The one guarantee in a season of week-to-week uncertainty has been Alabama wide receiver Devonta Smith’s tormenting of opposing defenses.
On Jan. 11 in the College Football Playoff championship game, Ohio State can either be the team that contains him well enough to topple the Crimson Tide and hoist a trophy, or simply be the next victim for the likely winner of the Heisman Trophy when it is presented virtually on Tuesday night.
In the tradition-rich Alabama football program that has become a factory of NFL-caliber receivers under coach Nick Saban, Smith will statistically finish his college career as the best and stands as arguably the biggest challenge defensively for Ohio State in pursuit of a national title.
Alabama's DeVonta Smith (6) returns a punt for a touchdown against Arkansas during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Fayetteville, Ark. DeVonta Smith is The Associated Press college football player of the year, becoming the first wide receiver to win the award since it was established in 1998, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.(AP Photo/Michael Woods) (Photo: Michael Woods/Associated Press)
"I'm not really worried about the Heisman Trophy,” Smith said during a Monday conference call. “I'm just trying to come in with the team this weekend, just looking forward to getting onto the game plan for Ohio State.”
If he wins the Heisman Trophy, Smith will become the first receiver to claim college football's top individual award since Michigan’s Desmond Howard in 1991.
The only other time Ohio State faced Alabama in the College Football Playoff, the Buckeyes had to contain Amari Cooper, a Heisman finalist and eventual No. 4 overall pick in the NFL draft. At 6 feet 1, 175 pounds, Smith isn’t the physical specimen that Cooper was, but the senior wideout has proved impossible to contain with his electric acceleration and versatility in the passing attack.
Contain is a more appropriate word than limit for how to defend Smith.
Smith has broken just about every receiving record there is to break at Alabama. He led all of college football in receptions (105), receiving yards (1,641) and touchdowns (20) and holds the Crimson Tide single-game record in all three categories.
He is six receptions from breaking Cooper’s mark for career receptions. He already holds career school records in receiving yards and touchdowns.
Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II, widely regarded as the best corner in college football this year, credits Smith and the one of two other Heisman finalists from Alabama, quarterback Mac Jones, for his success this season.
"Going against guys like that, when you go on the field, it makes you a hundred times better on game day,” Surtain said.
Ohio State’s secondary allowed 400 passing yards to Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the Sugar Bowl, but didn’t allow him to take over a game. Clemson, however, doesn’t have a wide receiver quite the caliber of Smith.
Against Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl last week, Smith opened the scoring by blazing past the Irish secondary for the first of his three touchdowns on seven receptions for 130 yards.
While he was a significant part of the offense before wideout Jaylen Waddle suffered an ankle injury against Tennessee that has sidelined him since late October, Smith undoubtedly has answered the call with 17 touchdowns and averaging 155 yards in his past seven games without Waddle.
Jan 1, 2021; Arlington, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) celebrates with wide receiver John Metchie III (8) after scoring a touchdown against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the first quarter during the Rose Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports (Photo: Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports)
AL.com reported that Waddle is expected to return to practice for Alabama on Tuesday.
"Just me being the competitor that I am, I want to just do whatever I can to help the team and that's what it came down to (when Waddle got injured),” Smith said. “Just everybody on offense felt like they could do more to help the team, and that's what we've all been trying to do.”
After Tuesday, Smith might have an extra trophy to carry into Hard Rock Stadium against the Buckeyes. But it’s a different trophy that Smith wants, one he didn’t have in the 2018 season, the last time the Crimson Tide was in the title game (and lost to Clemson).
"The past is the past,” Smith said. “Nothing we can do about it now and we're just focusing on this week and how we prepare for this game and just make sure that it doesn't happen again."
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