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College football’s 2016-17 season comes to a close on Monday night, as Alabama and Clemson meet in Tampa, Fla. for the national championship in Raymond James Stadium. This is the second year in a row these two teams have met to decide the winner of the CFB Playoff, and both programs won in convincing fashion in their bowl games to reach Tampa. Alabama defeated Washington 24-7 in the Peach Bowl, while Clemson dominated Ohio State 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl.
In last year’s matchup, these two teams traded punches for 60 minutes, with Alabama eventually edging Clemson 45-40. Behind quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Tigers recorded 31 first downs, 550 yards (6.5 ypp) and torched the Crimson Tide secondary for 405 yards through the air. While Alabama’s standout defense struggled to contain Watson, running back Derrick Henry rumbled his way for 158 yards and tight end O.J. Howard grabbed five receptions for 208 yards. But it wasn’t just the play of Henry and Howard that propelled Nick Saban’s team to a victory. Instead, a few critical plays on special teams proved to be instrumental in Alabama pulling out the victory. Kenyan Drake scored on a 95-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter, and the Crimson Tide recovered an outside kick with the game tied in the final 15 minutes. The recovered onside kick eventually led to a Jake Coker to Howard touchdown pass, which gave Alabama the lead for good in the 45-40 matchup.
The matchup on Monday night isn’t quite a David versus Goliath scenario, but Alabama is the standard for the rest of college football. Under Nick Saban’s watch, appearances in the national championship or CFB Playoff are an annual tradition. The Crimson Tide are the only team to make an appearance in all three years of the playoff and are one victory away from back-to-back national championships. Additionally, Alabama has won at least 10 games in every season since 2008 and has claimed four national championship trophies under Saban’s watch. On the other sideline, coach Dabo Swinney built Clemson into a national power and was on the doorstep of winning it all last season. After a 19-15 start to his tenure, Swinney has won at least 10 games in each of the last six years. Swinney may not be the X’s and O’s mastermind like Saban, but he’s completely transformed the perception of this program.
The path for both teams to Tampa was relatively similar, but Alabama dominated at a higher level in 2016. Only one game (Ole Miss) was decided by less than 10 points, and the Crimson Tide finished first nationally in scoring defense, fewest yards per play allowed and second in sacks (50). While the defense performed at a high level once again, Alabama’s offense thrived under former coordinator Lane Kiffin and true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. The Crimson Tide averaged 39.4 points a game in 2016, which was the program’s highest total under Saban’s watch.
Clemson had close calls against Louisville (42-36), NC State (24-17) and Florida State (37-34) before a loss to Pitt (43-42). However, since that loss, the Tigers have been locked in and thoroughly dominated Ohio State in last week’s Fiesta Bowl. The strength of the team is once again the offense, led by Watson and a talented group of skill players. However, the defense is just as strong and ranks among the best in the nation behind coordinator Brent Venables.
Alabama leads the all-time series over Clemson 13-3. The Tigers have not defeated the Crimson Tide since 1905.
Alabama vs. Clemson (National Championship)
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 9 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Steve Sarkisian and the Alabama Offense
Changing coordinators a week before the national championship is a risky move by Alabama coach Nick Saban. However, it was clear the Crimson Tide’s offense did not fire on all cylinders in the win over Washington, and it’s fair to say coordinator Lane Kiffin was certainly distracted trying to juggle two jobs. With Saban pushing Kiffin to FAU a week earlier than anticipated, Steve Sarkisian is set to call the plays in Monday night’s game. Sarkisian was already set to take over the play-calling duties in 2017 and essentially operates the same system that Kiffin utilized during his three years in Tuscaloosa. The transition from Kiffin to Sarkisian won’t be too noticeable in terms of how the Crimson Tide offense operates. But there will be differences in how the two coaches call a game, make adjustments or interact with the players on the sidelines.
Sarkisian’s new role is the biggest wild card storyline to watch on Monday night. Any other team that changed coordinators a week before the national championship probably couldn’t make it work. However, Saban and Alabama should have a seamless transition to Sarkisian for Monday’s game.
The biggest challenge for Sarkisian will be getting freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts comfortable in the passing game. In last week’s Peach Bowl win over Washington, Hurts completed only 7 of 14 throws for 57 yards. The freshman added 50 yards on the ground against the Huskies, which gave him 891 for the season. The emergence of Hurts and his dual-threat ability has provided another dimension for this Alabama offense. The Crimson Tide always have a strong ground attack, but the offense is even more dangerous with a mobile quarterback.
Hurts isn’t hurting for talented weapons on the outside. ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley form a standout tandem on the outside or in the slot, while tight end O.J. Howard (41 catches) torched Clemson’s defense in last year’s game. Clemson will counter with a secondary that ranked fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense and is led by standouts Jadar Johnson (safety) and Cordrea Tankersley (cornerback).
Alabama won’t need Hurts to throw for 300 yards on Monday night to win. However, the freshman has to play a mistake-free game, utilize his legs to get 60-80 yards on the ground and hit on a couple of big plays to keep the Clemson defense from crowding the box to stop the run. And of course – adapt to a new play-caller.
Related: 10 X-Factors for Clemson vs. Alabama
2. Clemson’s Offense Against Alabama’s Defense
This is the most anticipated one-on-one matchup for Monday night’s game. It’s a showdown of strength versus strength, as Clemson ranks 13th nationally by averaging 39.5 points per game, and Alabama’s defense ranks first by limiting opponents to 11.4 points per contest. The Crimson Tide create a lot of havoc at the line of scrimmage (50 sacks) and rank among the nation’s best in generating takeaways (27). In addition to its ability to create turnovers, Alabama’s defense also converts those takeaways directly into points. This unit has scored 11 times on defense this season, which is a concern for a Clemson offense that has lost 26 turnovers in 2016.
Finding a weakness for Alabama’s defense isn’t easy. However, mobile quarterbacks and spread attacks give Saban and the Crimson Tide the most trouble. Clemson checks off both of those boxes, with quarterback Deshaun Watson likely to give this defense a lot of trouble once again. Watson totaled 478 yards in last season’s 45-40 loss to Alabama and was able to extend several plays with his mobility. In 2016, Watson threw for 4,173 yards and added 586 yards on the ground. The junior did not run as much this season as he did in 2015, but with the national championship expected to be his final game in a Clemson uniform, the coaching staff isn’t going to hold back on letting Watson run as much as necessary. As mentioned above, interceptions have been a slight problem for the junior in 2016. After tossing 13 over 491 attempts in 2015, Watson has been intercepted 17 times on 523 pass attempts in 2016.
Watson’s ability to extend plays and attack downfield will be a tough assignment for an Alabama defense that is not as deep in the secondary as in previous years. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and cornerback Marlon Humphrey are the headliners in the secondary for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, but this unit allowed 18 plays of 30 yards or more in 2016. Clemson has a deep array of targets for Watson to utilize, starting with 6-foot-3 receiver Mike Williams (90 catches), tight end Jordan Leggett (39), Deon Cain (33), Artavis Scott (73) and sure-handed sophomore Hunter Renfrow (34).
How will Alabama counter Clemson’s offense and hope to slow down Watson? The Crimson Tide need to win on early downs and keep the Tigers in third-and-long situations. The battle in the trenches will be critical for both sides, as well as limiting the big plays. Considering the firepower on Clemson’s sideline, it’s likely this offense is going to churn out its share of yards. However, the Crimson Tide would trade yards for stops on third downs and in the red zone.
3. Rushing Attacks and Offensive Line Play
Much of the focus for Monday night’s game will be centered around the two quarterbacks – Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson – but the battle in the trenches and ground attack will be just as critical to the outcome.
Both teams have experienced their share of ups and downs in the trenches and will be matched against a standout line on the other side.
Alabama’s defensive front is anchored by first-team All-American Jonathan Allen at end, while tackle Da’Ron Payne is an underrated cog in the middle. Allen and Payne are a big reason why the rush defense is first in the nation and will be tasked with disrupting the timing of Clemson’s offense at the initial snap. Can the Tigers match the physicality of Alabama’s front and protect Watson? Additionally, can Swinney’s front five generate a push on the ground? Running back Wayne Gallman has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns but managed only 45 yards in last year’s matchup. The Tigers don’t need 100 yards from Gallman to win. However, a little balance would keep Alabama’s standout line on its heels.
While Alabama proved it could win a shootout over Clemson last season, the Crimson Tide would prefer a lower-scoring game and to control the overall pace and tempo. To do so, the offense needs its line to step up. Tackles Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams are two of the best in the nation, and this duo will be matched against a standout line on the other side. The Tigers are loaded with athleticism, talent and depth in the trenches, with the front four headlined by tackles Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence, along with end Christian Wilkins.
In last week’s win over Washington, Alabama recorded 269 yards on the ground. Bo Scarbrough accounted for 180 yards on 19 carries and is likely to see around 20 carries on Monday night. The Tigers rank 19th nationally against the run and limit opponents to just 3.5 yards per carry. Can Clemson slow Scarbrough and prevent Alabama from controlling the tempo by grinding it out on the ground? Or will the Crimson Tide win the battle in the trenches and keep Watson and the high-powered offense on the sidelines? Generating a pass rush against Hurts will be critical for coordinator Brent Venables. If the Tigers can force Hurts to beat them from the pocket – instead of making plays with his legs or attacking the edges – there’s a good chance Clemson will hoist the national championship trophy.
Five Numbers to Know
Turnover Margin: Alabama +8, Clemson +1
Third-Down Offense: Clemson 5th nationally, Alabama 21st
Third-Down Defense: Clemson 6th nationally, Alabama 7th
Red Zone Offense: Alabama 24th nationally, Clemson 71st
Red Zone Defense: Clemson 22nd nationally, Alabama 45th nationally
Predictions for Alabama vs. Clemson
|Jonathan Allen, DL|
|Bo Scarbrough, RB|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
|Jalen Hurts, QB|
|Mike Williams, WR|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
|Tim Williams, LB|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
|Bo Scarbrough, RB|
|Jordan Leggett, TE|
The Seattle Seahawks secured their fifth straight season of 10 or more regular-season wins with a 25-23 victory over the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday. This puts Seattle in elite company with Green Bay and New England as the only two other NFL franchises to achieve the same status.
After getting punched in the mouth by the 49ers early on in the first half the Seahawks responded to the challenge and made big plays on both sides of the ball to rally and get the job done. Russell Wilson completed 19 of 32 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown. The bigger concern moving forward is the running game as it was pedestrian at best as Alex Collins led Seattle with just 55 rushing yards on seven carries.
Detroit stumbled into the NFC playoffs after blowing a chance at home last Sunday night to win the NFC North, losing to Green Bay 31-24. The secondary just simply did not have an answer for Aaron Rodgers, who completed 27 of 39 attempts for 300 yards and four touchdowns. For the Lions, Matthew Stafford and the passing game had to carry the load once again. Stafford went 26-of-41 for 347 yards, two touchdowns and interception, but was stymied for the most part in the second half as the Packers outscored the home team 21-10.
NFC Wild Card: Detroit at Seattle
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 7 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Seahawks -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which team runs the ball effectively?
Seattle must get some consistency out of its offensive line and produce some semblance of a running game against Detroit. The Seahawks have tired all year to find a quality replacement for the retired Marshawn Lynch, but it will not matter who is running the ball if the offensive line cannot win battles up front. With rookie Alex Collins showing some signs of life last Sunday against the 49ers, he should get some opportunities early on Saturday night to make some big impact runs. Another key is going to be Russell Wilson, who may need to pick up key first downs with his legs to move the chains and keep the offense on schedule in hopes of wearing down the Lions’ defense. Detroit is in a similar pickle, as it will need more than the 69 rushing yards Zach Zenner picked up against Green Bay last week on 20 carries, especially considering Seattle’s defense figures to be a stiffer test. The Lions finished the season 30th in the NFL in rushing offense at 81.9 yards per game. The Seahawks haven’t fared much better (99.4 ypg, 25th), but between Collins, Thomas Rawls and Wilson’s mobility appear to be more of a threat to make some noise out of the backfield.
2. Detroit passing attack vs. Seattle’s secondary
With the continuing struggles in the secondary for the Seahawks, you would have to believe that Detroit offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is going to put the ball in Matthew Stafford’s hands and let him fling it early and often. Golden Tate makes another return visit to Seattle and you would have to believe that he would like nothing more than to put together a monster game against his former teammates. Tate has been the Lions’ No. 1 receiver this season with 91 receptions for 1,077 yards and four touchdowns. Fellow wideout Marvin Jones and tight end Eric Ebron should also see plenty of targets on Saturday night, as both players have the ability to break off a big play at any point and considering the Seahawks are allowing a 99.0 passer rating to quarterbacks since the season-ending injury to Earl Thomas in Week 13. If Jones and Ebron can combine for double-digit receptions and average between 15-20 yards per catch that will put even more pressure on Seattle’s pass rush or the need for the defense to come up with a key turnover or two.
3. Special teams battle
This is a definite problem spot for the Seahawks as they have made too many costly mistakes in special teams over the past few weeks. Last week, Seattle gave up a safety due to bad snap that went over punter Jon Ryan’s head and out of the end zone. Kicker Steven Hauschka has made 33 field goals in 37 attempts, but his misses have come at the worst times. It is going to be important for Hauschka to get an early made field goal or extra point in the first quarter as there will be a new long snapper in Tyler Ott, who is replacing the injured Nolan Frese. Veteran return specialist Devin Hester also was signed this week to ignite a return game that could use a jolt after the season-ending leg injury for Tyler Lockett. Hester has returned 19 kicks for touchdowns over the course of his career. On the other side, Detroit will rely on Andre Roberts, who has been one of the NFL’s best this season. He finished the regular season eighth in the league in kickoff return average (22.3 ypr) and third on punt returns (12.3 ypr). The ability to swing field position and gain some of that important hidden yardage will be very important for both teams on Saturday night, as the weather should be horrendous in Seattle and could limit each team’s passing attack.
This game should be closer than the experts expect as Seattle, even in games that the Seahawks wind up winning, have had an adverse situation or two to overcome. In addition, the intensity that the 12s bring is worth a potential three to seven points to the home team in any playoff game. Seattle has won nine consecutive playoff games at CenturyLink Field while it will not be easy, they will find a way to make enough big plays. Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham and Cliff Avril will all make critical plays to send the Seahawks through to a matchup in the NFC Divisional Round in Atlanta next Saturday.
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and writes for College Sports Madness, covering college football, basketball, softball and baseball. Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottWhittum.
For the second straight season, the Houston Texans will host a wild card game. The hope is that this year’s matchup goes a lot better than last year’s 30-0 loss to Kansas City.
The Texans’ (9-7) opponent this time will be another AFC West team, the Oakland Raiders. Entering the last week of the regular season, the Raiders (12-4) had an opportunity to clinch the division and more importantly, a first-round bye, but they fell to Denver 24-6. With the Chiefs defeating the Chargers, the Raiders fell all the way to the No. 5 seed.
Unlike Houston, Oakland doesn’t have any recent playoff experience. This will be the first time the Raiders have played in a postseason game since Super Bowl XXXVII when they lost 48-21 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Saturday also is a rematch from earlier in the season, when Oakland beat Houston 27-20 in Mexico City in Week 11. The Texans hold a 6-4 series advantage in the all-time series with this being the first playoff meeting.
AFC Wild Card: Oakland at Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 7 at 4:35 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN/ABC
Spread: Houston -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Brock Osweiler vs. Raiders’ Pass Rushers
Sometimes during the playoffs, you get a matchup between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks such as Eli Manning vs. Aaron Rodgers or all of the Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning pairings. But Saturday’s pairing at NRG Stadium is anything but with Osweiler starting for Houston and rookie Connor Cook at the helm for Oakland.
