On New Year’s Day, Alabama beat Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl. By the next night, Nick Saban knew he needed a new offensive coordinator: Steve Sarkisian had accepted an offer to become the next coach at Texas.
Working for one team and landing a job with another is a tricky, familiar circumstance for big-time programs during the postseason. Alabama had a Sarkisian-style situation not too long ago, actually. Near the end of the 2016 season, Lane Kiffin, then Alabama’s offensive coordinator, accepted the top job at Florida Atlantic.
Ultimately, Alabama used an interim offensive coordinator for that title game. But in an interview last week, Kiffin, now the head coach at Mississippi, said he thought Sarkisian had been able to better balance the role he’s leaving with his new job in Austin.
“When we got a head job before, there wasn’t Covid so there was active recruiting going on, so you’re literally recruiting and going back and forth between the schools and stuff,” Kiffin said. “And there’s hardly any recruiting because of the early signing period,” which ended on Dec. 18. (For more on how the early signing period is no longer all that early, we explored that subject in February.)
For his part, Sarkisian insisted before the game that he had not been distracted by his impending move.
“Quite honestly, my week for me would be a normal game week as if I hadn’t taken the Texas job,” he said. “My focus is on the game. I’m prepping for the ballgame. Any of the spare time that I do have, that’s getting my attention for the job at Texas, whether that’s staffing or recruiting, things of that nature.”
And Saban, who famously complained about assistants being distracted a couple of years ago, said on Sunday he had no objections to how events had proceeded this time.
“I think our coaching staff has done a really good job working with our players,” Saban said. “Sark is the one guy that has shown great maturity, I think, in how he’s handled his situation, moving on to be a head coach, which is what he’s worked for, and we’re happy for him relative to the opportunity that he’s created for himself by the great job that he’s done for us here. But I have no complaints at all with the way our coaches have sort of handled the situation.”
The bar-lined Strip in Tuscaloosa, Ala., is usually filled with Crimson-clad football fans during championship games, who storm the street if the Crimson Tide win. The mayor of Tuscaloosa, the home city of the University of Alabama, was hoping that fans would stay home on Monday night as the city struggles with virus cases and limited capacity in hospitals.
“We’re probably in our most precarious position since the pandemic began in early March,” Mayor Walt Maddox said in a Zoom interview last week.
“When your hospital has four available I.C.U. rooms left, that’s as serious as it gets,” he added.
Health officials encouraged avid football followers to adopt Coach Nick Saban’s philosophy: “Do your job.”
“Our job is to social distance, wear a mask, follow the occupancy orders,” the mayor said of those who would choose to watch the game in the company of people outside their immediate household. “And, if we are successful Monday night, that we don’t flood the streets and create a block party environment.”
But it appears that fans did not get the message, as bars along the Strip had crowded lines at 3 p.m. Eastern on Monday.
The number of new coronavirus cases in Alabama this week increased 29 percent compared to two weeks ago, according to a New York Times database. About 20 percent of people who were tested in the past several weeks were found to have the virus, said Dr. Karen Landers, a health officer for the state. “That’s very very high statewide; we have a lot of community transmission of Covid-19,” she said in a phone interview last week.
Tuscaloosa, in accordance with Alabama’s guidelines, has mandated masks and set limits on bar and restaurant occupancies to curb the spread of the virus; there is a “safer at home” order but no curfew in the state.
While there is a police presence monitoring the Strip, only 69 percent of Tuscaloosa’s police officers were available as of Thursday because of exposure to or contraction of the virus, Maddox said.
The university also released guidance for how to watch the game safely on Monday, writing in a post on Twitter that “any unlawful behavior and/or violations of our health and safety protocols will result in disciplinary action.”
In Columbus, Ohio, home of the Buckeyes, about 0.6 percent of the population has tested positive for the virus each week for the past eight weeks, Dr. Mysheika Roberts, the city’s health commissioner, said in a phone interview last week. The city has been checking for occupancy and mask compliance in restaurants and bars, and planned to patrol more on Monday night.
