Alabama will enter Monday night's national championship game against Ohio State with three of the top five finishers in the Heisman Trophy voting, while the Buckeyes will counter with Justin Fields coming off a six-touchdown passing performance in last Friday's surprise shellacking of Clemson.
Yet nobody will head to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on a bigger roll than Ohio State senior running back Trey Sermon, who has rushed 60 times for 524 yards and three touchdowns in his last two games.
"He is playing outstanding football right now, and there is no doubt about that," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said this week. "He had a fantastic game against Clemson. This is a good all-around team with great balance, and that's what makes them difficult to defend."
AL.com reported Tuesday afternoon that Ohio State has a position group battling COVID-related issues, but College Football Playoff chairman Bill Hancock said the plan is still to stage the showdown without delay.
Sermon rushed 31 times for 193 yards and a touchdown against Clemson in the national semifinal Sugar Bowl after amassing a staggering 331 yards and two scores on 29 carries during the 22-10 win over Northwestern in the Big Ten title contest on Dec. 19. His 524 yards the past two outings tops the 344 that the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder from Sprayberry High in Marietta, Georgia, compiled during Ohio State's five-game regular season.
It was during the 52-12 trampling of Michigan State on Dec. 5, which turned out to be Ohio State's regular-season finale, when Sermon rushed 10 times for 112 yards and a touchdown and supplanted sophomore Master Teague III, the former Murfreesboro Blackman standout, as the team's top rushing threat.
"I just wanted to be able to contribute more and make the most of my opportunities," Sermon said. "I felt like before that I wasn't playing my best, so I started practicing a lot harder to do whatever I could to help myself improve. When I came here, my goal was to do whatever I could to help this team out and play for a national championship.
"It's all happening, and it does seem like a dream, but it's very exciting to know we've come this far as a team. We've executed, and we believe in each other, and having this opportunity is amazing."
Sermon is in his first season with the Buckeyes after spending his first three years at Oklahoma. He is trying to avoid becoming the first player in the College Football Playoff era to get bounced each season by a Southeastern Conference program, with the 2017 Sooners having been knocked out by Georgia in the Rose Bowl, the 2018 Sooners having lost to Alabama in the Orange Bowl, and last season's team falling to LSU in the Peach Bowl.
The 2017 Big 12 offensive freshman of the year had a 31-yard run against Georgia during that memorable 54-48 loss in double-overtime, and he scored a touchdown the following season during the 45-34 loss to the Crimson Tide. Sermon rushed for 947 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore, but the Sooners yielded the first 28 points to Alabama in Miami Gardens.
"I remember them being a tough, physical team, and that they were just flying around, which they do now," Sermon said.
Sermon did not play in last season's 63-28 loss to LSU in Atlanta, having torn his ACL against Iowa State that forced him to sit the final five games. He was averaging 7.1 yards per carry at the time of his setback.
Nobody knew what to expect from Sermon coming off the injury at a new locale, and the outbreak of the coronavirus this spring and the brief cancellation of the Big Ten season only added to his adjustment, but judging by his past two contests and the momentum he carries into Monday night, things have turned out just fine.
"It was pretty rough at the beginning, coming in here and not being able to be around everybody," Sermon said. "Then everything gets shut down and then picks back up. The guys have welcomed me from day one, and over time, I've gotten more comfortable with those guys, and they're now my brothers.
"We're all playing well, and we got to where we wanted to get to. Everything turned out good, but now we've got to finish."
Jaylen Waddle hasn't played since breaking his ankle during the opening kickoff at Tennessee on Oct. 24, but the Alabama junior receiver hasn't been ruled out of Monday night's game.
"He's been running, but we need to see him in practice," Saban told ESPN. "Our medical people will evaluate him as the week goes on and make a decision from there. He wants to play and has been working hard to get back."
Waddle caught 25 passes in the Crimson Tide's first four games, averaging 22.3 yards per catch.
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