Osweiler started most of this season, but was benched and replaced by Tom Savage in the Texans’ Week 15 21-20 home victory over Jacksonville. But last week, Savage sustained a concussion in the loss to Tennessee with Osweiler taking his place.
In the 24-17 loss to the Titans, Osweiler finished 21 of 40 passing, as he threw for 253 yards and a touchdown. Despite signing a four-year, $72 million contract, Osweiler hasn’t played like a franchise quarterback.
In 15 games, Osweiler has 2,957 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions while completing just 59 percent of his attempts. He will have his hands full against the Raiders’ potent pass rush.
Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin have combined for 18 sacks thus far. Mack had just once in the earlier meeting between the two teams, but he had five last season when Osweiler was starting for Denver.
2. Connor Cook vs. Texans’ Defense
Although Osweiler has experience under center, Cook will be making his first career start. It will mark the first time a rookie quarterback has made his first start in a playoff game.
Last week against Denver, Cook saw his first action when Matt McGloin, who was starting in place of injured Pro Bowler Derek Carr, injured his shoulder in the second quarter. Cook entered and led the Raiders to their only score of the game as he threw a touchdown pass to Amari Cooper in the third quarter. The fourth-round pick (No. 100 overall) out of Michigan State finished the game 14 of 21 for 150 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 24-6 loss.
Cook will have a tough test facing the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense. Houston is allowing 301.3 yards per game. The difference-maker for the Texans hasn’t been three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, who played in just one game because of back injury, but former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.
In his third season, Clowney finally established himself as a force, making his first Pro Bowl in the process. While he’s had to deal with some nagging injuries, Clowney has recorded 52 tackles, six sacks and a forced fumble. Besides Clowney, Cook also will have to worry about Whitney Mercilus, who leads Houston with 7.5 sacks.
3. Lamar Miller
Houston’s best chance to win on Saturday will probably ride on the shoulders and legs of Miller. In 14 games this season, Miller has 1,073 rushing yards and five touchdowns. His production has been limited somewhat by a nagging ankle injury that caused him to miss the last two games.
Miller will be facing an Oakland defense that has been one of the worse against the run. The Raiders are giving up an average of 117.6 rushing yards per game, which puts them 23rd in the NFL. They also have surrendered 18 touchdowns on the ground (25th).
In the first meeting back in Week 11, Miller ran for 104 yards and a score. Unless Osweiler shows an ability to consistently beat Oakland through the air, the offensive burden will all on Miller once again. The Raiders need to do a better job of limiting Miller, especially considering their own quarterback concerns.
With starting quarterback Derek Carr leading the way, many thought Oakland had an opportunity to challenge New England for AFC supremacy in the playoffs. With Carr out with a broken fibula and back Matt McGloin dealing with a shoulder injury, the Raiders must now rely on rookie Connor Cook to help them keep their season alive.
To take pressure off of Cook, Oakland will need to establish its running game with Latavius Murray and DeAndre Washington. The problem is, Houston’s rushing defense gives up 99.7 yards per game on the ground. If Cook is in a lot of 3rd-and-long situations throughout the day, it could spell trouble for the Raiders’ offense.
Even though Houston’s Brock Osweiler hasn’t been great by any means, he does have experience, although none in the postseason. If the Texans can get Lamar Miller going, that could potentially set up some big plays down the field to wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and the team’s other targets.
Against a struggling Denver offense last week, Oakland gave up 349 yards and 24 points. Saturday’s game may not be pretty, but the Texans should come away with the victory, their first in the postseason since the 2012 playoffs.
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Brock Osweiler photo courtesy of www.houstontexans.com)
The moment Alabama recovered Clemson’s onside kick with 12 seconds left to preserve its 45-40 victory and last year’s national title, the college football world was clamoring for these two teams to meet again. Thanks to dominating performances by both teams in the College Football Playoff semifinals, fans have gotten their wish.
So we know this game is big, but where does it rank with the college football’s most anticipated rematches? Let’s take a look at the top five and see, but before we do, here are a few honorable mentions.
Oklahoma 31, Nebraska 24 (Orange Bowl)
Jan. 1, 1979 – Miami
You know when your team loses to a fierce conference rival and you say, “Man, I wish we could play them again.” Well, this is the one time a bowl game granted that wish. After upsetting No. 1 Oklahoma in November, Nebraska blew its own national championship hopes by losing to Missouri the next week. With other teams losing that weekend and the Sugar Bowl setting up a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup between Penn State and Alabama, the Orange Bowl was running out of marquee foes for Big 8 champion Nebraska. So it made the unusual move of inviting No. 4 Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy winner Billy Sims to Miami for a rematch. The Sooners and their fans were ecstatic. The Cornhuskers? Not so much. The game itself was close until the third quarter, when Oklahoma pulled away to take a commanding 31-10 lead. Since the 1979 Orange Bowl, the only time two teams from the same conference played a rematch in the same season was in the 2012 national title game.
Miami 20, Oklahoma 14 (Orange Bowl)
Jan. 1, 1988 – Miami
The Hurricanes were the only team to beat Oklahoma in the 1985 and ‘86 seasons. When they faced each other for a third straight time, it was in the Orange Bowl and the Sooners were No. 1 and Miami was No. 2. For Oklahoma, the third time did not prove to be the charm as the Hurricanes won 20-14 and secured their second national title.
Alabama 21, LSU 0 (BCS National Championship Game)
Jan. 9, 2012 – New Orleans
After beating Alabama 9-6 in overtime in Tuscaloosa, LSU won its remaining games to finish the season undefeated and earn the top spot in the BCS National Championship Game. At No. 2 in the BCS standings was 11-1 Alabama, marking the only time a national championship game has been played between two teams from the same conference. The pairing was a bit controversial since many in the college football world felt 11-1 Oklahoma State deserved the shot at LSU (The Crimson Tide edged the Cowboys by a mere .0086 points in the final BCS rankings.). The frustration became even greater when Alabama won the title game and became the first team to win a national championship without even winning its division.
5. Colorado 10, Notre Dame 9 (Orange Bowl)
Jan. 1, 1991 – Miami
The year before, Notre Dame spoiled Colorado’s national title hopes by beating the top-ranked Buffaloes 21-6 in the Orange Bowl. When the teams returned to South Florida the next year after one of the wackiest seasons in college football history, Colorado was again ranked No. 1 and Notre Dame was No. 5. This time the Buffaloes hung on to win 10-9 and claim a share of the national championship.
4. Florida 52, Florida State 20 (Sugar Bowl)
Jan. 2, 1997 – New Orleans
The second-ranked Seminoles beat the top-ranked Gators 24-21 in the last week of the regular season. The next week, third-ranked Nebraska was upset by Texas in the inaugural Big 12 Championship Game while Florida took care of business against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Since No. 2 Arizona State was committed to playing Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, the only option for the Sugar Bowl was a Florida/Florida State rematch. The Buckeyes beat the Sun Devils, making the Sugar Bowl the de facto national title game. This time, Florida scored 28 unanswered points in the second half to earn the program’s first national title.
3. Florida State 18, Nebraska 16 (Orange Bowl)
Jan. 1, 1994 – Miami
The Seminoles had beaten the Huskers 27-14 the year before in an Orange Bowl that had no bearing on the national title race. When both teams returned to Miami the next season, they were more mature and Florida State was ranked No. 1 and Nebraska No. 2. The typical excitement surrounding this type of game was only intensified because it was guaranteed that either Bobby Bowden or Tom Osborne would win his first national championship. In a game for the ages, Nebraska kicker Byron Bennett’s 45-yard field goal attempt went left as time expired and the Seminoles won 18-16, securing Bowden’s first national title.
2. Miami 27, Notre Dame 10
Nov. 25, 1989 – Miami
The 1988 Notre Dame/Miami matchup, famously dubbed “Catholics vs. Convicts,” was recently highlighted in an ESPN “30 for 30” film because of its significance. Through all the hype, the two schools played one of college football’s best games, which the Irish won 31-30 en route to the national title. When the two schools met for the last game of the 1989 regular season, Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 and riding a 23-game winning streak. This time No. 7 Miami was the spoiler, dashing the Irish’s hopes for a second straight championship and putting the Hurricanes in position to win their third.
1. Clemson vs. Alabama (College Football Playoff National Championship)
Jan. 9, 2017 – Tampa, Fla.
All of the games on this list were big, but Monday night’s showdown will be the only time the same two teams have faced off or the national title two years in a row. Given the excitement last year’s game produced, the anticipation surrounding this rematch will be bigger than any other we have ever seen.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
The college football gods granted the wishes of those fans who couldn’t get enough of last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game between Alabama and Clemson, as both schools will meet again on Monday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Alabama defeated Clemson 45-40 in last season’s thrilling contest at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Alabama (14-0) sliced through its regular season to earn a trip to Atlanta and win a third straight SEC championship, blasting Florida 54-16. The No. 1 Crimson Tide returned to the Georgia Dome on New Year’s Eve and beat No. 4 Washington 24-7 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to give them a shot at back-to-back national titles.
Clemson (13-1) began the season with a six-point win at Auburn en route to starting 9-0 before falling 43-42 at home to Pittsburgh. The Tigers won their last two regular-season games and then outlasted Virginia Tech 42-35 in the ACC Championship Game, putting them back in the College Football Playoff. Clemson shut out No. 3 Ohio State 31-0 in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Eve, setting up a national championship rematch with Alabama.
Here are 10 stats you need to know to get you ready for Monday’s title tilt.
11: Defensive touchdowns scored by Alabama
Alabama’s offense at times this season has underwhelmed, but thankfully for Crimson Tide fans, it’s had the good fortune of being able to rely on a vicious and opportunistic defense to pick up the slack. Alabama has returned five fumbles and six interceptions for touchdowns through its 14 games played this year, the most recent coming in the Peach Bowl when linebacker Ryan Anderson returned a pick of Washington’s Jake Browning 26 yards for a score in the second quarter. What’s even more impressive about the Tide’s defensive scoring prowess if the fact the unit has only allowed 15 offensive touchdowns on the season.
112: Career touchdowns accounted for by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson
Watson has accounted for a whopping 112 touchdowns in 36 games with the Tigers. That total – 25 rushing and 87 passing – place him at second behind Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes among active FBS signal-callers. This season, Watson has been responsible for 46 touchdowns through 14 games and has had two or more in all but one game. He posted six touchdowns against in-state rival South Carolina and produced five against both Louisville and Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.
16: Consecutive wins by Alabama against ranked teams
The Crimson Tide’s 24-7 win over Washington in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl not only was their 16th in a row over a ranked foe, but it also tied the 2002-05 USC Trojans for the most consecutive victories of that nature in AP poll history (since 1936). Alabama’s 16-game winning streak dates back to Sept. 19, 2015, when Ole Miss scored a 43-37 upset in Tuscaloosa. With a win over Clemson, Nick Saban and Alabama can claim another record.
3: Clemson’s strength of schedule ranking
The only schools that can boast about having played tougher schedules this season are Tennessee and Ohio State. Of the 14 opponents Clemson has faced this year, 11 played in a bowl. The Tigers’ opponents have gone a combined 76-46 for a .623 winning percentage. Clemson’s 11 bowl opponents are the most the team has faced in a season since 2010 when it matched up against nine such teams.
40-3: Alabama’s record under former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin
After nearly three seasons directing the Crimson Tide’s offense, Kiffin was hired as the new head coach at Florida Atlantic in December. Originally expected to stay until Alabama’s season was over, Kiffin left the program on Monday, just two days after the playoff win over Washington. Former USC head coach Steven Sarkisian has taken over Kiffin’s duties. While questions may surround what ultimately led to his dismissal, what can’t be questioned is Kiffin’s impact as the Tide’s offensive coordinator. In his three years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama has won the SEC title each year and is a victory away from back-to-back national championships. In 2014, Kiffin helped first-year starting quarterback Blake Sims set several school records, take home SEC Championship Game MVP honors and earn second-team All-SEC recognition by the Associated Press. Last season, it was Jake Coker getting his first shot at starting and eventually guiding Alabama to a national title. This season, it has been true freshman Jalen Hurts grabbing the spotlight and being named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year. Love him or loathe him, Kiffin’s track record with Crimson Tide quarterbacks pretty much speaks for itself.
6.28: Clemson’s yards per play this season
The Tigers have run 1,121 plays from scrimmage for 7,044 yards, good for 6.28 yards per play. In 2015, the Tigers ended the season having run 1,207 plays for 7,718 yards, which translated to 6.39 yards per play. Clemson’s offensive production might not be quite as explosive as it was a year ago, but the Tigers still are a formidable force when they have the ball. Clemson enters this game 12th in the FBS in total offense (503.1 ypg) and just put up 470 yards (265 passing, 205 rushing) against an Ohio State defense that still ranks sixth nationally.
50: Sacks tallied by Alabama’s defense this season
With some considering this year’s iteration of the Crimson Tide defense to perhaps be the best head coach Nick Saban has assembled during his time in Tuscaloosa, it’s no surprise to learn that ‘Bama has racked up 50 sacks in 14 games. That puts the Tide second in the FBS behind only Florida State (51 in 13 G) and one ahead of Clemson. The Tigers’ offensive line has done well in protecting quarterback Deshaun Watson this season, as the Heisman Trophy runner-up has only been sacked 16 times. Fans of line play will be in for a treat Monday night.
1,267: Receiving yards this season for Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams
If not for a scary-looking neck injury sustained after colliding with a goal post following a touchdown catch against Wofford in September 2015, Williams could be looking at a third consecutive 1,000-yard season. He posted 1,030 in 2014 and following a six-catch, 96-yard showing against Ohio State in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, he enters Monday night with 1,267 on 90 receptions. He has five 100-yard games (Auburn, NC State, Syracuse, South Carolina), including a career-best 202 in the loss to Pittsburgh.
208: Receiving yards for Alabama tight end O.J. Howard in last year’s national championship game
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables did his due diligence in scheming for breakout wide receiver Calvin Ridley in last year’s title game, holding the then 1,000-yard receiver to 14 yards on six receptions. But neither Venables nor Clemson’s secondary, however, had an answer for Howard, who burned the Tigers for 208 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions, including a 51-yard score in the fourth quarter that put Alabama ahead to stay. Howard has 489 yards and two touchdowns entering the rematch and you know Venables and company do not want to let the tight end beat them a second time.
20: Interceptions by Clemson’s defense
With two picks of Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, the Tigers now have 20 interceptions on the season. Only five other teams have more. Alabama true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has done a good job throwing the ball (2,649 yards, 22 TD), but he has tossed nine picks. During a five-game stretch starting Oct. 8 and ending Nov. 12, he threw at least one and has been picked off in seven of 14 games thus far. Since throwing two against Auburn in the regular season finale, Hurts has been mistake-free (in just 34 pass attempts) in wins over Florida and Washington.
— Written by Elton Hayes, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. A sports reporter for The Meridian Star Newspaper, Hayes also has been an invited guest on “The Paul Finebaum Show.” Follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.
It’s here. After one long and entertaining season, we’re finally down to just one last college football game. While the national title game is always a must-watch affair, this year’s edition is one of the most unique meetings in the sport’s history because it’s the first rematch in the championship game era. As good as Alabama-Clemson Part II will be in Tampa however, some of the one-on-ones between the players on the field are even juicier than the overall matchup itself.
Whether you’re a college football fan, a coach or an NFL scout, here are 10 of the best position vs. position battles between offensive stars and their defensive counterparts on the other side in the national title game.