“We have seen some issues with restaurants and bars on game day or game night, and we have issued warnings when necessary and we have even gone to court for a few cases,” she said of overcrowding and people refusing to wear masks over the past several weeks.
There is a stay-at-home order and a 10 p.m. curfew in Ohio. Dr. Roberts said Columbus’ health department was bracing for a surge in cases following December’s holiday season; the average number of new cases in Ohio rose 16 percent last week from two weeks ago, according to a New York Times database.
“Then if you put the game on top of that this coming Monday, we’re concerned about a surge that we might have after that,” Dr. Roberts said.
The mayor of Columbus is watching from home with just his immediate family. “And I encourage Buckeye Nation to do the same,” Mayor Andrew Ginther wrote in an email to the Times. “I know that is a lot to ask, but illness and possibly death have to count more than a national championship.”
Trey Sermon rushed for 331 yards in Ohio State’s Big Ten championship win this season — the most ever by a running back in a Football Bowl Subdivision championship and the most by an Ohio State player in any game.
In Ohio State’s semifinal win over Clemson, he rushed for another 193 yards on 31 attempts.
So no doubt Pete Golding, Alabama’s defensive coordinator, is on high alert. He thinks Sermon will come in full force Monday night.
“I think he runs the ball effectively, he runs behind his pads; I think he’s explosive,” Golding said in a call with reporters last week. “I think he does a nice job understanding their blocking structure up front and follows blockers and has patience when he needs to.”
“He’s one of those guys where you give him the seam, he can take it: I think he’s got breakaway speed and then he still has the ability to catch some out of the backfield,” he added.
Sermon transferred to Ohio State as a graduate student from Oklahoma in 2020. In the first five games of this season, he rushed for a total of 344 yards, averaging just over 6 yards per attempt. Including the postseason, he has four touchdowns in 2020 and 2021.
“He’s got really good balance and vision,” said Tom Allen, Indiana’s coach. “He wasn’t running with confidence early in the year, and he’s being so much more decisive right now in getting his reads and cuts.”
Ohio State beat Indiana 42-35 in November: Sermon rushed for 60 yards on nine attempts in that game. Allen added, “He has really good patience and really good balance and he’s really tough to tackle.”
When asked if he was nervous about living up to his own standards, Sermon’s answer was simple: “No.”
“I’m confident in my ability and I know that I prepare well for each game,” he said last week. “I mean, there’s no pressure.”
Golding expects Ohio State to make use of Sermon, which means everyone — everyone — on Alabama will need to be on watch.
“We’ve got to do running our feet on contacts and peppering the ball carrier and getting 11 guys to the ball, because he’s a really good player and they’ve got a good front to block for him,” he said.
As we wrote in this morning’s newspaper, Alabama’s offense this season is really, really good, particularly by the standards of Nick Saban, a defensive prodigy if there ever was one.
Kerry Coombs, the defensive coordinator at Ohio State, laid out the situation last week:
They have great players, but they also have a great scheme and they understand how to attack defenses. People have tried numerous different things against them, and they always have an answer.
I think their kids play hard. I think they play physical. They run the ball well. They throw the ball obviously extremely well. They have great skill.
For us, this is the biggest offensive line that we’ve faced, but they’re also very gifted, very athletic, they can run, and they do a great job. It’s going to be really, really important for us to we’re fitting the right gaps, that we have inside hands with great pad level and that we — because if you misfit a gap or you get high in your pads or your hands are outside, they’re going to take advantage of it.
And then obviously we’re going to have to do a great job in coverage with the skill of the receivers and the quality of the quarterback.
Indeed, while DeVonta Smith, the latest winner of the Heisman Trophy, will rightly get plenty of attention tonight, don’t forget that the running back, Najee Harris, finished fifth in the Heisman balloting this season.
“He’s a very patient back, and he finds the holes,” Pete Werner, an Ohio State linebacker, said last week. “It might look cloudy at some times, but then you see him get 6, 7, 8 yards when he should have gotten zero. He’s a very good back. He’s good at making you miss, and they just do a very good job utilizing him in the run and pass game to make him a real threat from a defensive perspective.”
