MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — DeVonta Smith is still open. Maybe he’s in his apartment bedroom sleeping by now or in the window seat on the flight back to Tuscaloosa. Maybe he’s eating a post-game dinner or a late-night snack.
Who knows where he is exactly, but we do know what he is—he’s open. Feet, yards, miles from the nearest defender.
Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning receiver strolled into Hard Rock Stadium on Monday night dressed in a blazing hot red suit—and a Heisman mask. He embodied that fiery getup on the field in one of the most incredible first-half performances in national championship game history: 12 catches, 215 yards and three touchdowns.
During the Crimson Tide’s 52–24 smothering of Ohio State, the only thing that slowed Smith was a finger. His finger. He missed most of the final two quarters after dislocating either his right middle or index finger on his right hand during Alabama’s first series of the second half. The Tide didn’t need him, not after building a 35–17 halftime lead, not after getting 158 all-purpose yards from running back Najee Harris and not after their defense stymied one of the nation’s highest-powered offenses.
It was a rousing finale in one of the most unprecedented and bizarre seasons in college football history. Alabama is the COVID-Year champion. And it just might be coach Nick Saban’s best team ever. Maybe it is college football’s best team ever too?
“This team accomplished more than any team,” Saban said afterward.
The Tide finished 13–0, having won all 10 regular season SEC games by at least 13 points before crushing their two playoff opponents, Notre Dame and Ohio State, by a combined 45 points. Bama scored at least 31 points in every game, averaged more than 48 points an outing and had five players recognized as the best at their position, according to post-season awards: receiver and overall player (Smith), quarterback (Mac Jones), interior lineman (LT Alex Leatherwood), running back (Harris) and center (Landon Dickerson).
Saban’s Bama dynasty continues marching forward. In his 14th season in Tuscaloosa, he won a sixth title, a seventh overall (he won his first in 2003 at LSU) and delivered the school its 13th championship in the poll era. Alabama has won exactly half of the national championships of the last 12 seasons.
But the story on this night wasn’t the coach or even the quarterback (Jones was, however, an incredible 36 of 45 for 464 yards and five touchdowns). It wasn’t the defense, either, though it held QB Justin Fields to fewer than 200 yards passing and kept the Buckeyes scoreless on seven of 11 drives. It wasn’t Ohio State’s luck (it lost RB Trey Sermon to a collarbone injury after the first series of the game and played without two defensive line starters).
The story on this night was the kid they call Smitty.
Smith scorched the Buckeyes over a jaw-droppingly good first 30 minutes. He found himself wide open snap after snap after snap. On a go route down the sideline: open. On a post route down the seam: open. On a flare route into the flat: open.
He owes some thanks to Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who crafted a masterful game plan. The strategy was obvious early on: get the ball to DeVonta Smith, whenever, wherever, however. On a handful of occasions, Smith began the play in the backfield, faked a reverse and then bolted the opposite direction. Ohio State’s defense went one way and he went the other.
“Fabulous,” Saban described his out-going offensive coordinator’s play calling (Sarkisian soon begins his stint as head coach at Texas).
Sarkisian moved around his speedy weapon. Out wide. Behind the offensive line. In the slot. He found mismatches, too.
On his final catch late in the first half—a 42-yard touchdown—Smith somehow got matched on Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland, blazing by the much slower man in a replay that’s already gone viral.
“Tell me this,” ESPN analyst Desmond Howard said on the network’s halftime show. “Why would you involve your slowest linebacker chasing the Heisman Trophy winner with no help over the top? That's like a defensive felony.”
The only thing to stop him? That finger.
“I told him after the game you're the only player to miss a whole half because of a finger,” Saban jested.
Smith injured the finger on his only negative play of the night, a dropped pass on the second play of the second half. He was ushered into the inflatable medical tent on the Tide’s sideline and remained there for more than 15 minutes before walking, gloomily, toward the locker room. He said afterward that doctors were attempting to put the finger “back in place.” He wanted to return to the game, but coaches wouldn’t allow it.
So, Smith emerged from the locker room and cheered for his team. After the game, he accepted the offensive game MVP on a confetti-covered stage, his right hand heavily bandaged.
In just one half of football, Smith set the record for most catches and receiving touchdowns in any national title game of the College Football Playoff era. His performance set the nation abuzz. Even LeBron James, an Ohio native, weighed in while Smith was tearing through the Big Ten’s best squad.
“DeVonte Smith is one of the best pure receivers I’ve ever watched! Like a mix between Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. Man he’s good!” James wrote.
Smith has quite the story. He’s from the tiny Louisiana town of Amite. He was so skinny growing up that he developed a nickname there, Thinuine. In fact, he once attended an Alabama camp and wasn’t offered a scholarship because he wasn’t meaty enough.
Angry about that, Smith gained a few pounds and within a few days had that Bama offer. He has so many to thank for this moment. There’s Vincent Sanders, his barber and the man who used to drive him to college camps. There’s his Uncle Fat, who worked his nephew out of a bad habit (catching passes with his chest) by rifling balls so hard toward him that they’d sometimes bruise his chest. Smith learned his lesson—he began to catch with his hands and not his torso.
Now, years later, Smith closed the chapter on his record-breaking four-year career in Tuscaloosa. And he left all of us, his coach included, wondering just how many records he would have cracked Monday night if not for that finger.
“Heavens knows,” Saban said.
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