1. Clemson LBs Ben Boulware and Kendall Joseph vs. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts and RB Bo Scarbrough
It says plenty about the Crimson Tide’s ridiculous depth that Scarbrough was his team’s fourth-leading rusher coming into the Peach Bowl, where he ran all over Washington to the tune of 180 yards and two scores. He’ll almost assuredly see a bigger role in the backfield as the focus of the team’s offensive attack, along with Hurts, ‘Bama’s dual-threat signal-caller. How successful those two young stars will be running the ball depends on how well the Tigers’ talented linebacker duo plays. Boulware and Joseph combined for 13 tackles in the semifinal and virtually eliminated the Ohio State ground game. Can they do it again? Things will be much tougher in Tampa.
2. Alabama DBs Minkah Fitzpatrick, Marlon Humphrey, Anthony Averett, Ronnie Harrison and Tony Brown vs. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, WRs Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow and TE Jordan Leggett
Nick Saban has not shied away from calling Watson the best player in college football right now and will get another crack at him for all the marbles. The Tide’s secondary isn’t quite as stingy as it was last season but is still loaded with talented players led by do-everything star Fitzpatrick. They’ll all have their hands full for the title game, as Watson is throwing to the deepest group of receivers in the sport. One big change from last year is that the Tigers will have stud Williams and speedster Cain, who both missed last year’s game and will no doubt be looking to make up for that.
3. Clemson LB Dorian O’Daniel and DB Jadar Johnson vs. Alabama TE O.J. Howard
One of the biggest surprises for Alabama in the last meeting between these two teams was the emergence of Howard, who exploded for 208 yards and two touchdowns in a high-scoring victory. Can he have the same impact again this year? One thing is for sure, the Tigers will certainly keep their eye on the physical tight end wherever he goes. O’Daniel will likely have to deal with Howard out on intermediate routes and in the run game when he tries to block, while Johnson will have to prevent anything over the top.
4. Clemson OT Mitch Hyatt vs. Alabama DE Jonathan Allen and LB Tim Williams
Hyatt was a sensation during Clemson’s run to the national championship game last year as a true freshman and has protected Deshaun Watson’s blindside since he stepped on campus. While he did a top-notch job against Alabama the first time, the second meeting should be a little bit tougher — as strange as it is to say. Allen has developed into the best defensive player in the game right now (with the hardware to prove it) and teams up with a pass rusher extraordinaire in Williams. Keeping Watson upright is a major factor in Monday’s game and nobody will play a bigger role in that than Hyatt.
5. Alabama OL Korren Kirven, Bradley Bozeman and Ross Pierschbacher vs. Clemson DT’s Dexter Lawrence, Carlos Watkins and Scott Pagano
Elite programs reload, they don’t rebuild. Along the defensive line, no two teams in America do it better than Alabama and Clemson in that regard. The Tigers’ group in the interior of their defensive line is as talented as they come and it’s a unit that features an impressive mix of youth, athleticism and playmakers. Watkins is the veteran of the bunch and a load to move out of the way when he isn’t getting after the passer while Lawrence may be the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick down the road (likely 2019, as he’s just a true freshman) with an incredible blend of size and quickness that is as rare as they come. The Crimson Tide’s interior offensive line hasn’t been quite as good as we’re used to with the program and will need their best effort for the title game if the team is to run the ball effectively.
6. Alabama OTs Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams vs. Clemson DEs Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant
Robinson is very likely to become a first-round draft pick a few months after the title game and has been a mainstay in protecting three different Alabama quarterbacks with three very different styles. As good as he’s been though he may not have been the Tide’s best tackle this season, as freshman Williams has deservingly earned numerous All-American honors for his work at right tackle. The duo have already played some of the best defensive ends in the country this year but will still have a huge challenge against Clemson’s ultra-talented and deep group of ends.
7. Clemson RB Wayne Gallman vs. Alabama LB Reuben Foster
While Deshaun Watson and (this season at least) Mike Williams have gotten more attention from the national media, Gallman might just be Clemson’s most important player heading into this national title rematch. The dependable back is not only effective running the ball (85 yards, one touchdown in the semifinal), but he also can be a threat in the passing game as well as serving as a solid pass blocker when needed. He’ll need a big game if the Tigers want any revenge for last season and will have his work cut out for him facing off against Foster, who won the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker and is a straight missile coming down hill to tackle.
8. Clemson DBs Cordrea Tankersley, Ryan Carter and Van Smith vs. Alabama WRs ArDarius Stewart, Calvin Ridley and Gehrig Dieter
With a freshman quarterback who likes to run the ball, Alabama’s offense has been even more run-centric than previous versions this season. That has resulted in some fairly mediocre overall numbers for the Tide wideout group but make no mistake this is still a very deep unit capable of taking it to the house on each play. Stewart has been the team’s most consistent playmaker but one can’t sleep on the explosive Ridley or the reliable Dieter out of the slot either. The Clemson secondary has shut down a number of terrific passing attacks in ACC play this year but will need another big performance in the title game against this trio of pass catchers.
9. Alabama DT Da’Ron Payne vs. Clemson C Jay Guillermo
Alabama’s defense has put up some remarkable statistics this season and many have thrown out that this is Nick Saban’s best group since he arrived in Tuscaloosa. The reason for all that praise generally starts up front but that’s one area where Jonathan Allen has taken the lion’s share of attention on the field and in the papers. As a result, big man Payne has continually been overshadowed and underappreciated in his time as a starter, not putting up a great stat line but nevertheless having a big impact on the game with each snap he takes from the interior. He should have a great battle with Guillermo, an All-ACC first-teamer, and the rest of the Tigers’ linemen.
10. Alabama P JK Scott vs. Clemson PRs Artavis Scott and Ray-Ray McCloud
Punters are people too and, in the national title game, they could very well be the difference in winning or losing the crucial field position battle. Scott is one of the best in the country at his position and has been Alabama’s most underrated weapon on the team’s run the past three seasons. Nearly half of his punts go more than 50 yards and he’s provided his defense with optimal field position time after time this year. McCloud only has 21 returns at just 8.4 yards per, but has shown an ability to take it to the house with his combination of speed and quickness. Most probably remember him dropping the ball before the goal line on one return back in the opener but he and Scott are both dangerous if there’s an opportunity for them to catch and run.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
The tournament begins now.
After 16 weeks of regular season football, the NFL playoffs begin this weekend — and all bets are off. Anything can happen in the playoffs. Every team now has the same record: 0-0.
Quite simply, it's a recipe for outrageousness.
Outrageous Predictions for NFL Wild Card Weekend
Connor Cook throws for more than 300 yards against the Texans
The rookie out of Michigan State will get the start for the Raiders this weekend, but fans of the Silver and Black should not be too nervous. Cook is no stranger to big games, nor is he a stranger to big-time performances in those games. He'll be asked to simply distribute the ball to a cast of skill position players that will be a mismatch for the Houston linebackers and secondary. When it's all said and done, the Raiders will be victorious and Cook's efficient day will be a big reason why.
Le'Veon Bell sets the single-game rushing record for the playoffs
The Patriots may have exposed the Dolphin run defense a week ago. They didn't run the ball often, but when they did, they had success at over four yards per carry. Anything New England's backfield can do, Le'Veon Bell can do better. When you consider the attention that the Miami defense will pay to Pittsburgh's elite Ben Roethlisberger-to-Antonio Brown connection, Bell will have plenty of room to operate. Once the Steelers jump out early in what figures to be a cold afternoon, look for Bell and the Pittsburgh offensive line to pound the Dolphins into submission.
The Packers and Giants combine for two total touchdowns
Sure, these are two high-powered offenses that like to chuck the ball around the field — and to some elite weapons. That said, when the sun goes down about an hour after kickoff, the darkness is going to bring bone-chilling cold weather with it, putting an exclamation point on every bit of contact between these two storied franchises. Forget the two high-profile quarterbacks. The team whose running game and special teams play better will win this one.
Matthew Stafford silences Seattle
The Seahawks were not fantastic against the pass over the last quarter of the regular season. Stafford will lead Detroit's explosive passing attack into CenturyLink Field playing with house money. Look for the gunslinger to target former Seahawk Golden Tate early and often, turning the game into a shootout that Russell Wilson may not be ready to keep pace in.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
(Connor Cook photo courtesy of Getty Images)
College football’s 2017 season is still several months away, but it’s never too early to predict next year’s top 25 teams. Alabama and Clemson will close out the 2016 season on Jan. 9, and both teams should begin 2017 near the top of the rankings. However, there will be no shortage of contenders next fall, as Florida State, Ohio State, USC, Penn State, Oklahoma and Washington will be in the mix for a playoff spot.
While we tried to account and project teams based upon how depth charts will look by spring ball and the upcoming schedule, it’s no secret a lot will change in terms of the personnel, coaching or outlooks for teams once all of the key returners or departures are settled for all 130 teams. Needless to say, expect several tweaks to this top 25 ranking between January and August or before the 2017 officially starts.
Really, Really, Ridiculously Early 2017 Top 25
Here is Athlon’s very early look at the top 25 teams in college football for 2017, followed by 15 other teams to watch this offseason:
A Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2017
Picking a favorite in the ACC Coastal for 2017 isn’t easy. North Carolina lost quarterback Mitch Trubisky to the NFL, Virginia Tech must replace three of its standouts on offense, and Pitt loses a couple of key players from last year’s 8-5 team. For now, Miami gets the nod as the early Coastal frontrunner. However, coach Mark Richt has to break in a new quarterback after Brad Kaaya left for the NFL and standout tight end David Njoku also left Coral Gables for the next level. The cupboard is far from bare on offense, as running back Mark Walton and receiver Ahmmon Richards are two of the ACC’s top returning playmakers. The offensive line is another area of concern for Richt, especially with standout guard Danny Isidora expiring his eligibility. Coordinator Manny Diaz helped the defense take a step forward in 2016, and this unit could be even better in 2017. The front seven is strong, headlined by linebackers Shaq Quarterman, Michael Pinckney and Zach McCloud after all three started as freshmen. Replacing cornerback Corn Elder is the biggest concern for Diaz this spring. Miami has road trips to Florida State, Pitt and North Carolina, but Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech visit Hard Rock Stadium.
24. Notre Dame
Yes, Notre Dame finished 4-8 in 2016. However, the Fighting Irish lost seven of those games by eight points or less and finished No. 29 in F/+ ratings. While there is certainly cause for concern in South Bend, coach Brian Kelly hired two standout coordinators this offseason (Chip Long on offense and Mike Elko on defense), and there’s a good core of talent in place. New quarterback Brandon Wimbush ranked as the No. 45 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite and returns a solid one-two punch in Josh Adams and Dexter Williams to lean on at running back. Equanimeous St. Brown (58 catches) is back as the team’s leading receiver, but Torii Hunter Jr. decided to skip his last year of eligibility for baseball. Alize Jones also returns from suspension to bolster the tight end position. The left side of the offensive line is set with Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. Both players should be All-America selections next fall. Improving the defense was Kelly’s top priority this offseason and the arrival of Elko should help this unit take a step forward. Most of last year’s depth chart returns intact, but linemen Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones, linebacker James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke depart South Bend. The schedule features 11 bowl teams (and Michigan State). However, games against Georgia, USC, Navy and NC State are at Notre Dame next season.
23. West Virginia
Assuming quarterback Will Grier is eligible for the entire 2017 season, the Mountaineers should push to be a top 25 team once again. Grier played in six games as a redshirt freshman at Florida (1,204 yards and 10 TDs) before a suspension ended his 2015 campaign. The addition of Grier should boost West Virginia’s passing attack, especially with one of the Big 12’s top receiving corps in place. Shelton Gibson (22.1 ypc) declared for the NFL, but Ka’Raun White (48 catches) and Jovon Durante headline the key returnees on the outside. The Mountaineers return 1,000-yard rusher Justin Crawford and promising freshmen Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway at running back. The biggest question mark for coach Dana Holgorsen’s offense is the offensive line. Center Tyler Orlosky, left tackle Adam Pankey and guard Tony Matteo expire their eligibility, but left tackle Yodny Cajuste is back from injury. Similar to last season, coordinator Tony Gibson will have a busy offseason replacing some key faces on defense. Standout cornerback Rasul Douglas, end Noble Nwachukwu and defensive backs Antonio Crawford, Maurice Fleming, Jarrod Harper and Jeremy Tyler are just a few of the names departing a solid 2016 unit. Gibson will regain the services of safety Dravon Askew-Henry, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in August.
The Bulls are likely to head into spring practice as a slight favorite over Boise State for the nod as the top team from the Group of 5 ranks. New coach Charlie Strong will make a few tweaks from the foundation set by former coach Willie Taggart, but USF is still going to lean heavily on dynamic quarterback Quinton Flowers. As a junior in 2016, Flowers threw for 2,812 yards and 24 scores and accounted for 1,530 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. The biggest question marks on offense rest with finding a replacement for receiver Rodney Adams and left tackle Kofi Amichia. Additionally, running back Marlon Mack departed early for the NFL. The Bulls surrendered 31.6 points a game on defense, but this unit returns largely intact for 2017. Another reason to like USF in 2017? The schedule. The only Power 5 opponent on the schedule is Illinois, while Houston, Temple and Tulsa all visit Raymond James Stadium next fall.
New coach Willie Taggart inherits a promising core of young talent for his first season in Eugene. Although the Ducks are coming off their first losing record since 2004, a quick rebound should be in order. Quarterback Justin Herbert threw for 1,936 yards and 19 touchdowns as a true freshman last fall and will be surrounded by a strong supporting cast that features running back Royce Freeman and receiver Charles Nelson. The Ducks also went with a youth movement in the trenches last season and this unit is slated to return four starters from the final two-deep. Scoring points won’t be a problem for Taggart’s team, but the defense needs to take a step forward if Oregon wants to challenge Stanford or Washington in the Pac-12 North. The good news? Taggart hired standout coordinator Jim Leavitt away from Colorado and has plenty of experience at all three level of the defense returning for 2017. The Ducks also catch a break in scheduling by missing USC in crossover play, while Washington State and Utah visit Eugene.
The Longhorns won the offseason coaching carousel by bringing Tom Herman to Austin after a successful two-year run at Houston. The former graduate assistant under Mack Brown inherits a team that finished 5-7 last year but features plenty of promising pieces to build around on both sides of the ball. Shane Buechele returns as the team’s quarterback after throwing for 2,958 yards and 21 scores as a true freshman in 2016. Buechele will be throwing behind an offensive line that features four returning starters, and only one of the top four receivers is set to leave. Running back D’Onta Foreman (2,028 yards) is the biggest loss on the offense. However, Chris Warren returns after missing most of 2016 due to injury. Improving the defense is a must for Herman, and the addition of coordinator Todd Orlando will pay dividends right away. This unit returns largely intact and isn’t hurting for talent at any of the three levels.
David Shaw’s program might be one of the most difficult to rank in the very early top 25. Quarterback Keller Chryst suffered a knee injury in the Sun Bowl win over North Carolina, and his status for offseason workouts (and perhaps the 2017 season?) is uncertain. Regardless of whether Chryst, Ryan Burns or K.J. Costello takes the first snap next fall, Stanford should lean heavily on its talented running back duo of Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett. Trenton Irwin (37 catches) and JJ Arcega-Whiteside (15.8 ypc) are back to lead the receiving corps, while the offensive line returns four starters, including Nate Herbig and center Jesse Burkett. Solomon Thomas is a big loss for Shaw’s defense, but the secondary should be a strength with the return of cornerback Quenton Meeks. Road trips to Washington State, Utah and USC are on tap, while Stanford hosts Oregon, UCLA and Washington next season.
