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Five Questions as Buckeyes gear up for national-title clash with Alabama

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Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson will play for a national title against Alabama. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Five Questions as Buckeyes gear up for national-title clash with Alabama

COLUMBUS — A new message was quickly scribbled on the Ohio State message board typically saved for diagramming plays on the sideline.

Ranked 11?

The post-Sugar Bowl celebration was full of references to the slights Clemson lobbed the way of the Buckeyes in the buildup to the College Football Playoff rematch. Social-media posts, videos from the locker room and press-conference comments all made it clear that, yes, Ohio State was undoubtedly tapping into some extra motivation in the Superdome.

Now the question is: How might the Buckeyes recreate that same fuel as an underdog in the national-title showdown with Alabama next week in South Florida?

“After last year, we wanted to come back and have an opportunity to play in the CFP and then go on to have a chance to win the national championship,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said on Friday night. “And that’s where we’re at right now. Because of the way it all played out, because it was Clemson and we played them last year, I think that had a lot of added flavor to it. And a lot of guys left that field feeling like they let one get away.

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Ohio State made sure to fully celebrate the Sugar Bowl win. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

“In life you don’t typically get an opportunity to get a second chance, but you can’t miss the second time. So I don’t know what we’re more excited about, the fact that we have a chance to play for a national championship or the fact that we avenged that loss. But we’re going to enjoy it, have a great champions meeting and move on from there.”

The Buckeyes are playing for a national championship, so it obviously shouldn’t need any extra motivation from outside the program. Also, Alabama coach Nick Saban isn’t remotely foolish enough to provide it to the Buckeyes anyway.

So everything during this week of preparation will have to come from within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. And how they will find a way to duplicate that intensity to claim one more win is where Lettermen Row will start setting the table for this massive-stakes matchup with Five Questions for the Buckeyes.

How healthy will Justin Fields be for Ohio State?

Justin Fields is not going to be at full strength, that’s a given considering what happened to his ribs after that vicious, illegal hit he took Friday night at Clemson. And while that is undoubtedly the most pressing topic swirling around the Buckeyes over the next week, there is no reason to think there will be any kind of answer revealed by Fields or anybody else in the program.

To be honest, there was also no chance that a player who has gone out of his way not to talk about his injuries was going to be discuss any diagnosis he received from the training staff immediately after the game. For anybody that tried to interpret that as some kind of problem with Ohio State’s player-safety practices, that’s nonsense. Fields has made it clear he trusts the doctors and trainers — and that he doesn’t want his medical information being made public or given to opponents.

Fields has proven himself to be legendarily tough at Ohio State, and he’s almost certainly going to do whatever it takes to compete for the national title. He’s not likely to be the same rushing threat that he is when he’s 100 percent, but he delivered a clear reminder in the Sugar Bowl that he’s more than capable of simply winning with his arm.

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Ohio State defensive end Tyler Friday could provide a boost for the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Will Buckeyes get any players back from unavailability list?

The program doesn’t reveal any testing results on the availability report, so it’s not clear exactly how many Buckeyes who missed the Sugar Bowl could return for the title game against Alabama — or when somebody with a publicly-confirmed case like Harry Miller might have tested positive. The Buckeyes managed the absence of the left guard just fine with Matthew Jones stepping into the lineup, and the defensive line also weathered the loss of Zach Harrison and continued absence of Tyler Friday without much of a drop-off in production. But clearly Ohio State would prefer to have as many hands on deck as possible as it takes on another program that can stand toe-to-toe with its depth and talent.

Ohio State will almost certainly wait until it arrives in the stadium in South Florida next Monday night before revealing who all is cleared for action. Plus, it’s also worth another reminder during this challenging season that the Buckeyes still have to navigate another full week of testing and the situation is subject to change.

Can Ohio State secondary make enough plays to slow Alabama?

Just like the vaunted Clemson attack, nobody is going to completely shut down Alabama and its dynamic set of offensive playmakers. But the Silver Bullets proved in the Sugar Bowl that they can deliver enough stops to be make the difference even in a high-scoring affair, and that will obviously be critical against the Crimson Tide. The effort starts in the secondary, which continues to be the unit under the most scrutiny for the Buckeyes.

Perhaps it sounds crazy coming out of a game where Clemson threw for 400 yards, but Ohio State probably came home from New Orleans encouraged by the continued development of a still relatively inexperienced secondary. Sevyn Banks broke up a key pass and snagged an interception, a turnover that was forced when freshman safety Lathan Ransom showed off his physicality in the end zone. Josh Proctor let a pick slip through his hands, but he’s looked more comfortable in his safety role over the last couple games. Marcus Williamson broke up a pass and made a handful of tackles while Ohio State tapped into his positional versatility, and he deserves credit for working through his early struggles.

Just like the Sugar Bowl, the Buckeyes will give up some plays through the air. It’s going to happen. What matters more for Ohio State is if it can find a handful of third-down stops and maybe a turnover or two.

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Ohio State running back Trey Sermon is on a record-setting pace. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Will Trey Sermon continue postseason rampage for Ohio State?

The way Trey Sermon is running behind his pads through contact and away from defenders as soon as he gets into space certainly suggests he won’t be slowing down next week against Alabama. And if he does it again, there might actually be a debate about whether his record-setting rush through the postseason can top what Ezekiel Elliott did on the way to the title in 2014, a conversation that would have been almost unthinkable in October — and honestly never seemed possible for pretty much anybody given how special Zeke was in 2014.

But even without much time to get comfortable with the Buckeyes, Sermon has roared to life after his sluggish start coming off a knee injury a year ago, an offseason transfer from Oklahoma and an abbreviated season thanks to the pandemic. The rise of Sermon will potentially be even more important for the Buckeyes if Fields isn’t able to be a threat on the ground, and that will likely lead to a heavy workload for a running back who is clearly on a mission.

Who should handle kickoff-return duties for Buckeyes?

Winning national championships often requires bold decisions and a willingness to take chances, but unnecessary risks aren’t part of that equation. And right now continuing to put Demario McCall on the field even just to field kickoffs simply doesn’t come with the kind of reward that justifies the gamble, particularly since his loose-ball blunder in the Sugar Bowl isn’t even the first time he’s made such a glaring mistake in that role. Add in his previous ball-security issues on offense and questions about his off-the-field maturity and Ohio State clearly can’t afford to give McCall any more opportunities.

Since the rules were changed for touchbacks and fair catches on kickoffs, all the Buckeyes really need is somebody who can catch the football and make a sound decision — especially since it has an offense that showed it can march down the field with ease even against an opponent like Clemson. Ohio State has no shortage of other options available, and it needs to pick a new one before it costs the program at the worst possible time.

Austin Ward

Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.