In fairness to Ohio State junior quarterback Justin Fields, he never really got a legitimate first crack at Alabama.
Fields was a wide-eyed freshman for Georgia who served as Jake Fromm's backup throughout the 2018 season. With the Bulldogs at midfield with three minutes left in a 28-28 deadlock against the Crimson Tide in that year's Southeastern Conference championship game, Fields was the up back on the punt team and was supposed to throw on fourth-and-11 but instead ran the ball for just a 2-yard gain.
"We took too long to snap the ball," Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said afterward. "We had a guy wide open, but we took so long to snap it that they recognized it and got the guy covered late."
A befuddled Fields would echo those sentiments, saying "There was nowhere to go."
Alabama capitalized on the stellar field position and handed the Bulldogs a 35-28 defeat, and Fields entered the NCAA transfer portal before Georgia's ensuing Sugar Bowl loss to Texas.
"I don't really hear about it anymore," Fields said this past week of the ill-fated fake. "All I remember is that everybody was yelling my name and the play didn't go the way we wanted."
The talented but unsure Fields of 2018 is now the talented and confident leader of the third-ranked Buckeyes (7-0) entering Monday night's national title contest against No. 1 Alabama (12-0) at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. The 6-foot-3, 228-pounder from the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw placed Ohio State on the doorstep of a crown by completing 22 of 28 passes for 385 yards and six touchdowns in a 49-28 surprise drubbing of Clemson in the national semifinal Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day.
Fields has completed 141 of 192 passes overall (73.4%) in Ohio State's coronavirus-altered season for 1,906 yards with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions.
"Obviously I think he looks much more veteran," Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding said. "I think he does a good job of getting them in and out of plays. They're a big 'check with me' team, and based on the front, he can control the run game and the pass game. He's got a really good arm and a really strong arm.
"He threw on his back foot 68 yards last week for the touchdown, but I think his accuracy has improved also. He still has the ability to be able to hurt you by tucking it and running, so I really think he's become a complete quarterback."
When Fields left SEC territory for the Big Ten, there were instantly reports of him being homesick. Fields said that did not last long.
"I knew it was going to work out with the first touchdown I scored against FAU during the first game of last year," Fields said.
Aiding the transition was Ohio State coach Ryan Day, who in 2019 was in his first full season guiding the Buckeyes. Day had won three games during an interim role the previous year, when former coach Urban Meyer served a suspension for his handling of domestic violence accusations against former assistant Zach Smith.
Fields flourished in his new locale, throwing for 3,273 yards with 41 touchdowns and only three interceptions during the 2019 season and earning a third-place finish in the Heisman Trophy balloting, but the magical year ended with a 29-23 loss to Clemson in the national semifinal Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes scored the first 16 points of that game.
"We went through a lot of great times last year," Day said, "but you go through that Clemson game and you just learn about each other. Your relationship gets stronger when you go through tough times, because you find out about each other.
"I think he knows how much I care for him. I think that there's a trust there, and there's obviously an unbelievable respect for what I have for him as a competitor and as a person."
The competitive side of Fields was never more evident than this last go-around against Clemson. With the Buckeyes having turned a 14-7 deficit into a 21-14 lead, Fields took a shot to the ribs at the end of an 11-yard run from Tigers linebacker James Skalski, who was flagged and ejected for targeting.
Fields was in obvious pain and lost the rushing element to his game, but he threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to receiver Chris Olave two plays after the hit and wound up tallying three more aerial scores after that.
"It's just a perfect example of how tough that guy is," Buckeyes senior tight end Luke Farrell said. "It really gets the rest of your offense and the rest of your team going when you see a guy do something like that."
The health of Fields is a big aspect to Monday night's game, which is expected to be his college finale. Fields is projected as a top-five pick in the 2021 NFL draft, perhaps going as high as No. 2 to the New York Jets.
"I really haven't thought about how this injury is going to affect how I'm going to play," Fields said. "I'm just thinking about getting as much treatment as possible and trying to get my body right so it's 100% to be able to perform at a max level."
Vols' Guarantano transfers
Former Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has announced that he will use the NCAA's extra year of eligibility at Washington State. The fifth-year senior entered the transfer portal moments after the Volunteers' 34-13 loss to Texas A&M on Dec. 19.
Guarantano completed 494 of 808 passes (61.1%) for 6,174 yards with 38 touchdowns and 17 interceptions during his career in Knoxville, but his starting record was a disappointing 12-20. His 20 losses as the starting quarterback are the most in program history.