Related: Pac-12 2016 All-Freshman Team
18. Kansas State
Looking for a dark horse title pick in the Big 12 next year? Take a look at Bill Snyder’s Wildcats. Kansas State quietly finished 2016 at 9-4 and returns most of its core from both sides of the ball. On offense, quarterback Jesse Ertz is back after rushing for 1,012 yards and 12 scores last season, and running back Alex Barnes could be one of the Big 12’s top breakout players. Byron Pringle and Dominique Heath return at receiver, and the Wildcats should have one of the conference’s best offensive lines with four starters returning. End Jordan Willis is a big loss, and linebacker Elijah Lee declared early for the NFL Draft. However, cornerback D.J. Reed (the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in 2016) is back to anchor the secondary. Big 12 frontrunner Oklahoma is slated to visit Manhattan in mid-October next year.
The Volunteers fell short of most preseason expectations of a SEC East title in 2016, but coach Butch Jones has still pieced together back-to-back nine-win seasons. In order for Tennessee to edge Florida and Georgia in the East next year, this team has to navigate a schedule that features games at Alabama and Florida, while LSU and Georgia visit Neyland Stadium. Additionally, the Volunteers will have a new play-caller on offense and a quarterback battle this offseason between Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano. The offensive line returns mostly intact, and John Kelly is a player to watch at running back with Alvin Kamara off to the NFL. Injuries hit Tennessee’s defense hard in 2016, and this unit loses two standouts in end Derek Barnett and cornerback Cam Sutton. Considering all of the injuries this team dealt with on defense, the playing time by backups and new starters should improve the overall depth for this unit in 2017. Linebacker Darrin Kirkland should be the leader of the front seven for coordinator Bob Shoop.
The Gators have claimed back-to-back SEC East titles under coach Jim McElwain, and a third one is within reach. In order to beat Georgia or Tennessee for the East crown, improvement on offense is a must. Florida finished 100th nationally in scoring in 2015 and 107th in 2016. Luke Del Rio is the team’s most experienced quarterback, but Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask (both redshirt freshmen) will press the junior for the starting nod in the spring. Regardless of which quarterback wins the starting job, expect to see a lot of running back Jordan Scarlett and receiver Antonio Callaway. The offensive line also is improving, but tackle David Sharpe left early for the NFL. McElwain has holes to fill on defense at each level and a new coordinator calling the plays in 2017. Linebacker Jarrad Davis and cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson depart, and the list of key voids to fill grew after tackle Caleb Brantley declared early for the NFL. Florida has a tough schedule next season, which starts in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, against Michigan on Sept. 2. However, while the schedule is tough, Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M and Florida State each visit the Swamp in 2017.
After a dynamic sophomore campaign, quarterback Lamar Jackson is back to defend his Heisman Trophy victory and lead the Cardinals back in contention for the ACC title. Jackson accounted for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns through the air and added 1,571 yards and 21 scores on the ground. Jackson should continue to improve as a passer, but coach Bobby Petrino has some work to do in retooling the supporting cast. Running back Brandon Radcliff departs, and the receiving corps loses James Quick (45 catches), Jamari Staples (36) and tight end Cole Hikutini (50 catches). Three starters have expired their eligibility in the trenches, but left tackle Geron Christian should be one of the ACC’s top linemen in 2017. Improving the offensive line has to be a priority for Petrino this offseason. The Cardinals also lose a couple of key players on defense, including tackle DeAngelo Brown and linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields. However, coordinator Todd Grantham can build the 2017 defense around linebackers James Hearns and Stacy Thomas, along with cornerback Jaire Alexander. Louisville’s schedule features road trips to North Carolina, Florida State and Kentucky. However, Clemson visits Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in 2017.
Auburn had an up-and-down 2016 season, with injuries to quarterback Sean White and running back Kamryn Pettway derailing the offense in November. The Tigers started 1-2 before winning six in a row, followed by a 1-3 finish to the season. Coach Gus Malzahn needs more out of the passing attack in 2017 and landed a potential All-SEC quarterback in Jarrett Stidham. After one year at Baylor, Stidham left the program and spent 2016 out of football at a junior college. Stidham has a promising group of receivers to target on the outside, and the one-two punch of Pettway and Kerryon Johnson should be one of the nation’s top backfield tandems. Two starters depart from a standout line, but center Austin Golson and guard Braden Smith are back. A couple of key cogs are gone on defense, but coordinator Kevin Steele has plenty of talent to rebuild in 2017. End Carl Lawson declared for the NFL Draft, while cornerback Joshua Holsey and safety Rudy Ford have expired their eligibility. After a solid freshman season, Marlon Davidson will help to anchor the trenches in 2017, and cornerback Carlton Davis is poised to rank among the SEC’s top defensive backs. Malzahn’s team will be tested early with a road trip to Clemson in September and also faces LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M away from Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The SEC East will be a tight, three-team battle between Georgia, Florida and Tennessee next fall. For now, the Bulldogs get the nod as our early favorite to claim the division title. The schedule for coach Kirby Smart’s team does feature a couple of tough road trips with games at Tennessee, Notre Dame and Auburn. However, the offense should take a step forward with quarterback Jacob Eason having a full offseason to work as the starter. The return of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel ensure the ground game will be one of the best in the SEC. Georgia’s defense is expected to return nearly all of its key contributors from a unit that limited opponents to 24 points a game in 2016. Lineman Trent Thompson had a huge performance in the Liberty Bowl win over TCU and returns to anchor a strong front seven that also features linebacker Roquan Smith.
Ed Orgeron’s first full season at the helm in Baton Rouge begins with a similar question: What will LSU get out of its offense? It’s no secret the Tigers have one of the nation’s top running backs in Derrius Guice and a strong foundation to build around on the offensive line. New coordinator Matt Canada was a strong hire, but this offense needs more from its passing attack. Can Danny Etling hold onto the starting quarterback spot? There’s also uncertainty at receiver, as more depth is needed and Malachi Dupre left for the NFL. LSU’s defense under Dave Aranda will be one of the best in the nation next fall. End/linebacker Arden Key could lead the SEC in sacks in 2017. Cornerback Tre’Davious White and lineman Davon Godchaux leave big shoes to fill, and safety Jamal Adams is expected to declare for the NFL Draft. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for Orgeron.
11. Oklahoma State
The big-play connection of quarterback Mason Rudolph to wide receiver James Washington is more than enough to keep Oklahoma State in the hunt for the Big 12 title next year. The Cowboys also return promising running back Justice Hill (1,142 yards), and there’s optimism the offensive line will continue to improve behind guard Marcus Keyes and tackle Zach Crabtree. Washington has plenty of support at receiver. Jalen McCleskey returns after leading the team with 73 catches, Marcell Ateman returns from injury, and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson is eligible in 2017. The early departure of tackle Vincent Taylor is another loss on a defense that must replace cornerback Ashton Lampkin, safety Jordan Sterns and linebacker Jordan Burton. The schedule features road trips to Texas, West Virginia and Pitt next year, but Oklahoma, TCU and Kansas State come to Stillwater.
Jim Harbaugh has a major rebuilding project on his hands for 2017. The losses on both sides of the ball are heavy, but quarterback Wilton Speight is back from a promising first year as the starter, and the Wolverines have a solid stable of running backs to utilize. Additionally, center Mason Cole turned down the NFL Draft for one more year in Ann Arbor. Cole’s return is critical for an offensive line that loses three other starters. Speight will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps, as Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt have each expired their eligibility. Each level of the defense suffered a significant loss, but coordinator Don Brown is one of the best in the nation and won’t let this group slip too much in overall production. Chris Wormley, Ryan Glasgow and Taco Charlton depart in the trenches, all four starters in the secondary – including standout cornerback Jourdan Lewis – have expired their eligibility. Standout linebacker/safety hybrid Jabrill Peppers declared for the NFL Draft.
The Badgers faced one of the nation’s most difficult schedules in 2016 and lost three games against top-10 teams – Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State – by a touchdown. The good news for coach Paul Chryst in 2017? Wisconsin’s slate is much easier. The Badgers play Maryland, Indiana and Michigan in crossover play, and the Wolverines have to visit Camp Randall Stadium. With Bart Houston departing, the quarterback job should go to Alex Hornibrook. But Wisconsin’s identity on offense won’t change, as this team is still going to lean on a standout offensive line and stable of running backs. Corey Clement expired his eligibility after leading the team with 1,375 yards. However, Bradrick Shaw (457 yards), Taiwan Deal and Pitt transfer Chris James is a good trio to anchor the ground game. Coordinator Justin Wilcox will have a few holes to fill on defense, as T.J. Watt declared for the NFL Draft and fellow linebacker Vince Biegel and cornerback Sojourn Shelton expired their eligibility. The linebacking corps should get a boost with the return of Chris Orr and Jack Cichy from injury.
Related: Big Ten 2016 All-Freshman Team
After back-to-back trips to the national championship game (and a thrilling victory over Alabama to claim the 2016 title), Clemson is due for a small step back in the rankings in 2017. But the drop won’t be far for coach Dabo Swinney’s team, even though the Tigers are expected to lose quarterback Deshaun Watson, wide receiver Mike Williams and running back Wayne Gallman to the NFL. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt and running back Tavien Feaster are two building blocks for coordinator Tony Elliott to build around in 2017. The quarterback competition features a few intriguing options with Kelly Bryant, Tucker Israel, Zerrick Cooper and potential five-star freshman Hunter Johnson vying to replace Watson. The defense will lose a couple of key players – linebacker Ben Boulware, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley and tackle Carlos Watkins. However, coordinator Brent Venables should quickly find the right answers to keep this unit performing at a high level. Ends Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, tackle Dexter Lawrence and linebacker Kendall Joseph are the anchors on defense next year.
Chris Petersen has Washington on the rise after a Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff berth in 2016. Replicating that success in 2017 could be difficult, as the Huskies lost standout defenders Sidney Jones (CB), Budda Baker (S) and Elijah Qualls (DL) to the NFL. Additionally, dynamic receiver John Ross also declared for the next level. The losses on defense are significant, but there’s a good foundation for coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski to start the rebuilding process. Vita Vea and Greg Gaines return in the trenches, while Azeem Victor returns from injury to headline a solid group of linebackers. Quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin are back to anchor the offense, and the line should be one of the best groups in the Pac-12. The Huskies won’t have to play USC in the regular season and hosts Oregon, Utah and Washington State. A trip to Stanford is the toughest road date on the 2017 slate.
The Sooners are aiming for a third consecutive Big 12 title in 2017. Standout wide receiver Dede Westbrook and running back Samaje Perine must be replaced, but the offense will remain deadly behind coordinator Lincoln Riley and quarterback Baker Mayfield. The offensive line also will be among the nation’s best, and Abdul Adams, Rodney Anderson or perhaps an incoming freshman should keep the ground attack performing at a high level with Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine off to the NFL. Finding a replacement (or two) among the skill positions is the biggest question mark for Riley this offseason. The defense surrendered 28.8 points a game in 2016 but should improve on that total in 2017. Linebacker Jordan Evans is the biggest loss, and lineman Jordan Wade and Austin Roberts also expire their eligibility. However, standout pass rusher Ogbonnia Okoronkwo returns, and coordinator Mike Stoops has an emerging star in Caleb Kelly at linebacker. Safety Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas return to anchor the secondary. The path to a second playoff bid runs through road trips at Ohio State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State next season.
Clay Helton’s first full year at the helm in Los Angeles got off to a rocky start. The Trojans began the season with a 1-3 record and were 0-2 in Pac-12 play before October. However, USC reeled off nine consecutive wins to end the season, largely due to the emergence of Sam Darnold at quarterback. The redshirt freshman threw for 3,086 yards and 31 scores and added 250 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Darnold should be even better next season and has rising star Ronald Jones (1,082 yards) to rely on at running back. The Trojans are set to lose Darreus Rogers (56 catches) at receiver, and JuJu Smith-Schuster (70 catches) declared early for the NFL. Standout offensive tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner also depart and leave big shoes to fill in the trenches. Coordinator Clancy Pendergast was one of the top assistant hires of last offseason, as USC’s defense limited opponents to 24.2 points per game despite major question marks in the front seven. Pendergast will have a solid core in place for 2017, but tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu must be replaced. Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson also decided to leave early for the NFL.
4. Penn State
The Nittany Lions were one of the nation’s most improved teams over the second half of 2016 and that momentum should carry into the '17 campaign. The defending Big Ten champions are loaded on offense with the return of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. Wide receiver Chris Godwin left for the NFL Draft, but tight end Mike Gesicki has already announced his intention to return to school for 2017. Even though Godwin is a big loss, Penn State should be fine at receiver with DaeSean Hamilton (34 catches), DeAndre Thompkins (27) and Saeed Blacknall (15). An improving offensive line loses only one starter (Brian Gaia), and there’s plenty of depth with the return of Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon after both players missed significant time this season. The defense gave up 5.04 yards per play under first-year coordinator Brent Pry and returns a good chunk of talent for 2017. Penn State’s toughest game is at Ohio State (Oct. 28), but Michigan (Oct. 21), Nebraska (Oct. 18) and Pitt (Sept. 9) all visit Happy Valley.
3. Florida State
Dalvin Cook is off to the NFL, but coach Jimbo Fisher’s team will be in the hunt to win it all in 2017. Quarterback Deondre Francois leads the way on offense after throwing for 3,350 yards and 20 scores as a redshirt freshman. Francois started all 13 games in 2016 and should take another step forward in his development with an offseason to work under Fisher. Francois also has an solid group of receivers to target, including Nyqwan Murray (27) and Auden Tate (25). Jacques Patrick and Amir Rasul will factor into the mix to replace Cook at running back. However, five-star prospect Cam Akers will have a major role in the offense once he arrives on campus. The defense showed improvement late in the year and won’t have to go against the brutal slate of quarterbacks it faced in 2016 at the start of next season. End DeMarcus Walker and cornerback Marquez White are the biggest losses on defense. End Josh Sweat, tackle Derrick Nnadi and cornerback Tarvarus McFadden headline the key returnees for coordinator Charles Kelly. Additionally, All-America safety Derwin James is back from injury.
Related: ACC 2016 All-Freshman Team
2. Ohio State
Considering Ohio State returned only six starters headed into 2016, a trip to the College Football Playoff was probably a year ahead of schedule for coach Urban Meyer’s team. The Buckeyes are losing a couple of players early to the NFL Draft, but there’s no shortage of blue-chip talent waiting to emerge. Fixing the offense is at the top of Meyer’s offseason to-do list, and the hires of Kevin Wilson (play-caller) and Ryan Day (QB coach) should help this unit take a step forward. The passing game is the biggest area of focus, but quarterback J.T. Barrett (2,555 passing yards, 24 TDs) is back. A big concern is finding playmakers at receiver, especially after Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel declared for the NFL Draft. Running back Mike Weber should be one of the best in the nation next year. The offensive line loses standout center Pat Elflein, but guard Billy Price is expected to slide to the middle to fill the void. The strength of the defense will be in the trenches. The Buckeyes did not have a senior crack the two-deep up front on the depth chart for the Fiesta Bowl. The biggest uncertainty rests in the back seven. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan and defensive backs Gareon Conley (CB) and Malik Hooker (safety) have declared for the NFL Draft. Ohio State has to head to Michigan next year, but Penn State and Oklahoma visit Columbus.
Nick Saban’s team has a few key pieces to replace going into the 2017 season, but as usual, the Crimson Tide aren’t hurting for talent. New play-caller Steve Sarkisian will continue to build the offense around quarterback Jalen Hurts. With a full year to develop as the starter, expect Hurts to improve as a passer in 2017. Calvin Ridley is back at receiver, and the sophomore will be handing off to Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Joshua Jacobs at running back. Cam Robinson is a big loss at left tackle, but Jonah Williams started every game as a true freshman and could flip from right tackle. The losses on defense are more significant. End Jonathan Allen, linebackers Reuben Foster, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams must be replaced. The secondary should be a strength with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison anchoring the group. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey left early for the NFL Draft. The schedule also breaks in Alabama’s favor. The Crimson Tide host LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss and play Florida State at a neutral site (Atlanta).
