal in college football and Ohio State showed a ton of it in the semifinal. It helped spark the Buckeyes second and third quarter rally. A start similar to what the Crimson Tide had in the Rose Bowl would shift all of the pressure to Ohio State and affirm the national narrative of Alabama being the favorite. You never want the underdog to hit the ground running. The opening period will be important as the Crimson Tide look to set the tone for the entire game.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports