In an Ohio State-Alabama national championship poised for a shootout, what does a winning defense look like?

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Alabama allowed 48 points to a team that finished the regular season with a losing record.

Ohio State allowed 491 passing yards at home to the team that only scored 20 points in a bowl loss to the same sub-.500 team referenced above.

Defense did not lead either the Crimson Tide or the Buckeyes to their national championship matchup at Hard Rock Stadium near Miami on Monday. Both picked up doubters about their defense based on a couple of isolated performances.

They also won their College Football Playoff semifinal games with defense-forward performances. The Crimson Tide held Notre Dame to seven points in the game’s first 59 minutes. Ohio State flattened Clemson’s run game and made its national nemesis one-dimensional early on.

“We’ve always believed we can compete with anybody in the country on any particular week,” Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland said. “We practice against the best offense in the country every week, so we have confidence we can compete with everyone.”

• What is Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields’ status for the national championship game against Alabama?

Both defenses now brace to face offenses that have shown they can score on anyone. But how good does one’s offense need to be when your own offense can score at will? The first six College Football Playoff national championship games average slightly under 65 combined points. Five of the 12 participants have scored 40 or more points, and two others topped 30.

From 2015-18, Clemson and Alabama alternated national championships with defenses which ranked in the top 10 nationally in points allowed, total yards allowed and Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency metric.

The six seasons of the College Football Playoff have been bookended by champions with solid, though not spectacular, defenses. Both Ohio State in 2014 and LSU last season featured more statistically modest defensive success yet still finished the job.

The 2020 versions of Ohio State and Alabama are following that second treasure map.

Year Champion PPG allowed (rank) Total defense (rank) DFEI rank
2019 LSU 21.9 (31) 343.5 (31) 13
2018 Clemson 13.1 (1) 285.9 (5) 2
2017 Alabama 11.9 (1) 260.4 (1) 2
2016 Clemson 18.0 (10) 311.5 (8) 9
2015 Alabama 15.1 (2) 276.3 (3) 1
2014 Ohio State 22.0 (26) 342.4 (19) 14

Sources: and

Football Outsiders had not updated its 2020 DFEI rankings since the playoff semifinals of Monday night. Ohio State and Alabama went into the playoff ranked 12th and 23rd, respectively.

A shootout with Ole Miss back on Oct. 10 left lingering wounds in the Crimson Tide’s reputation. The Rebels posted two 100-yard rushers and two 100-yard receivers but succumbed to Alabama’s own offensive avalanche, 63-48.

Alabama had nearly scrubbed that smear from its resume, allowing 36 total points over a five-game span. Then Florida and Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Kyle Trask stacked up more air attack yards in a 52-46 loss in the SEC championship game.

“I felt like we wasn’t as communicative as we needed to be, wasn’t flying around,” Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain said of the Ole Miss and Florida games. “We gave up big plays due to mental errors and stuff like that — things that we can improve on in the film room and in practice.

“We just focus on and control what we need to do to improve each week. Looking forward to this game. Nothing has changed. We’ve just got to focus and prepare the right way.”

Which Alabama is the real Alabama defense? Does it matter if that Alabama offense keeps showing up?

Those same questions apply to Ohio State. The vast majority of the doubt hovering over the Buckeye defense grew out of two second halves: A bizarre trick-play flurry from Rutgers and Michael Penix’s barrage in a futile rally attempt for Indiana.

Year CFP national championship score
2014 Ohio State 42, Oregon 20
2015 Alabama 45, Clemson 40
2016 Clemson 35, Alabama 31
2017 Alabama 26, Georgia 23
2018 Clemson 44, Alabama 16
2019 LSU 42, Clemson 25

Ohio State ranks 56th nationally in yards allowed per attempt and 57th in opposing quarterback efficiency rating. Alabama ranks in the top 25 in both. That Indiana game counts for a large portion of the Buckeyes’ performance due to three game cancelations.

Ohio State allowed 400 passing yards and 28 points in its Sugar Bowl playoff semifinal victory over Clemson. Yet the Buckeyes likely came out of that performance more convinced than ever of their defensive stability.

They forced Trevor Lawrence to attempt 48 passes to achieve those 400 yards. Most importantly, while the offense scored 28 unanswered points in the first half, the defense served as a catalyst.

After Clemson took a 14-7 lead, Ohio State responded with a 75-yard, game-tying touchdown drive. Then the defense went to work stifling the Tigers for the rest of the first half:

• Forced a three-and-out to end the first quarter. Ohio State took the lead with an 84-yard touchdown drive.

• Forced another three-and-out, including a third-down incompletion for Lawrence. The resulting 75-yard OSU touchdown drive included the targeting hit that briefly knocked Justin Fields out of the game.

• Lawrence’s run to start the next drive finally achieved a first down. But Justin Hilliard’s tackle for loss on second down, and a false start penalty against Ohio native Jackson Carman, stalled the drive. The Buckeyes used all but 11 seconds of the remaining time in the first half on an 80-yard touchdown drive to take a 35-14 lead.

On those three possessions, Clemson ran 10 plays from scrimmage and netted 32 yards. Almost half of them came on a third-and-18 play that came up 3 yards short. It was a season-defining, game-turning performance from the defense that some believed was the factor that might hold the Buckeyes back from a championship opportunity.

“They were very impressive on the line of scrimmage,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Clemson had a tough time running the ball. They’ve got a great back and a lot of quarterback runs that they did a really great job against.

“They were physical up front. They did a good job of pressing the pocket. I think they played outstanding. Their secondary played well enough, made the plays they needed to make in the game.

“They’ve got a lot of good athletes on defense. They’re physical, they’re athletic, they can run, they play well together. This is just a very talented group.”

Will the rest of the country be as convinced of Ohio State’s defensive talent on Jan. 11 as Saban was on Monday afternoon? Even if the Buckeyes play their best defensive game of the season, is that enough to slow an offense with two Heisman Trophy finalists in Mac Jones and Devonta Smith, another contender in running back Najee Harris and star receiver Jaylen Waddle possibly in the wings if his ankle holds up?

America will be tuning in to watch two atomic offenses alternate explosions on Monday night. At least one of these teams has a championship defense, even if that term doesn’t apply in an old-school way.

Get Ohio State Sugar Bowl champs & CFP gear: Check out shirts, hats and more merchandise commemorating Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl win over Clemson, as well as gear on the Buckeyes advancing to the College Football Playoff national championship game.

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