15 Others to Watch
Running back Jeremy McNichols departed early for the NFL, but coach Bryan Harsin’s team will build around quarterback Brett Rypien and receiver Cedrick Wilson on offense. Each level of the defense suffers a key loss (or two).
Standout running back Jamaal Williams leaves big shoes to fill, and the Cougars face difficult matchups against Power 5 opponents LSU, Utah, Wisconsin and Mississippi State. Quarterback Tanner Mangum steps back under center after working as the No. 2 option to Taysom Hill in 2016.
Quarterback Justin Thomas departs, but the Yellow Jackets will be a dark horse contender to watch in the Coastal Division next year.
After a berth in the College Football Playoff in 2015, the Spartans bottomed out with a 3-9 record in 2016. How much improvement is in store for coach Mark Dantonio’s team in 2017?
Quarterback Ryan Finley, tight end/all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels and end Bradley Chubb headline a NC State team that won three out of its last four games in 2016.
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, receiver Jordan Westerkamp and safety Nate Gerry are three big losses for coach Mike Riley to address this offseason.
Running back Elijah Hood and quarterback Mitch Trubisky are leaving Chapel Hill early for the NFL.
Pencil in Iowa or Northwestern as a dark horse team to watch in the Big Ten West next year. The Wildcats return quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson, but receiver Austin Carr and linebacker Anthony Walker leave big shoes to fill.
The losses are heavy for coach Pat Narduzzi. Running back James Conner, offensive linemen Dorian Johnson and Adam Bisnowaty, quarterback Nathan Peterman and defensive end Ejuan Price are just a few names departing the roster. USC transfer Max Browne is slated to step in at quarterback.
Let’s pencil in the teams in the SEC West outside of Alabama, Auburn and LSU in this space. Each team – Arkansas, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M – have significant question marks to address. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of those programs put everything together this offseason and make a run at the top 25 in 2017.
The Horned Frogs should be solid on defense, but question marks remain after the offense took a step back in 2016. Will quarterback Kenny Hill take a step forward in his second year as the starter?
Quarterback Josh Rosen returns to full strength after a season-ending shoulder injury and has a new play-caller in Jedd Fisch. The Bruins lose a couple of key cogs on defense.
The Utes return two interesting options at quarterback (Troy Williams and Tyler Huntley), but running back Joe Williams and four starters on the offensive line must be replaced. Safety Marcus Williams and end Hunter Dimick are the biggest losses on defense.
Even though the Hokies lose quarterback Jerod Evans, receiver Isaiah Ford and tight end Bucky Hodges to the NFL, coach Justin Fuente should keep this team in the mix to win the Coastal Division.
Receiver Gabe Marks and two starters on the line are the biggest losses for coach Mike Leach’s offense. Quarterback Luke Falk is back after another prolific season, and the defense returns promising end Hercules Mata’afa and safety Jalen Thompson.
Trying to find your optimal DraftKings lineup for this week's tournament: SBS Tournament of Champions? Our fantasy-golf experts are ready to help.
Here's what our optimal lineup looks like.
Jordan Spieth ($11,500)
The defending champion showed a mastery of the Kapalua greens in 2016.
Bubba Watson ($9,200)
Kapalua is a bomber's course, and Bubba's the ultimate bomber. He's overdue for a strong finish here.
Ryan Moore ($7,700)
Moore has turned into Mr. Consistency; he's made 14 cuts in a row with a win and three other top 10s during that stretch.
Branden Grace ($7,200)
Grace comes in fresh, having taken the last month off. It's his first visit to Kapalua, but certainly not his last.
Pat Perez ($7,100)
Normally, going under the knife is a cause for alarm, but Perez has a win and a T7 in his three starts since shoulder surgery.
Jhonattan Vegas ($6,500)
Another guy with the length and tee-to-green game to contend if a few putts fall.
INFO ON THE EVENT
What: SBS Tournament of Champions
Where: The Plantation Course at Kapalua, Maui, Hawaii
When: Thursday-Sunday, Jan. 5-8
Purse: $6.1 million
Defending champion: Jordan Spieth (30 under, 262)
TV Schedule (EST)
Thursday: 6-10 p.m. (Golf Channel)
Friday: 6-10 p.m. (Golf Channel)
Saturday: 4-6 p.m. (NBC), 6-8 p.m. (Golf Channel)
Sunday: 3-5 p.m. (NBC), 5-7 p.m. (Golf Channel)
This is an odd year for the NFL playoffs with so many injuries and rookies that are going to be taking on huge roles. Before I tell you where to consider putting your money, let's head to Bovada for the odds on each playoff team to win Super Bowl LI:
When it comes to something like this, my advice is to look for the value unless you want to just go big with the favorite. New England has the clearest path to the Super Bowl with only Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ offense presumably standing in the Patriots’ way. I don't see New England’s defense having much of an issue with Alex Smith, Matt McGloin/Connor Cook, Brock Osweiler/Tom Savage and Matt Moore or Ryan Tannehill (should be able to return from a knee injury) and their respective offenses. I guess if you want to go away from the top seed, you could consider Pittsburgh or Kansas City. The Chiefs continue to fly under the radar somehow, but do you have faith in them winning at Gillette Stadium in January? You could say the same thing about the Steelers as Big Ben is just not the same quarterback in road games.
The NFC side has more value if you want to beat the favorite. Yes, Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott have been great, but can you trust Dallas’ defense to slow down Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson or Matt Ryan? I’m not including Matthew Stafford and the Lions here, as they appear to have the toughest road to the Super Bowl. But among the other four quarterbacks you have Rodgers, arguably the hottest in the league right now, and Ryan, a legitimate MVP candidate in his own right. To me, the difference between these teams is defense, which is where the Seahawks separates themselves, although that side of the ball hasn’t been the same since losing All-Pro safety Earl Thomas.
Personally, I'm throwing a little bit on the Chiefs and the Seahawks as the long shots. I am not going too far away from the Patriots, the best team in football. If you can balance out the value between these three teams, you should be able to make some money. It's all about who you trust in January and February.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
Bobby Bowden made his rounds on ESPN's Mike & Mike Wednesday morning to talk a little bit about players and the art of recruiting.
The former Florida State coach made a statement on the show about players being raised by single mothers and although he said it was a joke, it wasn't taken very lightly once Twitter got a hold of it.
Oh boy. Bobby Bowden on players not having dads. "They wanna grow up to be men, like their momma. That's why they wear earrings." pic.twitter.com/iBhUueqEqw— Dr Cork Gaines (@CorkGaines) January 4, 2017
Sports twitter responded accordingly.
Bowden kept recruiting them and making millions off their earring-wearing asses anyway, though, didn’t he? https://t.co/l6Z0NT0QLF— David Steele (@David_C_Steele) January 4, 2017
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Bobby Bowden IS Shelly Marcone— Drew Magary (@drewmagary) January 4, 2017
Bowden will have a tough time dodging future questions about this one.
After 16 games, the path to Super Bowl LI is laid out as the NFL postseason commences with Wild Card Weekend. The playoffs get started with two games on Saturday, as top seeds Dallas, New England, Atlanta and Kansas City watch at home awaiting the winners from this weekend.
And just because the other four division winners are hosting their wild card games, that doesn’t mean they are shoo-ins to win. After all, both Oakland and New York finished with a better record than its respective opponent. But once the playoffs begin, anything can happen, including a wild card team going all the way to the Super Bowl and winning it.
But before any team punches its ticket to NRG Stadium in Houston, it must win at least two games, or in the case of those playing this weekend, three. Oakland and Houston will kick things off at the site of Super Bowl LI in a matchup of two teams with quarterback questions created by different circumstances. The Raiders are down to their second- or third-string QB because of the broken leg suffered by Pro Bowler Derek Carr in Week 16, while the Texans benched an ineffective Brock Osweiler in favor of Tom Savage, but are going back to their $72 million man for the wild card game. Whichever team gets the most out of its quarterback on Saturday will likely advance.
Miami has been without Ryan Tannehill for the past three games because of a knee injury, but there’s a chance he could return for Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh. It seems unlikely, however, and backup Matt Moore is 2-1 in Tannehill’s absence. Meanwhile, the Steelers look to make it eight wins in a row behind their three-headed offensive monster of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown.
In the NFC, Detroit came up short at home on Sunday night against Green Bay for the division title and now must travel to Seattle to take on the playoff-tested Seahawks, while the Packers’ red-hot offense will face off against the Giants’ stout defense at Lambeau Field.
So which teams will come out on top in every NFL game during Wild Card Weekend? Athlon's own Rob Doster (AthlonDoster), John Gworek (JohnGworek), Steven Lassan (AthlonSteven), and Mark Ross (AthlonMarkR), along with AthlonSports.com contributor Bryan Fischer (BryanDFischer), predict the winners:
NFL Wild Card Weekend Predictions
NY Giants at
Note: Ties are not included in season record.
With the regular season complete the 2017 NFL Draft is starting to take shape, but there’s still a long way to go.
New general managers and coaches have to be put in place, the playoffs have to be completed to set the rest of the draft order, and more evaluation in the form of the Scouting Combine and pro days needs to take place before all of the fun begins on April 27 in Philadelphia.
On top of that, there will likely be trades and, if last year was any indication, there could be some major ones at the top to shake things up even further.
But mock season won't wait for any of that. Besides, who wants to, anyway? So without further ado, here's the first of what should be many attempts to predict who goes where. Subject to change (a lot), of course.
Note: Picks 1-20 are set based on the completion of the regular season, while Nos. 21-32 will be determined by playoff outcomes.
1. Cleveland Browns
Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
The Browns have needs everywhere. With the team's instability at the quarterback position, maybe Cleveland goes that way, but the defense is still a far more pressing concern. Adding what most consider the best edge rusher in the class is a safe pick.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
There will be a new general manager and head coach here, so let the guesswork begin as to where exactly the organization would like to go. A splashy quarterback pick might be in store, and Trubisky's name has steadily gained steam over the course of the season.
3. Chicago Bears
Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Although Matt Barkley had his moments down the stretch for the Bears, one has to think he isn't likely the long-term solution. Watson has struggled at times with his accuracy, but his overall poise, arm strength and athleticism give him the requisite tools to be successful.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Jonathan Allen, DT, Alabama
There are a number of different directions the Jags could go, and while the team could potentially move on from quarterback Blake Bortles, the new head coach might find him worth saving. Allen may have been the best player in college football this year and would be too good to pass up.
5. Tennessee Titans (from Los Angeles)
Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
The Titans have their franchise quarterback and a true identity on offense. Now, Marcus Mariota needs an explosive weapon on the outside. Williams missed the previous season with a neck injury but returned and showed why he is the best receiver in this class.
6. New York Jets
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
You could very well see the Jets go with a pass rusher here and someone like Alabama's Tim Williams would make sense if the team went that way. However, despite skipping his bowl game and a nagging ankle injury, Fournette is a game-changer at running back worth taking.
7. San Diego Chargers
Malik Hooker, FS, Ohio State
The Chargers could use another pick on an offensive lineman, but retooling a porous defense should be the priority. The secondary clearly missed the presence of Eric Weddle this season, and Hooker is an elite free safety with a nose for the ball and making game-altering plays.
8. Carolina Panthers
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Cam Newton took a beating this year and the Panthers need to protect their franchise quarterback, so an offensive tackle would be wise. But Cook's stock continues to rise and a game-breaking running back would help the offense get back to its 2015-level effectiveness.
9. Cincinnati Bengals
Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
A pair of Alabama players -- linebacker Reuben Foster and edge rusher Tim Williams -- might be where the Bengals choose to go here if one is available. Barnett, though, is one of the best edge rushers in a class that is chock-full of good ones and would be an immediate upgrade.
10. Buffalo Bills
Jamal Adams, S, LSU
With a new head coach coming in, you may see the Bills go after a quarterback. But Adams, who may go a little higher depending on how the dominoes fall, is one of the top talents in the draft regardless of position with a versatile skill set that includes an ability to lock down tight ends.
11. New Orleans Saints
Tim Williams, DE/OLB, Alabama
Another year, another season of shootouts in New Orleans with Drew Brees and the offense having to keep pace in games where the defense can't stop anyone. The latter side of the ball will again be the priority in the draft, and Williams can provide help rushing the passer right away.
12. Cleveland Browns (from Philadelphia)
DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame
If the Browns pass on taking a quarterback with the first overall pick, they might be tempted to pick up one here. Kizer had somewhat of an up-and-down season, but head coach Hue Jackson may like his pro-ready frame and tools just enough to take a shot with him.
13. Arizona Cardinals
Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
There's a very good chance that the Cardinals feel like they want to find quarterback Carson Palmer's successor, but the talent gap between one here and a later round isn't huge. A new face at inside linebacker might help, and Foster could come in and provide athletic new blood.
14. Indianapolis Colts
Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
If one of the top running backs like Leonard Fournette or Dalvin Cook is still hanging around here, the Colts might be apt to go in that direction. But while a lot of scouts are split on where exactly someone like Peppers fits in, his overall athleticism and versatility would make a strong choice.
15. Philadelphia Eagles (from Minnesota)
Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
It looks like the Eagles have their franchise quarterback of the future in Carson Wentz, but the amount of weapons at his disposal appears to be lackluster at the moment. Although the team has struck out on recent wide receiver picks, Davis is getting high marks from just about everyone.
16. Baltimore Ravens
Takkarist McKinley, DE/OLB, UCLA
The Ravens are either getting old along the edge (Terrell Suggs) or at a point where the cap could cause problems (Elvis Dumervil), so that should be the first order of business. McKinley's stock has risen steadily throughout the year and could even go higher.
17. Washington Redskins
Zach Cunningham, ILB, Vanderbilt
The Redskins had the sixth-worst rush defense in terms of yards per carry allowed and need to improve up the middle. Enter Cunningham, who hasn't had as many opportunities to be in the spotlight as Alabama’s Reuben Foster or, say, Ohio State's Raekwon McMillan, but could be just as effective in the league.
18. Tennessee Titans
Teez Tabor, CB, Florida
The likelihood that cornerbacks start coming off the board sooner is fairly high, but this mock just so happens to get the ball rolling there a little later. Either way, Tabor will be one of the first ones taken in a class that has plenty of high-end talent at the position even going past the first round.
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
DeMarcus Walker, DL, Florida State
The Bucs did well last year in the first round by taking Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, but there is still a lot of work to be done on that side of the ball. Staying with another in-state talent in Walker would be a good idea, as the defensive lineman was productive all season.
20. Denver Broncos
Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin
The talent along the offensive line took a step down this season in Denver and the running game wasn't nearly as effective as it should have been. Look for John Elway to try and rectify that by getting what some consider the best lineman in the draft, although he could come off the board sooner.
21. Detroit Lions
Desmond King, CB, Iowa
Defense is where the Lions will probably shift their focus to with their first pick, and any one of an interior lineman, edge rusher or cornerback would be a solid choice. King could have come out last year and been a relatively high pick, but he returned to school and has a well-rounded skill set.
22. Miami Dolphins
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
The Dolphins have had a number of tight ends come through and not live up to expectations lately, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill could use another red zone threat. Keep an eye on the University of Miami's David Njoku here, but at the moment Howard has the highest stock at the position.
23. New York Giants
Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
At this time last year, Robinson was a consensus top-five pick. Although he could still be taken higher, if he's around when it's the Giants' turn to pick, they would likely snatch him up in a heartbeat. Ereck Flowers has simply not panned out, and more help up front is a must.
24. Oakland Raiders
Malik McDowell, DL, Michigan State
There are no problems for this team when it comes to rushing the passer, but the defense still has holes up the middle. McDowell makes sense, as he can be an effective player from multiple spots. An inside linebacker, like Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan or Florida's Jarrad Davis, could also work here.
