Four keys to victory for Alabama and Ohio State in the College Football Playoff championship game
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The story lines for Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game are what fans would hope for every season.

Alabama and Ohio State are two of the sport’s traditional powers that have won national championships and Heisman Trophies across decades dating to the middle of the last century.

The programs have only met four times with the last game coming six years ago in the playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl when the Buckeyes prevailed.

Star power will be on display. Alabama has three of the top five finishers in the Heisman Trophy race, including winner DeVonta Smith. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields finished seventh in the voting that took place before his dominant performance against Clemson in the semifinal last week.

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith dives over a tackle attempt by Notre Dame safety Shaun Crawford for a touchdown during the 2021 Rose Bowl in AT&T Stadium. (Photo: Gary Cosby, USA TODAY Sports)

There’s also the coaching matchup that has Nick Saban going for his seventh national championship, which would break a tie for first place with Bear Bryant, against Ryan Day, who is in just his second full season.

It shapes up to be an exciting and intriguing finish a historic season played under the looming shadow of a pandemic.

The four keys to victory for both teams:

Alabama

Make Fields uncomfortable: The health of Ohio State's quarterback remains uncertain after he threw for six touchdowns against Clemson. He was wincing throughout the second half after a hit to his torso late in the second quarter. It’s important for Alabama to find out early how significantly he may be injured. This will mean blitzing him on passing downs and forcing him to take hits if he wants to use his running ability.  The worst thing the Crimson Tide can do is back off and let him get into rhythm. He showed in the semifinal that when given time to throw, he will find open receivers even with the injury.

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Mac the knife: Alabama quarterback Mac Jones leads the nation in passing efficiency and is second with 36 touchdown throws. Much of his success comes from the offensive line that has protected him and opened holes for running back Najee Harris. By sticking to the same script against the Buckeyes and their pass rush, Jones should have time to find Smith and potentially Jaylen Waddle, who could be returning from injury, in the passing game. This typically ends in back-breaking big plays that demoralize a defense and let the Crimson Tide comfortably cruise to victory.

Play error-free: Defenses have found it difficult to stop Alabama’s offense that ranks No. 2 in scoring (48.2 points) and No. 6 in total offense (535 yards). Before last week’s semifinal, the Crimson Tide had scored at least 35 points in 24 consecutive games. The key against Ohio State is not to stop themselves. Alabama has mostly avoided penalties and turnovers. Jones has thrown just four interceptions in his 357 attempts. Its plus-11 turnover margin is third in the country. Doing what it has done for 12 previous games is the recipe for success.

Be solid on special teams: The third phase of the game is overlooked. However, it can impact field position and scoring plays and often leads to surprising developments. There are some areas where the Crimson Tide has shown weakness. They rank 106th out of 127 teams in net punting and 119th in kickoff returns. There are also some strengths. Smith, in addition to his prowess as a receiver, is averaging 24.3 yards on his nine punt returns. Will Reichard has been outstanding, making all 13 of his field-goal attempts and 77 of his PATs. As long as Alabama plays Ohio State even here then the scales tip in its favor.

Ohio State

Keep Sermon going: Trey Sermon became a dominant running threat for the Buckeyes in the Big Ten championship game with a school-record 331 yards and followed that with 193 against Clemson. Establishing him as a threat will take pressure off Fields to carry the offense. This is especially important with the uncertainty around the quarterback’s health. Sermon has shown against two strong defenses he is physical and athletic enough to carry the load. He can continue to make plays and be incorporated into the passing game.

Ohio State running back Trey Sermon breaks the tackle of Clemson safety Lannden Zanders during the first half of the 2021 Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. (Photo: Chuck Cook, USA TODAY Sports)

Double DeVonta: Thesecondary has been considered Ohio State's weak link after allowing Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. to throw for almost 500 yards. Now comes the biggest test of the season. While Alabama has depth in its receiving corps, Smith is the clear focal point with 105 of the team’s 288 catches and 20 of its 37 touchdown receptions. In passing situations, especially on third down, it is important to take away the first option for Jones and make him look another direction.

Start fast: What makes Alabama so difficult to defend is its ability to be balanced. The threat of a running game opens up its play-action passing and gives room to its talented receivers. If you add extra defensive backs to protect against the pass, the Tide will simply give the ball to Harris and let him grind out yards on the ground. One way to neutralize this balance is jumping out to an early lead. The Crimson Tide are not accustomed to playing from behind. The added pressure of the championship game could get them to press and become more predictable on offense.

Make my Day: This is undoubtedly the biggest game of Ryan Day’s coaching career. He’s won 23 of his 24 games in charge of the Buckeyes and proved himself in last week’s defeat of Clemson. But this is a different animal. He’s matching wits against one of the greats in college football who has tons of championship game experience. Day has Chip Kelly and Urban Meyer as mentors, which should be beneficial. He can’t make the moment too big and get out of his comfort zone. Be aggressive and maybe throw in some new wrinkles. If you do lose, you want to go down using all your options, rather than playing it safe.

Follow USA TODAY Sports colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith

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