If you’re an Ohio State fan, this is like the moment in the horror film where the villain’s face starts to emerge from the shadows. You’re already terrified, looking for a way out—and now Jaylen Waddle is coming out of the darkness.
Alabama’s got some freak athletes, and that doesn’t just mean when they’re on the field—in the rehab room, too. Waddle suffered a lower-leg injury against the Tennessee Volunteers in late October, and the immediate prognosis had us wondering if he’d be healthy for the April draft, let alone January’s National Championship Game. But Waddle has returned to practice for the Tide this week, and reports indicate he has a fighting chance to play.
And if he does? Oh brother.
When Waddle went down with injury, I expected that the effort of replacing his touches would largely get shared across the team—and such was the case. Slade Bolden took over the starting slot job and worked some quality middle of the field routes, while Heisman-winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith saw an uptick in screen targets as the new primary YAC threat. Running back Najee Harris became a bigger part of the passing game, averaging nearly twice as many catches/game after the Waddle injury (3.5) as he had in the games before (2.0). And freaky tight end athlete Jahleel Billingsley became the primary punt returner.
It took a village to replace Waddle, and it seemed like the village succeeded. Of course, the true test of that replacement was going to come not against the SEC slate, but in the College Football Playoff. Alabama had their worst point output of the season against the vaunted Notre Dame defense, though they played better than the final score would indicate. Now, against Ohio State, they’ll be challenged with a much-improved front four and a deep linebacker rotation that can hassle Harris and force them to pass (though they’ve been passing it a ton on early downs anyway).
Even with the improved competition, it’s warranted to wonder if Alabama needs Waddle to throw the ball on Ohio State altogether. The Tide have lacked Waddle for the majority of their season and still rank second in EPA/play (second in EPA/dropback, too) at the college level. Alabama is also second in the country in explosive passing rate, while Ohio State’s defense—a Top-25 defense by most catch-all metrics -- is 59th in explosive passing rate allowed. It's their worst metric; their biggest weakness.
The explosive play potential is what should truly scare Buckeyes fans and coaches. Waddle remained the most explosive receiver on the Alabama roster even after his prolonged absence. His 22.28 yards/reception is fifth in the country; first among all SEC receivers by nearly three yards; five yards better than the next closest Tide receiver, John Metchie III, who has been used as the primary vertical threat for Alabama in Waddle’s absence.
What Waddle brings in playmaking ability, both as a downfield ball tracker and ball-in-hand creator, simply could not be replicated, even by an offense as deep and athletic as Alabama’s.
Ohio State doesn’t have an answer to this. They don’t have a high-impact man coverage defender, with Shaun Wade struggling on the outside against even middling NFL competition at wide receiver, and Sevyn Banks, the first-year starter opposite him, has been prone to busts this season. The return of Josh Proctor has been big for them at deep safety, but the Ohio State secondary simply doesn’t have as much talent as they did years ago. But under first-year defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs, they still run heavy Cover 1 and Cover 3. Alabama will know what they’re getting, and if and when Waddle is lined up on the outside, they’ll be getting single coverage.
And sure, Ohio State’s smart. They’d love to dedicate more resources to solving the Waddle problem—but they can’t. Because the Heisman winner lines up opposite him.
That’s the most important thing with Waddle’s potential return—it pulls the crosshairs off of Smith, both in preparation during the week and in play-calling during the game. With no Waddle on the field, Ohio State can send safeties over Smith, double him outright, and do anything they can to stop his surge. It’s a fool’s errand—there isn’t really a way to cover Smith, and Alabama can beat you in 100 different ways—but in any way that you can slow Smith, you should. It forces Alabama to win in ways they haven’t yet that season, and that can invite volatility and mistakes.
So Waddle’s return is more about Smith than it is anything else. Ohio State may not be able to survive the Bama offense as it is now—with Smith and Waddle on the depth chart, it will be on the offense to hang 40 on the Alabama defense to keep up in the boat race. And if they can’t, don’t be surprised if Waddle is given the MVP nod for the win, as the deep bomb is ripe for the picking against the Buckeyes defense. This well could be the return that tips the scales in this national championship.