25. Houston Texans
Jarrad Davis, LB, Florida
The Texans obviously have a lot of issues with the quarterback position, but that's not exactly a realistic option, so they will target other needs. Getting a little more athletic at inside linebacker would not hurt, and Davis can be someone who can come in and help in that regard.
26. Green Bay Packers
Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida
Over the course of the season, it became more and more clear that cornerback would be a position for the Packers to seek help. Luckily, there should be plenty of good ones when they pick, and although Wilson could be gone, someone close to his caliber is sure to be available.
27. Seattle Seahawks
Garrett Boles, OT, Utah
For the last two seasons, the Seahawks have needed to severely upgrade their talent along the offensive line. They should be able to do it from this spot, as Boles is someone who has gained some momentum lately and could provide immediate assistance.
28. Pittsburgh Steelers
Ryan Anderson, OLB, Alabama
Ryan Shazier has been a rising star in the Steelers' linebacker corps, but the unit could still get better somewhere on the outside. Anderson would be the perfect addition, as the Crimson Tide star both rushes the passer well and has the athleticism to be an asset in coverage.
29. Atlanta Falcons
Charles Harris, DE, Missouri
Vic Beasley has turned into one of the better edge rushers in the league, but the Falcons still have too many issues on defense to ignore. Harris is potentially someone who could come off the board sooner, but if he's around this late, it would be a mistake to pass on him.
30. Kansas City Chiefs
Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
Even with the emergence of Tyreek Hill, another offensive weapon would not be a bad place to go. Still, the Chiefs would like to add another cornerback to pair with Marcus Peters. There is still debate over who the best player at that position in this class may be, but Humphrey is in that conversation.
31. Dallas Cowboys
Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State
An edge player would make sense here, but the Cowboys could still benefit by upgrading their cornerback depth. Lattimore, like Marlon Humphrey, is in that discussion of top corners in the draft and would fill a need. If Dallas does go with an edge rusher, Auburn's Carl Lawson would fit in nicely.
32. New England Patriots
Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford
Many people are expecting the Pats to go with Thomas' college teammate, running back Christian McCaffrey. But while the latter sat out Stanford's bowl game, Thomas balled out in it, and his stock is through the roof right now. If he's not already gone, Thomas would be an easy choice.
— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.
The list of NFL Hall of Fame finalists has been announced. First-year eligibles LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor and Brian Dawkins are among the 15 modern-era finalists.
The list was announced during last night's Gold Jacket Finalists series on the NFL Network, hosted by Chris Rose, Michael Silver, Steve Wyche and James Lofton.
The entire list of 15 modern-era finalists is:
1. Brian Dawkins, safety (Philadelphia Eagles, 1996-2008; Denver Broncos, 2009-2011)
2. Jason Taylor, defensive end (Miami Dolphins, 1997-2007, '09, 2011; Washington Redskins, 2008; New York Jets, 2010)
3. LaDainian Tomlinson, running back (San Diego Chargers, 2001-09; New York Jets, 2010-11)
4. Morten Andersen, kicker (New Orleans Saints, 1982-1994; Atlanta Falcons, 1995-2000; 2006-07; New York Giants, 2001; Kansas City Chiefs, 2002-03; Minnesota Vikings, 2004)
5. Don Coryell, coach (St. Louis Cardinals, 1973-77; San Diego Chargers, 1978-1986)
6. Kurt Warner, quarterback (St. Louis Rams, 1998-2003; New York Giants, 2004; Arizona Cardinals, 2005-09)
7. Terrell Davis, running back (Denver Broncos, 1995-2001)
8. Isaac Bruce, wide receiver (Los Angeles Rams, 1994; St. Louis Rams, 1995-2007; San Francisco 49ers, 2008-09)
9. Terrell Owens, wide receiver (San Francisco 49ers, 1996-2003; Philadelphia Eagles, 2004-05; Dallas Cowboys, 2006-08; Buffalo Bills, 2009; Cincinnati Bengals, 2010)
10. Tony Boselli, offensive tackle (Jacksonville Jaguars, 1995-2001; Houston Texans, 2002)
11. Alan Faneca, guard (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1998-2007; New York Jets, 2008-09; Arizona Cardinals, 2010)
12. Joe Jacoby, offensive tackle (Washington Redskins, 1981-1993)
13. Ty Law, cornerback (New England Patriots, 1995-2004; New York Jets, 2005, '08; Kansas City Chiefs, 2006-07; Denver Broncos, 2009)
14. John Lynch, safety (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1993-2003; Denver Broncos, 2004-07)
15. Kevin Mawae, center (Seattle Seahawks, 1994-97; New York Jets, 1998-2005; Tennessee Titans, 2006-09)
The Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2017 will be announced during NFL Honors the night before Super Bowl LI on Saturday, February 4 at 8:00 PM ET on FOX.
At least one CAA Football or Missouri Valley Football Conference team has appeared in the FCS national championship game in every season since 2002, yet the two top conferences in the subdivision haven’t been frequent dance partners.
North Dakota State’s win over Towson in the 2013 final had been the only championship game meeting between the two conferences until this year’s unlikely matchup, with CAA champ and No. 4 seed James Madison and unseeded Youngstown State advancing by winning their semifinal games on the road and without some key suspended players.
But both teams have earned their way to Frisco, Texas, and their first meeting in more than 10 years (YSU has a 3-1 series lead) will conclude the always wild 24-team playoffs in the second-to-last game of the college football season on Saturday.
FCS Championship Game: Youngstown State (12-3) vs. No. 4 seed James Madison (13-1)
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Toyota Stadium (Frisco, Texas)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Three Things to Watch
1. When last we saw them...
It’s OK to joke that neither team has played since last year because, well, there’s a bowl-like buildup from the FCS semifinals to the final – three weeks in between – which wasn’t the case in the FCS playoffs until 2010. Not accustomed to that layoff, Youngstown State and James Madison both seek early rhythm and to not fall behind the other. The leading rushers on both teams hope to regain their playoff mojo. YSU’s Jody Webb hasn’t been below 100 rushing yards and is averaging 157 on the ground through four playoff wins, while JMU’s 5-foot-10, 225-pound All-American Khalid Abdullah showed the speed and power of an NFL back (231 yards from scrimmage) in the Dukes’ semifinal win over FCS dynasty North Dakota State.
2. Sustaining drives
Both teams use the run to set up the pass, and controlling the game clock is pivotal. Youngstown State ranks third in the FCS in average time of possession (34 minutes, 2 seconds), and the Penguins get it done with the run game (Webb and Tevin McCaster, who had three touchdowns in the semifinals). James Madison is more balanced offensively behind quarterback Bryan Schor’s run-pass skills. The Dukes are averaging 48 points per game and converting 51.4 percent of their third downs with an even better 57.1 percent on fourth-down attempts. They like the physicality of their offensive line.
3. The third phase of the game
Although they rarely get their due, special teams play a big part of football. Youngstown State’s excellent set of young kickers, left-footed sophomore placekicker Zak Kennedy and freshman punter Mark Schuler, give the Penguins a leg up on James Madison. But the Dukes can reverse momentum rather quickly as they have scored touchdowns on six kickoff returns (Rashard Davis has four) and on one punt return. Add in that one of Youngstown State’s suspended players (Darien Townsend) handled punt returns and many kickoffs and JMU’s advantage is even greater.
Give credit to both teams for overcoming adversity on the way to the championship game. It’s paid off for Youngstown State coach Bo Pelini and James Madison counterpart Mike Houston that they’ve filled their staffs with experienced assistants – both on the FBS and FCS levels.
James Madison has been the most complete team in the FCS, from a high-powered offense to an athletic defense to the unmatched return game. Youngstown State, which has beaten No. 2 seed Eastern Washington and No. 3 seed Jacksonville State on the road, also has significant talent outside the quarterback position, and junior Hunter Wells has stepped in during the second half of the season to provide consistency there.
But the suspensions in the playoffs – presumably following NCAA random drug tests – may catch up to the Penguins a little more. They lost fewer players (five) than James Madison (seven), but it includes second-leading rusher Martin Ruiz; wide receiver Darien Townsend, who leads the team in receiving yards; and safeties Jameel Smith and LeRoy Alexander, their No. 2 and 3 tacklers, respectively. JMU’s losses include linebacker Brandon Hereford, the team’s No. 1 tackler prior to the semifinals, and No. 2 wide receiver Terrence Alls.
Said Houston: “Probably the biggest key is for us to just be us. If you talk to Coach Pelini, he’ll probably say the same thing. You get into this ball game and you have to be careful that you don’t let the stage be too big that you forget what got you here.”
Prediction: James Madison 27, Youngstown State 17
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by James Madison Athletics)
College football’s national championship game is all that remains of the 2016 season, and there’s no shortage of intrigue with Alabama and Clemson set for a rematch in Tampa, Fla. on Jan. 9. These two teams traded punches for 60 minutes in Glendale, Ariz. last year, with the Crimson Tide edging the Tigers in a 45-40 thriller. In last season’s game, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson torched Alabama’s defense for 405 yards and four scores. Stopping Watson is the top priority for Nick Saban’s defense once again, and the Crimson Tide can counter with All-American defenders Jonathan Allen (defensive end), Reuben Foster (linebacker) and Minkah Fitzpatrick (cornerback/safety). But the Crimson Tide isn't bringing just a standout defense to Tampa. Saban's team has a talented offense in place, which is led by true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. The dynamic freshman brings a different dimension to the field than last year's starter (Jake Coker) and is a big reason why Alabama's offense has made a quick transition to more of a spread, up-tempo approach. In addition to the talent at quarterback, both teams are among the nation’s best on defense, and there’s plenty of skill talent for the quarterbacks to utilize on Monday night.
While Watson, Hurts and the other All-America or all-conference players from Alabama and Clemson are critical to the outlook of either team’s chances of winning the national title, there are always a few x-factors that deliver a big (and perhaps unexpected) performance. Let’s examine 10 potential x-factors to watch on Jan. 9.
10 X-Factors for Alabama and Clemson in the National Championship
10. Clelin Ferrell, DL, Clemson
Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Carlos Watkins were already established as some of the nation’s top defensive linemen going into the Fiesta Bowl matchup against Ohio State. However, this unit appears to be even more dangerous than anticipated before the CFB Playoff, as Ferrell wreaked havoc in the Fiesta Bowl by recording four tackles (three for a loss) and one sack. The redshirt freshman seems to be peaking at the right time and figures to be another tough matchup for an Alabama offensive line that surrendered 24 sacks this year.
8/9. Clemson and Alabama Special Teams
Let’s cheat a bit and list the special teams for both teams in this space. Last year’s 45-40 affair featured a couple of big plays on special teams for Alabama. Kenyan Drake scored on a 95-yard kickoff return, the Crimson Tide recovered an onside kick with the game tied at 31 in the fourth quarter and both kickers missed a field goal. Considering how tight last year’s game was and the close contest expected on Jan. 9, a play or two on special teams could be the deciding factor.
Alabama punter JK Scott is one of the best in college football, averaging 47.4 yards per punt. Kicker Adam Griffith has connected on 20 of 27 field goals. Losing Eddie Jackson was a setback for Alabama’s punt returns, but Trevon Diggs is averaging 23.7 yards per kickoff return and 10 yards on punt returns.
Improving special teams was a focus for coach Dabo Swinney after last year’s loss to Alabama, and this unit has been solid in 2016. The Tigers have an edge over the Crimson Tide on returns, as Ray-Ray McCloud (8.4 yards on punt returns) and Artavis Scott (22.9 yards per kickoff return) are dangerous options. Kicker Greg Huegel connected on 14 of 19 attempts this season, and punter Andy Teasdall placed 21 of his 53 punts inside of the 20 (38.0 average).
6/7. ArDarius Stewart/Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Alabama’s passing game was virtually invisible in the Peach Bowl win over Washington. Quarterback Jalen Hurts completed 7 of 14 passes for only 57 yards and no completion went longer than 16 yards. In the regular season, ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley combined to catch 118 of the Crimson Tide’s 251 completions. Stewart led the team with 852 receiving yards (52 catches) and eight scores, while Ridley led the offense in receptions (67) and caught seven touchdowns. After this duo combined for just one catch in the Peach Bowl, coordinator Steve Sarkisian has to do a better job of keeping both players involved on Jan. 9.
5. Clemson WR Hunter Renfrow
Alabama’s secondary is one of the nation’s stingiest groups against the pass, but this unit isn’t as deep as it has been in previous years. Stopping Mike Williams and tight end Jordan Leggett are the top priorities for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. However, Clemson’s receiving corps still features a big-play threat in Deon Cain (19.1 ypc), the team’s second-leading receiver in terms of catches Artavis Scott (73), Ray-Ray McCloud (49) and sure-handed Hunter Renfrow. The sophomore has 34 receptions for 403 yards and four touchdowns this season and gave Alabama’s secondary (seven catches for 88 yards and two scores) all it could handle in last year’s matchup. Clemson’s receiving corps is the deepest group the Crimson Tide have faced this year. How will this unit match Renfrow and some of the other secondary options outside of Williams and Leggett?
4. Wayne Gallman, RB, Clemson
Finding running room against Alabama’s standout front seven isn’t going to be easy on Monday night. However, Clemson can’t completely forget about the ground game and allow the Crimson Tide’s pass rushers to load up against Deshaun Watson. Gallman has rushed for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and accumulated 106 total yards in last year’s matchup against Alabama. Can Gallman have more success on the ground (45 yards on 14 carries) than he did last season? The Tigers won’t need 100 yards from their junior back but hitting 60-80 yards would be a huge boost to the offense.
2/3. The Offensive Lines for Alabama and Clemson
It’s no secret most of the pregame attention will be focused on the two quarterbacks (Deshaun Watson and Jalen Hurts) or standout defenses by both programs. However, the trenches are where this game will be won or lost. Both offensive lines have experienced their share of ups and downs this year and will be facing some of the nation’s best talent in the trenches.
Clemson’s offensive line has surrendered 16 sacks through 14 games, while Alabama allowed 24 in the same amount of action. The Crimson Tide had a better yards per carry average (5.7) compared to the Tigers (4.5). However, some of Alabama’s per-carry average could receive a slight boost due to the running of quarterback Jalen Hurts.
A deeper look at both offensive lines from the advanced statistics on Football Outsiders shows a few weaknesses and advantages. Alabama ranks sixth in opportunity rate and 13th in adjusted line yards, and Clemson is fourth in adjusted line yards and second nationally in passing downs sack rate.
In terms of weaknesses, Alabama ranks 88th in stuff rate and 105th in its rating for pass blocking on standard downs. Clemson is 95th in power success rate, which helps to measure how many carries by running backs are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage.
In terms of production, few defensive lines were better than Alabama or Clemson this season. The Crimson Tide generated 50 sacks (second nationally), with the Tigers ranking one spot behind at third nationally with 49 sacks. Clemson also finished second nationally with 123 tackles for a loss.
Can Clemson’s front five block Alabama’s standout front led by senior Jonathan Allen? And how effective will the Crimson Tide offensive line perform against an athletic and active front led by Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins on Monday night?
1. Steve Sarkisian, Offensive Coordinator, Alabama
Sarkisian is the biggest x-factor and wild card storyline surrounding this game. With Nick Saban pushing Lane Kiffin to FAU a week earlier than anticipated, Sarkisian will make his debut as the team’s play-caller on Monday night. Sarkisian has worked with the Crimson Tide in an off-field role this season and was set to take over the play-calling duties in 2017. However, Sarkisian doesn’t have time to ease into this role and there’s no shortage of pressure for Monday night’s game. What tweaks, adjustments or differences will Sarkisian utilize that’s different from Kiffin?