The east parking lot at Hard Rock Stadium has been a virus testing facility since March, closing for games for the N.F.L.’s Miami Dolphins and the University of Miami football teams. It also shut down for the Orange Bowl, though it is typically open seven days a week.
Now, it is pausing virus testing and vaccinations on Monday to make way for the College Football Playoff title game between Alabama and Ohio State.
The stadium became a drive-through vaccination site on Friday, as announced by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida last week. On Sunday, Florida health officials reminded people of the pause on Twitter, sparking an uproar that the state was again prioritizing money over public health.
“Maybe you close it a little early,” Governor DeSantis said of the facility for Monday’s game at a news conference Wednesday. “But I think you can still do it, even on that day.”
The game is kicking off eight hours after the state shut down the vaccine clinic at noon.
“I would say that the whole season has been a balancing act and the championship game will be one, too,” said Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, adding that he was happy the site was able to offer vaccines and host the game as well.
The @HardRockStadium testing & vaccination site will close at noon tomorrow to accommodate for the CFP National Championship game:
❌ COVID-19 testing not available
✅ Vaccine appointments from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.
The site will resume normal operational hours Tuesday, Jan. 12. pic.twitter.com/82tmoOqvC9
— FL Division of Emergency Management (@FLSERT) January 10, 2021
The number of new cases in Florida, which has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic recently, increased 58 percent this week compared to two weeks ago, according to a New York Times database. Deaths have increased 44 percent during that same time period. Miami-Dade County, where the College Football Championship is, is the most populous county in Florida and has had the third highest rate of daily cases per 100,000 residents of any county over the past week.
Still, Hard Rock Stadium, in Miami Gardens, planned to welcome upward of 14,000 spectators to watch the championship game. Florida has no travel restrictions, meaning fans could come from all over without quarantining.
Local governments cannot enforce mask mandates, occupancy limits or curfews for their districts, as the governor prohibited them from prescribing penalties to those violating coronavirus recommendations.
The policies in Florida concerning the virus contrasted sharply with California’s handling of fans at the Rose Bowl, which was eventually moved because health officials would not allow fans to attend the game at the urging of football officials.
The Rose Bowl, which moved to Texas, had been held in Pasadena, Calif., every year since its inception, apart from the game following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
State leaders in Florida have operated under the same “re-opening” standards they set in September.
Appointments for vaccines in Miami-Dade, which are available to residents 65 and older, filled up 20 minutes after registration opened on Thursday, the mayor’s office said. Residents from all over the state are scrambling to get the vaccine, as the governor has made it available to a wider range of individuals than most states.
“Getting these vaccines into the community is the best way to protect our most vulnerable and fast-forward us toward the end of this pandemic and the restoration of our economy,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said.
Though Hard Rock Stadium will be at 20 percent capacity with rules in place about physical distancing and wearing masks, television footage from the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl — which had similar rules — showed clusters of unmasked fans.
Alabama, the Southeastern Conference champion, is chasing some history on Monday night for its coach, Nick Saban. A victory would give Saban, 69, a sixth national championship with the school, tying him with Bear Bryant for the most of any Alabama coach.
The Crimson Tide are 12-0 so far this season, but 2-2 in College Football Playoff championship games over the years and 7-3 in playoff games.
Players to watch: For excitement that is as compelling as it is predictable this season, look to the offense. DeVonta Smith, the first wide receiver since 1991 to win the Heisman Trophy, will almost assuredly be hard to miss, as will Najee Harris, the starting tailback who turned heads during the Rose Bowl with a breathtaking leap over a Notre Dame defender. But the offensive line, so often overlooked, makes things work for Alabama, so watch Deonte Brown, the 350-pound redshirt senior at left guard, and Alex Leatherwood, a senior who plays left tackle.
Something Alabama loves: Hard as it might be to believe after years of special teams struggles in Tuscaloosa, kicking (when Alabama must, of course). Will Reichard has hit all 13 of his field goal tries, as well as all 77 extra point attempts.
