MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) - DeVonta Smith was uncoverable, Najee Harris unstoppable and Mac Jones impeccable. With a performance that was both surgical and explosive, No. 1 Alabama won the College Football Playoff national championship game 52-24 against No. 3 Ohio State on Monday night.
The final game of a college football season in a pandemic, a season that was uncertain to be played in the summer and filled with disruptions in the fall, ended in the most predictable fashion: Alabama (13-0) as the national champion for the sixth time in the last 12 years under coach Nick Saban.
For Saban, it was career title No. 7 overall, breaking a tie with Alabama great Paul "Bear" Bryant for the most by a major college coach.
"To me, this is the ultimate team," Saban said. "There is more togetherness on this team than on almost any team we’ve ever had. They’ve had to overcome and to persevere so much through this season, and they have done it magnificently."
The celebration was at once familiar and unique. The confetti cannons sent a crimson and white shower into the air and the Tide players ran to the sideline to grab their championship hats and T-shirts. It’s a rite of passage if you have played for Saban.
But this time, the band playing the fight song was a piped in recording and when "Sweet Home Alabama" blared, only a few thousand Tide fans were still in the building to singalong.
The Buckeyes fans were mostly long gone.
Ohio State (7-1) just couldn’t keep up. Justin Fields, playing what might be his last game before heading to the NFL, passed for 194 yards and a touchdown. Whether Fields was 100% after taking a brutal hit to the side during his brilliant semifinal performance against Clemson was hard to know for sure.
On the Buckeyes’ first drive, they lost star running back Trey Sermon to an injury and in a game they needed to be running at top speed, facing one of the great offenses in recent history, they sputtered too much. Ohio State has never allowed more points in a bowl game.
Fans can debate which team in the Saban dynasty is best, but none will be more memorable than this group. The Tide finished perfectly during a season that could not have been further from it as COVID-19 forced teams into quarantines and endless testing and uncertainty every single week with games played in mostly empty stadiums.
Only about 15,000 fans were at Hard Rock Stadium, capacity 65,326, to see the last magnificent performance of Smith’s college career.
The Heisman Trophy winner had catches for 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half as the Crimson Tide bolted out to a 35-17 lead.
Using an array of motions and misdirections, outgoing offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian had Ohio State heads spinning trying to track down Smith.
Sometimes it was simpler than that. On Smith’s third touchdown, he lined up in the slot, the closest to the line of three receivers on the left side. Smith cut quickly to the middle of the field and suddenly was matched up against a linebacker, whom he left in the dust for a 42-yard score with 41 seconds left in the second quarter.
Smith, who finished his freshman season by catching the 2017 national championship-winning touchdown pass from Tua Tagovailoa, ended his Alabama career as the leading career receiver in Southeastern Conference history and the most outstanding offensive player of his third title game.
As for Sarkisian, he is on his way to Texas as the head coach. Longhorns fans had to have liked what they saw from their new play-caller. If only he could bring Smith and his fellow Heisman contenders to Austin.
Jones, who finished third in the Heisman voting, was 36 for 45 for a CFP championship-record 464 yards and five touchdowns, operating behind a line that had him rarely feeling rushed. Harris had 158 yards from scrimmage on 29 touches, scoring three times to give him an SEC record 30 touchdowns this season.
Smith hardly played in the second half, leaving with an injury. He returned to the sideline in the fourth quarter with his right hand wrapped to the wrist, two fingers taped together, and wearing a Heisman mask.
Alabama hardly missed him and cracked 50 early in the fourth quarter when Harris went in untouched from a yard out.
Smith and Harris surprised some by returning to college after last season for their senior years.
Boy, did it turn out to be worthwhile. Along with Jones, another member of that 2017 recruiting class, they will leave Alabama as the leaders of a team that managed to make an arduous march from through the pandemic look easy.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/