Bonus: Quarterback Rushing Yards
Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts struggled to get anything going through the air against Washington, but his running ability (50 yards on 19 carries) was a key cog in the offense. The emergence of Hurts has been critical for the Crimson Tide’s spread attack, as he ranks second on the team with 891 yards through 14 games. On the other sideline, Deshaun Watson (586 yards) hasn’t been as active on the ground as he was last year. In 2015, Watson rushed for 1,105 yards and 12 touchdowns on 207 attempts. With Monday night’s game the last matchup of the season, both teams are going to utilize everything in the playbook. How many carries will Clemson give Watson in what is expected to be his last game with the Tigers? And when Hurts has the ball, how effective will he be on the ground against Clemson’s standout defense?
Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys was fired on Tuesday after his first full season with the program. Claeys guided the Golden Gophers to a 9-4 record in 2016 and was 2-4 as the program’s interim coach after Jerry Kill stepped down due to health reasons last year. While Claeys led Minnesota to a nine-win season and a Holiday Bowl victory over Washington State, there was a lot of turmoil surrounding this program at the end of the year. A player boycott over suspensions threatened to derail Minnesota’s appearance in the Holiday Bowl, and Claeys later supported the boycott over Twitter. The boycott and Claeys’ tweet did not sit well with many in the fanbase or administration, and the overall turmoil – not on-field performance – prompted athletic director Mark Coyle to make a change.
6 Coaching Candidates to Replace Tracy Claeys at Minnesota
Craig Bohl, head coach, Wyoming
Bohl agreed an extension through 2023 at Wyoming earlier this offseason, but Minnesota should at least inquire about his interest in the job. The Nebraska native worked as an assistant with a handful of FBS programs (Rice, Duke, Wisconsin and Nebraska) before landing the head coaching job at North Dakota State in 2003. Under Bohl’s watch, the Bison went 104-32 and claimed three consecutive national championships (2011-13). Additionally, North Dakota State only had one losing season (2009) during Bohl’s tenure. After a 4-8 mark in his first year at Wyoming (2014), Bohl went 2-10 in 2015 but improved to 8-6 in 2016. Bohl’s style and track record of player development would fit in well at Minnesota.
Troy Calhoun, head coach, Air Force
Calhoun was connected to this job through the rumor mill in 2010 before Minnesota hired Jerry Kill. Considering Calhoun coaches at his alma mater and has a good run going in Colorado Springs, it would take a lot for the former AFA quarterback to leave. Calhoun is 77-53 at Air Force since 2007 and has guided the Falcons to bowl appearances in nine out of 10 seasons. He also spent time in the NFL with the Broncos and Texans and coached as an assistant at Ohio and Wake Forest.
P.J. Fleck, head coach, Western Michigan
Fleck is one of college football’s rising stars in the head coaching ranks and it’s only a matter of time before he gets an opportunity at a Power 5 program. After a playing career at Northern Illinois, Fleck had a short stint in the NFL before becoming a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2006. Fleck quickly worked his way through the coaching ranks with stops at Northern Illinois (2007-09), Rutgers (2010-11) and with the Buccaneers (2012). He was hired as Western Michigan’s head coach in 2013 and went 1-11 in his debut. However, the Broncos have three consecutive winning seasons and finished 2016 as the top Group of 5 program with a 13-1 record and an appearance in the Cotton Bowl. Fleck is 30-22 in four seasons with Western Michigan. He's the early favorite for this job.
Bryan Harsin, head coach, Boise State
Harsin worked for current Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle at Boise State, so there’s a natural connection between the two parties. However, since Harsin is from Boise and coaching at his alma mater, it’s probably safe to assume he’s in no hurry to leave for a different job. Harsin worked as an assistant at Boise State from 2001-10 before taking over the offensive coordinator duties at Texas from 2011-12. He spent one year as the head coach at Arkansas State (7-5) before jumping to Boise State to replace Chris Petersen in 2014. Over the last three seasons, the Broncos are 31-9 under Harsin’s direction.
Chris Klieman, head coach, North Dakota State
Klieman has picked up where Craig Bohl left off at North Dakota State. Over the last three years, the Bison are 40-5 under Klieman’s direction and claimed back-to-back national championships in 2014-15. North Dakota State finished 12-2 in 2016 and lost in the FCS semifinals to James Madison. The Iowa native also has stops as an assistant on his resume from stints at Northern Iowa, Kansas, Missouri State and Western Illinois.
Greg Schiano, defensive coordinator, Ohio State
Schiano returned to the college ranks in 2016 and called the defensive signals for Ohio State’s standout defense. Prior to joining Urban Meyer’s staff in Columbus, Schiano was out of football for two seasons after an 11-21 record as Tampa Bay’s head coach from 2012-13. Schiano has a better track record as a college head coach, going 68-67 at Rutgers from 2001-11. Under Schiano’s direction, the Scarlet Knights went from one of the worst teams in the Big East to a consistent bowl team. From 2005-11, Rutgers made six bowl appearances. Prior to that run, the school had just one previous trip to a postseason game.
Ask any Tennessee fan and they'll probably tell you they still aren't too fond of Lane Kiffin.
The former head coach of the Vols has a reputation for bailing sometimes. Recently he's been making news because he will not be on the sidelines with Alabama during the National Championship game. He's heading out early to begin preparing for his time at FAU.
One former Tennessee player, Robert Ayers, had a little something to say on the subject.
So Lane Kiffin says he bailed on Bama before national championship "for the players" 😂😂😂 what a joke! Guess that's why he bailed on UT too 🤔— Robert Ayers Jr (@1_900_ayersjr) January 3, 2017
A coach can bail on players and the university 1 WEEK BEFORE THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP but players can't transfer at will..— Robert Ayers Jr (@1_900_ayersjr) January 3, 2017
Tune into espn.. those were his words.. not mines.. watch his interview buddy.. https://t.co/hJYgjkfA27— Robert Ayers Jr (@1_900_ayersjr) January 3, 2017
Well he looks pretty foolish to me right now.. had he said he was forced out, In my opinion that would actually make more sense.. lol https://t.co/EktyzCv5p6— Robert Ayers Jr (@1_900_ayersjr) January 3, 2017
While there will continue to be speculation about whether Nick Saban pushed Kiffin out before the big game or if he left on his own, but we may never known for sure which is the truth.
The 10th edition of the Under Armour All-America Game held in Orlando, Fla., on New Year’s Day was a thriller with Team Armour holding off Team Highlight 24-21 for the victory. The 2016 game was all about the defense but this year’s exhibition of some of the nation's top high school prospects was all about the offense.
Perhaps the star that shined brightest on Sunday at Camping World Stadium was four-star East St. Louis wide receiver Jeff Thomas, who is currently uncommitted. Thomas (5-11, 170) set an Under Armour All-America Game record with 148 receiving yards on just three receptions, two of those going for touchdowns. Thomas’ record-setting performance for Team Armour helped him earn MVP honors.
The other big winner was four-star Virginia talent Khalan Laborn. The all-purpose back gave Florida State fans a glimpse of the future, rushing for 74 yards on eight carries with a touchdown, as he earned MVP honors for Team Highlight.
Texas A&M quarterback commit Kellen Mond lived up to his hype, passing for 90 yards while leading Team Highlight with 84 yards on the ground. Toneil Carter (Texas commit) grabbed some of the spotlight for Team Highlight, carrying the rock seven times for 48 yards with a score. Tight end Brock Wright (Notre Dame) had a nice game as well, snagging two passes for a team-leading 45 yards.
Team Armour quarterback Myles Brennan (LSU) threw for a game-high 111 yards and a touchdown on 7-of-13 passing. Kasim Hill (Maryland) led Team Armour with 35 rushing yards on five carries.
Team Highlight won the day on the ground rushing for 210 net yards but Team Armour found the connection in the passing game with 255 yards through the air. Avery Davis (Notre Dame) led the way with 94 passing yards and a touchdown, while Hill went 4-for-7 for 50 yards.
The respective offenses may have captured the headlines, but there were some defensive standouts for each squad too. Team Highlight was led by five-star FSU defensive end commit Joshua Kaindoh and four-star linebacker Ellis Brooks (uncommitted), who shared the lead with six tackles. LaBryan Ray (uncommitted), a four-star defensive end from Alabama, had five tackles and a tackle for a loss. New Ole Miss linebacker commit Breon Dixon made his three total tackles count with each one going for a loss.
Team Armour had five-star linebacker Dylan Mosses and four-star defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson stealing the show. Mosses, an Alabama commit from IMG Academy, had a game-high 10 tackles with a tackle for a loss, and a pass breakup. Chaisson (uncommitted) also had a strong outing, finishing with five tackles for a loss and three sacks, both game highs.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.
(Jeff Thomas photo courtesy of uafootball.us)
The NFL playoffs are upon us. As the last 40 years have shown us, anything can happen... and the chaos usually begins during Wild Card Weekend.
When the NFL merged with the AFL in 1970, the new playoff format included a wild card for the good teams that may not have won their division, but whose record deemed them worthy for a playoff spot. There was originally only one wild card spot in each conference, but that expanded to two in 1978, then to three in 1990 and then back to two in 2002 when each conference expanded to four divisions.
As it so happens, 10 wild card teams to date have played in the Super Bowl. Here they are ranked by their success.
10. 1985 New England Patriots
The Patriots became the first team to win three road games to make the Super Bowl. Entering the playoffs at 11-5 as the No. 5 seed, New England used a strong running game and nasty defense to upset the New York Jets and the top-seeded Los Angeles Raiders to advance to the AFC Championship Game. There, the Patriots racked up 255 rushing yards and capitalized on six Miami turnovers to win 31-14. New England’s magical run came to a dead stop in Super Bowl XX, as the Patriots where annihilated by the famed ’85 Chicago Bears 46-10.
9. 1992 Buffalo Bills
After two straight Super Bowl appearances where they entered as the top seed in the AFC, the Bills took a step back in 1992. They finished 11-5 and runner-up to the Dolphins in the AFC East. However, Buffalo shocked the Houston Oilers and the football world, coming back from a 35-3 deficit to win 41-38 in overtime in the largest comeback in NFL history. The Bills then beat No. 1 Pittsburgh and No. 2 Miami on the road to advance to Super Bowl XXVII. There, they were beaten 52-17 by the Dallas Cowboys in one of the biggest blowouts in Super Bowl history.
8. 1975 Dallas Cowboys
The first wild card team to make the Super Bowl beat the Minnesota Vikings on the legendary “Hail Mary” touchdown pass from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson with less than a minute to play. The next week, the Cowboys blew out the Los Angeles Rams 37-7 to advance to Super Bowl X, where they faced the Steelers. Acrobatic catches by MVP Lynn Swann proved too much and the Cowboys lost 21-17.
7. 1999 Tennessee Titans
At 13-3, the 1999 Titans had the best record of any wild card to play in a Super Bowl. The only problem was that the Jacksonville Jaguars, their division rival, were 14-2. In the wild card round, the Titans beat the Bills thanks to what became known as the “Music City Miracle” (Are you starting to see a pattern here?). Down 16-15 with 16 seconds left, Frank Wycheck took the kickoff and lateralled it to Kevin Dyson, who returned it 75 yards for a touchdown. The next week, the Titans beat a young Peyton Manning and Indianapolis Colts team and then faced the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game. Tennessee had already beaten Jacksonville twice in the regular season and pulled off a third win to advance to Super Bowl XXXIV. In the big game, the Titans matched the St. Louis Rams score for score, but came up one yard short when Mike Jones stopped Dyson from getting into the end zone on the game’s final play in a 23-16 loss.
6. 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers entered the playoffs 11-5 and opened Wild Card Weekend by beating the Cincinnati Bengals 31-17 on the road. The next week, they shocked the top-seeded Colts 21-18 and then beat the Denver Broncos to advance to Super Bowl XL to face the Seattle Seahawks. Pittsburgh won 21-10 and head coach Bill Cowher and running back Jerome Bettis were able to retire as Super Bowl champions. The Steelers are also the first team to win a Super Bowl as a No. 6 seed.
5. 2010 Green Bay Packers
The second team No. 6 to win a Super Bowl was the Packers, who seemed to be at their zenith entering the 2010 playoffs. Green Bay never trailed during the second half of the NFC playoffs, beating the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears. In Super Bowl XLV, the Packers faced the Steelers and MVP Aaron Rodgers threw for 304 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions as his team won 31-25.
4. 1980 Oakland Raiders
The first wild card team to win the Super Bowl got there winning every way possible in the AFC playoffs. First, Oakland blew out the Houston Oilers 27-7. Then, the Raiders beat the Browns 14-12 in frigid Cleveland thanks to a last-minute interception by Mike Davis. In the AFC Championship Game, Raider quarterback Jim Plunkett threw for two touchdowns and ran for another as Oakland won a shootout with the San Diego Chargers 34-27. Plunkett also played brilliantly in Super Bowl XV and the Raiders’ defense shut down the Philadelphia Eagles en route to a 27-10 win.
3. 1997 Denver Broncos
The defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers seemed destined to repeat in Super Bowl XXXII. All they had to do was beat John Elway and the Broncos, who had a history of losing the big game and had surprised the football world by beating the Jaguars, Chiefs and Steelers to get there. On this night, however, the Broncos surprised the Packers by jumping out to a 17-7 lead in the second quarter. The Packers tied the game twice but the Broncos pulled ahead for good on a one-yard touchdown run by Terrell Davis with 1:45 left to win 31-24. Few Super Bowl moments were as touching as Broncos owner Pat Bowlen holding up the Lombardi Trophy after the game and saying, “This one’s for John.”
2. 2007 New York Giants
While we’re on the subject of teams of destiny; the Patriots were undefeated and only had to beat New York, whom they had topped the last week of the regular season, to record the first perfect season since 1972. The Giants, though, were one scrappy team. They entered the playoffs 10-6 and the No. 5 seed, but advanced to the NFC Championship Game thanks to road wins at Tampa Bay and Dallas. The Giants then beat the top-seeded Packers in overtime in below-freezing conditions at Lambeau Field to earn their shot at New England. This time, they used their fierce pass rush and the one of the greatest catches in NFL history to beat the Patriots 17-14 and score the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.
1. 2000 Baltimore Ravens
All the Super Bowl winners on this list are great in their own right, but no team is as revered as the 2000 Ravens. Sporting one of the best defenses in NFL history, Baltimore shut out four of its regular season opponents on its way to a 12-4 season. In the playoffs, they beat the Broncos, Titans, Raiders and Giants, allowing an average of less than six points per game. The only defense more dominant was the ’85 Bears.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
Six NFL teams are looking for new head coaches now that the regular season has come to an end. Some of the openings were expected, especially those that made the move before Week 17 – Los Angeles, Jacksonville, Buffalo.
However, no one really saw Denver’s Gary Kubiak resigning due to health reasons, even if the defending Super Bowl champions failed to make the playoffs. The Broncos’ opening immediately becomes the most appealing one on the market for interested candidates since this is a team that is less than a year from winning the Lombardi Trophy and still has plenty of talent on the roster.
So if Denver is the top job available, where do the others rank? Taking everything into consideration from current roster, available cap space, biggest holes, division and other factors, here is how this football fan would rank the current head coaching vacancies.
1. Denver Broncos
There really isn’t much debate. The Broncos are less than a year from winning the Super Bowl, went a respectable 9-7 this season and still have one of the best defenses in the NFL, led by Von Miller and complemented by one of the league’s nastiest secondaries. The offensive line needs to be addressed, quarterback remains a big question mark, and the offense as a whole is a work in progress, but Denver is still a quality team that can contend next season if the right moves (estimated $40 million in cap space to work with) are made. This presents the best opportunity for a new head coach to be successful in year one.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
After Denver, you can slot the next four teams pretty much in any order you want, depending on your preference. As bad as the Jaguars were this year (and 3-13 is pretty bad), there is plenty to like as far as the future shapes up. The Blake Bortles question will need to be answered, but this roster has talent on both sides of the ball, a ton of cap space (estimated $63 million) to bring in more reinforcements, another high draft pick (No. 4 overall) to work with, and Jacksonville resides in a division that was won with a 9-7 record and lacks any one dominant team. It won’t be easy, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for the next head coach to take this team from worst to first in the AFC South next season.