Something Alabama detests: The defense has intercepted a dozen passes this year — stellar by many standards but the fewest by an Alabama team since the 2014 season, when its campaign ended with a College Football Playoff game against Ohio State. (Alabama lost, 42-35. Ohio State went on to win the first national championship of the playoff era.)
Alabama’s warning light: It’s the same as Clemson’s was in the Sugar Bowl semifinal game on New Year’s Day. Facing an Ohio State pass defense that was the worst in the Big Ten in 2020, Alabama should be terrified if it struggles through the air with a quarterback, Mac Jones, who has completed 77 percent of his throws this season, and Smith, who has 1,641 receiving yards.
How Indiana Coach Tom Allen thinks Alabama can beat Ohio State: “Mac Jones is good enough — he’s an elite player — and that receiver corps is extremely talented,” said Allen, whose team came closer than anyone this season to defeating the Buckeyes. “The matchup is going to be this: If Alabama can’t run the ball against their D-line, that will be huge.”
Extra point: Despite a frustrating two seasons leading the Miami Dolphins, Coach Nick Saban will arrive in Miami Gardens with an 11-7 record at Hard Rock Stadium, between his N.F.L. and collegiate head coaching careers. But as Smith put it this month, location may not matter all that much: “Just spot the ball. I’m ready.”
Ohio State, like Alabama, is undefeated this season going into the championship game. But the Buckeyes have played five fewer games and are thus only 7-0, because they saw some games scuttled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The lack of games for Ohio State has been one of the biggest criticisms of the team this season, although somewhat quieted when the Buckeyes routed Clemson in the semifinal, 49-28.
Players to watch: Quarterback Justin Fields took a sack to his torso that knocked him (and perhaps a few of his ribs — the world may never know) out of place during Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl matchup against Clemson. He still finished the night with 385 passing yards and six touchdowns. Wide receiver Chris Olave and Trey Sermon, a running back, will remain key connections: Olave, who missed Ohio State’s Big Ten championship win because of coronavirus protocols, caught two touchdowns for the Buckeyes against Clemson, and Sermon has rushed for 524 yards in the last two games.
Something Ohio State loves: The defensive line. Seriously. Ohio State’s rushing defense is ranked second in the Football Bowl Subdivision, flying under the radar as weaknesses in the secondary allowed opponents to challenge the Buckeyes. Ohio State held Travis Etienne, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time leading rusher, to 32 yards. The rest of Clemson’s rushing attack gained all of 12 yards.
Something Ohio State detests: Well, the secondary, which has been giving up nearly a dozen yards a completion. That pass defense will need to look far sharper when it’s facing the Heisman-winner Smith — plus the potential return of Jaylen Waddle, who was hurt in October but could someday be a first-round N.F.L. draft pick. (Alabama Coach Nick Saban has said Waddle’s status will be a game-day decision.) And then there’s the rest of Alabama’s deep pool of pass catchers, including its tight ends and running backs, namely Harris.
Ohio State’s warning light: As the Ohio State defense consistently rushes four from the line, it may require its secondary to hold up in coverage for a longer amount of time, especially given the strength of the Crimson Tide offensive line. Shaun Wade, the leader of the Buckeyes’s secondary and a top-ranked coverage cornerback heading into this year’s N.F.L. draft, will need to step up against one of the most potent passing attacks in recent college football history.
How Mississippi Coach Lane Kiffin thinks Ohio State can beat Alabama: “You have to be off-the-charts aggressive,” Kiffin, the former Alabama offensive coordinator, said in an interview. “Fourth downs, trick plays, tempo. You’re the underdog against an offense that no one has stopped. You’re going to have to try to outscore them.”
Extra point: Ryan Day has lost only once in 24 games as Ohio State’s coach: a playoff game against Clemson in 2019. The Buckeyes haven’t won a national championship since the 2014 season — but they beat Alabama, 42-35, that season in a playoff semifinal.