No. 1 Alabama has returned to the top of the college football mountain, rolling to the 18th national title in program history with a dominant 52-24 win over No. 3 Ohio State in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship. Undefeated at 13-0 and unchallenged through much of the season, the Crimson Tide put themselves in a special light even among the program’s six national championship-winning teams to play for Nick Saban.

The departures of multiple stars put the spotlight on an offense that had plenty to replace, but quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and especially Heisman Trophy-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith more than answered the call as they led one of the best offenses in Alabama history and showed out for the biggest game of the year with 621 yards of total offense. Their 52 points are the most ever scored by Alabama in a national title game and the most in a Crimson Tide bowl game since 1953.

Smith was nearly unstoppable, pulling in 12 catches on his first 13 targets for 215 yards and three touchdowns before leaving the game with a hand injury. Jones got banged up a little bit as well but still finished with 464 yards and five touchdowns on 36-of-45 passing.

Harris, who like Smith was one of the few current Alabama players to be on the team during its last national title run, was an all-purpose machine with 178 yards from scrimmage (79 rushing, 79 receiving) and three total touchdowns.

Ohio State entered the game with a chip on its shoulder fermented through weeks of doubt regarding its status as one of the best teams in the country. Playing less games than those in the ACC and SEC brought out plenty of criticism and nitpicking from the Buckeyes’ body of work, but most of those questions were silenced in a dominant win against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semifinal to book a spot in Monday night’s title game. There were notable setbacks, like starting running back Trey Sermon leaving the game after one drive with an injury and having numerous players unavailable (some a result of COVID-19 protocol), but the lopsided result was more a reflection of Alabama’s distance from the rest of the sport in this 2020 season.

Ohio State’s absences were notable, not game-changing

Even prior to Sermon’s injury, the Buckeyes had starting nose tackle Tommy Togiai, starting defensive end Tyreke Smith and starting kicker Blake Haubeil among the 13 players listed as out on their availability report. Having two starting defensive linemen wouldn’t have helped the mismatches Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian drew up for Smith in the first half, but those are key pieces to what has been an elite run defense and important bodies in a rotation that was needed as Alabama’s play count continued to tick up in the second half.

Sermon, who had set a school record with more than 500 rushing yards across two outings in the Big Ten Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl, suffering an injury in the first quarter and was unable to reenter the game. His replacement, Master Teague, was strong enough though, scoring two touchdowns.

The final total may not reflect it, but this was a two-score game midway through the third quarter and could have been a terrific comeback if the Buckeyes could get some stops. A couple Tide touchdowns later, the rout was back on and the result was not in doubt.

The 2020 Tide join the debate for best team ever

One year after Joe Burrow and LSU made all of college football wonder where the Tigers ranked among the best offenses and best teams in college football history, Alabama has immediately added an entry into that debate. The season totals won’t match the Tigers with three less games, but the averages and accolades are comparable.

Smith has been unique in ways that may exceed a team-wide comparison, but so was Burrow during his similarly transcendent season. The two teams will be debated and compared for years to come, but what follows will be a tiebreaker for fans in the SEC West. Alabama may see an NFL Draft exodus on par with LSU’s a year ago — it is similarly losing a top offensive coach with Sarkisian off to Texas — but it would be out of character to see a significant step back following this return to the top of the sport. Saban has embraced modern offense and winning by overwhelming your opponent with skill position talent. When the greatest coach in college football history has gone all in on innovation, that’s a wrap for pretty much everyone else in the sport for a few years.

Ohio State leaving points on the board may have cost it

Of the many “what-ifs” for Ohio State fans will be a few situational decisions by the Buckeyes during the Alabama onslaught that was the first half. Ohio State punted from the Alabama 44-yard line down 14-7 early in the second quarter, but it was bailed out by Jones’ subsequent fumble, giving the Buckeyes an opportunity to score anyway. Later, they settled for a field goal from the 6-yard line at the end of a nine-play drive instead of going for a game-tying touchdown. Following that, Ohio State had back-to-back three-and-outs before finishing the half by running out the clock.

The lack of stops by the Buckeyes defense combined with Smith’s incredible first-half stat line dominated the conversation, but there were points where it seemed like Ohio State could have taken a few more risks offensively and been in a better position when it mounted a comeback effort in the third quarter.

A record-setting evening

Alabama finished out the season averaging 48.5 points per game, the most in SEC history, and Smith rounded out SEC records for the most receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in a single season along with the SEC career receiving yards record. Jones not only holds several Alabama records already but after the game he solidified a new FBS record for completion percentage (77.4%) and his 464 passing yards are the most in a championship game in the BCS/CFP era. Adding to the ridiculous records to either be extended or fall tonight was Najee Harris tying the SEC record for most career touchdowns (57) and setting the new single-season touchdowns mark (30).

Perhaps even more impressive is that Nick Saban now holds the solo record for most national championships in the poll era, and the fact that of those seven title-winning teams only two were undefeated at the end of the year. The first was 2009, his first title with the Tide, and the other is the 2020 team that re-claimed the crown Monday night. This was a special team and its mark will be left on Alabama, and college football, forever.

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