3. San Diego Chargers
The Chargers could be headed to Los Angeles in a matter of days, but location issues aside, this is a team that got no breaks this season in the health or lucky bounces department. San Diego had 20 players on injured reserve by season’s end, including its No. 1 wide receiver (Keenan Allen), both starting cornerbacks (Jason Verrett, Brandon Flowers) and one of its best offensive weapons (RB Danny Woodhead). In addition, running back Melvin Gordon didn’t finish the season healthy.
On the field, the Chargers couldn’t get out of their own way in the first month of the season, losing several games in the closing minutes in which they held the lead, and lost a total of eight by seven or fewer points. The division is tough with Kansas City, Oakland and Denver all finishing 9-7 or better, but with improved health the Chargers should at least be more competitive in 2017 than their 5-11 record indicates. San Diego also has one advantage over all of the other teams on this list – there are no questions when it comes to the quarterback position.
4. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams’ return to Los Angeles can’t be described as anything else other than a disaster, a 4-12 finish made even less appetizing by the fact that their first-round pick (No. 5 overall) belongs to Tennessee because of last year’s trade for the No. 1 overall selection. However, it’s too early to give up on Jared Goff, who was the team’s choice at No. 1, and there are other pieces to build around. Running back Todd Gurley had a horrible sophomore campaign, but the offensive line and lack of production elsewhere have to been given some of the blame.
The defense has All-Pro-caliber building blocks in tackle Aaron Donald and linebacker Alec Ogletree, as well as a solid secondary that has room to improve. Again, the new head coach won’t have the benefit of a first-round pick (or third-rounder for that matter) to address the roster, but should be able to look to free agency (estimated $40 million cap space) to bring in some leadership to help an otherwise young team take the next step. It also doesn’t hurt that the Rams are in the same division as the team that brings up the rear on this list. A big turnaround next season may be too much to expect, but the new head coach could lay the foundation for the team to hit its stride in say 2019 when the team is set to move into its brand-new, state-of-the-art stadium.
5. Buffalo Bills
Rex Ryan went 15-16 in two seasons in Buffalo and it wasn’t enough. The next head coach will have plenty of decisions to make, starting with quarterback. Tyrod Taylor was given a contract extension before the season, but it’s structured in such a way that the Bills have a way out if they want it. And Taylor may want out considering he was benched for the Week 17 finale.
Buffalo’s problems go beyond QB though, as the team needs more impact players on both sides of the ball, especially if wide receiver Sammy Watkins and running back LeSean McCoy continue to have problems staying healthy. The defense had its struggles, but injuries and other circumstances (such as player suspensions) can be pointed to. The Bills will need more out of this year’s first-round pick, linebacker Shaq Lawson, but have other holes that need to be addressed and not a lot of cap space (estimated $26 million) to work with. And they also could open a new hole if they decide to part ways with Taylor.
Lastly, Buffalo isn’t exactly the most preferred locale when it comes to NFL outposts and there’s the matter of being in the same division as the big, bad Patriots. At least with the Jaguars, Chargers and Rams you don’t have to worry about the weather and only play New England no more than once in the regular season.
6. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers do have an obscene amount of cap space (estimated $80 million, Cleveland the only team with more) to work with, but will need every penny considering the roster is a complete mess. Other than a few players, it’s hard to identify many legitimate building blocks at this point. There’s also the reality that this will be the team’s fourth head coach in as many seasons, and there will be a new general manager in charge as well, so continuity is not a strength for a franchise that has won five Super Bowls.
While head coach Chip Kelly and GM Trent Baalke were made the latest fall guys, some of the blame has to fall to CEO Jed York, but as an owner he has the most job security of anyone in the organization. The fans have stopped showing up for games at relatively new Levi’s Stadium, which is never a good sign, and it’s not like the Seahawks, Cardinals or even the Rams are going to pity the 49ers any time soon. San Francisco very well could emerge as a championship contender like it once was, but it’s going to take time, and probably more than the next head coach will be permitted.
Bengals DB Adam "Pacman" Jones was arrested Tuesday morning on the charges of disorderly conduct and assault, obstructing official business, and harassment with a bodily substance.
Jones spit on a jail nurse and officer after his arrest, only adding to the multiple charges he already obtained. It all stemmed from him poking a man in the eye.
Judge sets $37,500 in bonds for Adam Jones. Felony charges involve spitting on jail nurse and deputy, documents say pic.twitter.com/Bjq7IVbycT— Kevin Grasha (@kgrasha) January 3, 2017
No word yet on if Jones will face league or a team punishment in the future.
Led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, Clemson is back in the national championship game for the second year in a row. The Tigers fell just short of a victory over Alabama last season, losing in a 45-40 thriller in Glendale, Ariz. With Watson and a loaded group of playmakers in place, Clemson is built to give Alabama another tough matchup on Jan. 9 in Tampa, Fla. While Watson and the receiving corps garners most of the attention nationally, the Tigers are more than just a high-powered offense. Coordinator Brent Venables continues to build standout defenses at Clemson, and this year’s version is only giving up 17.1 points per game. The Tigers feature one of the best defensive lines in the nation, with linebacker Ben Boulware and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley earning postseason All-America honors after standout 2016 campaigns.
Clemson booked its trip to the national championship in convincing fashion, dominating Ohio State 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31. Since losing to Pitt 43-43 in November, the Tigers have been on a mission. This team defeated Wake Forest 35-13, handled rival South Carolina 56-7 and held off an upset-minded Virginia Tech team 42-35 in the ACC Championship before the win over the Buckeyes.
Why will Clemson beat Alabama on Jan. 9 and prevent Nick Saban's team from a repeat? Here are five reasons the Tigers will claim the national title over the Crimson Tide:
5 Reasons Why Clemson Will Beat Alabama in the National Championship
1. Last Year’s Loss in the National Championship Game
Clemson won’t be short on confidence for the Jan. 9 showdown against Alabama in the national championship. After all, the Tigers nearly defeated the Crimson Tide last season. Clemson led 24-21 entering the fourth quarter and trailed 38-33 with just under five minutes to go. In last year’s matchup, the Tigers outgained Alabama 550 to 473 but were outscored 24-16 in the final quarter and had a few critical errors on special teams. Kenyan Drake scored on a 95-yard return, Clemson was unable to recover an onside kick attempt by the Crimson Tide with the game tied at 24 and missed a field goal.
Every team from year-to-year is different. However, with quarterback Deshaun Watson, a loaded group of skill players and a standout defense in place, Clemson is once again poised to challenge Alabama in the national championship. Even though the Crimson Tide were the best team in the nation this year, the Tigers certainly won’t be intimated when the national championship kicks off on Jan. 9.
2. QB Deshaun Watson
Alabama’s defense is the best in the nation and has adapted to face spread offenses in recent years. However, spread offenses and mobile quarterbacks still give the Crimson Tide defense the most trouble. With a relentless pass rush and athletic front seven, avoiding the initial charge and keeping plays alive when the pocket breaks down is essential to moving the ball against Alabama’s defense.
Clemson’s Deshaun Watson gave the Crimson Tide’s defense all it could handle in last year’s championship game and is playing at a high level once again entering this matchup. Watson threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns while also adding 73 yards on 20 attempts and guided the offense to 40 points in the 45-40 loss.
In his first full year as Clemson’s starter in 2015, Watson threw for 4,104 yards and 35 scores and ranked second on the team with 1,105 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. Watson was just as effective in 2016, as he passed for 4,173 yards and 38 touchdowns and added 586 yards and eight scores on the ground. In his addition to his ability to pick apart the defense on the ground or through the air, Watson has lethal accuracy (67.3 percent) and averages eight yards per attempt. The junior’s interceptions are up and the big plays produced by the offense are down from 2015. However, Watson was a Heisman finalist and a second-team All-American by Athlon Sports.
In a one-game scenario against the best defense in the nation, Watson is the quarterback built to give Alabama’s defense the most trouble. And after falling short in last year’s game, Watson has all of the motivation in the world to finish his Clemson career with a national championship.
3. The Skill Talent
Quarterback Deshaun Watson makes the Clemson offense go, but the junior also has arguably the nation’s best supporting cast at his disposal. The Tigers have a wealth of athletic and talented receivers, a proven running back in Wayne Gallman and an experienced offensive line. Mike Williams suffered a season-ending neck injury last year but quickly emerged as one of the nation’s best receivers in 2016. The junior caught 90 passes for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, while tight end Jordan Leggett (39 catches) and receivers Deon Cain (33), Artavis Scott (73), Ray-Ray McCloud (49) and Hunter Renfrow (34) provide plenty of secondary options. Finding a weakness on Alabama’s defense isn’t easy. However, the Crimson Tide’s secondary isn’t as deep as this unit has been in previous years. Expect Watson and the receivers to spread the field and take advantage of the concerns in the secondary. Gallman has only three runs of 30 yards or more, but the junior averages 5.1 yards per carry and has eclipsed 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.
There’s no doubt Alabama’s defense is the best in the nation. However, Clemson features the best collection of talent and scheme Nick Saban’s defense has faced in 2016.
4. The Defensive Line
A standout defensive line is becoming an annual tradition for Clemson coordinator Brent Venables. Despite losing a handful of key players to the NFL over the last couple of seasons, the Tigers have ranked first or second nationally in tackles for a loss since 2013.
This year’s front four is led by versatile end Christian Wilkins. The 6-foot-4 spent 2015 as a tackle but moved outside for the 2016 season. Wilkins led the team with 13 tackles for a loss and accumulated 3.5 sacks. True freshman Dexter Lawrence recorded 6.5 sacks and helped to anchor an interior that also features Carlos Watkins – a second-team Athlon Sports All-American for 2016. Redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell is a player on the rise after recording three tackles for a loss against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. There’s also no shortage of depth, as four players have each accumulated at least 170 snaps in reserve duty.
Statistically, Clemson ranks 19th nationally against the run and is third in sacks generated (49). Alabama’s offensive line has experienced its share of ups and downs this season, and the Tigers have the talent and overall depth to win the battle at the point of attack.
5. LB Ben Boulware and CB Cordrea Tankersley
In addition to the standout defensive line talent Venables has in place, Clemson has two of the nation’s best players at their respective positions in the back seven. Ben Boulware leads the way at linebacker and paced the team with 110 stops in 13 games. Boulware isn’t just a physical presence in the middle of the field and around the line of scrimmage. He’s also one of the team leaders and should play a key role in helping to contain Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts in the pocket. Tankersley is a lock down cover corner on one side of the field and anchors a secondary ranked fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense. The Tigers have allowed just 12 passing scores all year and picked off 20 passes (the most in the ACC). With two proven and experienced leaders anchoring the back seven, Clemson matches up well against Alabama’s receiving corps and three-man rotation at running back.
Alabama is 60 minutes away from another national championship. And just like last season, Clemson is the team that stands in the way of the Crimson Tide hoisting the trophy. If Alabama knocks off Clemson on Jan. 9 in Tampa, Fla., coach Nick Saban’s team will claim its fifth national title since 2009. Additionally, the Crimson Tide are trying to match its 2011-12 squads as the only teams to go back-to-back since the start of the BCS era.
The Crimson Tide defeated Washington 24-7 in the Peach Bowl to clinch a spot in the national championship, relying on a strong defense and timely offense to knock off the Huskies. Alabama’s defense had its share of issues defending Clemson last year, but Saban and his staff should have plenty of data and tape to make adjustments for the matchup next Monday night. While the defense is the best in the nation, question marks surrounding the offense. This unit looked sluggish in the win over Washington and will be under the direction of a new play-caller (Steve Sarkisian) after Saban decided Lane Kiffin (headed to FAU) would not call the plays on Jan. 9. Sarkisian was already set to take over play-calling duties next year. However, this is his first time coordinating the gameplan and calling the plays this season.
Why will Alabama win on Jan. 9 and repeat as national champions? Here are five reasons the Crimson Tide will claim the national title over Clemson:
5 Reasons Why Alabama Will Beat Clemson in the National Championship
1. Dominant Defense
Dominant defenses have been a hallmark of Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama. Since 2008, the Crimson Tide have not finished a season by allowing more than five yards per play. This year’s defense gave up 3.9 yards per play, which was the second-lowest mark under Saban’s watch. Alabama also ranked first nationally in scoring defense (11.4 ppg) and rush defense (62 ypg) and finished fifth in pass efficiency defense. While the statistics from have been similar from year-to-year, Alabama’s defense has adapted to do a better job of defending spread attacks. This unit features more overall athleticism, speed and length at all three levels than the previous versions.
The success of this group starts up front with a dominant front seven. End Jonathan Allen anchors the line and was a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports after accumulating 9.5 sacks in 14 games. Sophomore tackle Da’Ron Payne is an underrated cog on the interior, and there’s no shortage of talent off the edges from linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson combining for 17 sacks. Senior linebacker Reuben Foster (103 tackles) is an All-American and sets the defense, with the secondary anchored by sophomores Marlon Humphrey, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison.
Simply, this is the best defense in college football. In addition to elite talent, Alabama has two of the best defensive minds (Saban and coordinator Jeremy Pruitt) leading the way, and the scheme continues to evolve and adapt to combat the spread of up-tempo offenses.
2. Forcing Turnovers and Converting into Points
The turnover department is one area where Alabama should have a significant edge over Clemson on Jan. 9. The Crimson Tide tied for 17th nationally by recording a plus-eight margin, while the Tigers tied for 54th nationally at plus-one. However, Clemson was among the nation’s most generous teams at giveaways, as the Tigers lost 26 turnovers in 14 contests.
In addition to excelling at taking the ball away, Alabama’s defense converts turnovers into scores better than any team in the nation. The Crimson Tide have scored 11 defensive touchdowns in 2016, with eight different players accounting for scores.
While Clemson has managed to overcome turnovers all year, any giveaways against Alabama could be costly – especially if this defense finds a way to score once again or use a turnover to flip field position.
3. Emergence of RB Bo Scarbrough
Alabama doesn’t have a clear No. 1 running back like Derrick Henry, but there’s no shortage of depth for coach Nick Saban. Damien Harris leads the team with 1,013 yards, with Joshua Jacobs chipping in 551 and Bo Scarbrough up to 719 yards after gashing Washington for 180 yards in the Peach Bowl. Each running back brings a different skill set to the offense, with Scarbrough’s size, power and speed resembling Henry’s talents the most. Staying healthy has been Scarbrough’s biggest challenge since stepping onto campus, but the sophomore seems to be getting stronger over the course of the season. After rushing for 52 yards on 11 attempts against LSU, Scarbrough missed the next two games due to injury but finished the regular season by posting 90 yards on 17 carries against Auburn and 91 yards on 11 attempts against Florida. Scarbrough has eclipsed at least 90 rushing yards in each of his last three starts and his emergence is another weapon coordinator Brent Venables will have to account for on Jan. 9.
4. QB Jalen Hurts and the Receiving Corps
The performance of Hurts and the offense in Alabama’s 24-7 victory against Washington in the Peach Bowl certainly left a lot to be desired. The Crimson Tide managed 326 yards (5.1 per play), was limited to 57 yards through the air and went 4 of 14 on third downs. While the offense has plenty of room to improve and evaluate before the Jan. 9 matchup in Tampa, Fla., it’s also worth considering Alabama didn’t need to open up the playbook with the game in control. A better overall performance should be expected for Hurts against Clemson. The true freshman’s mobility (891 yards) is a huge asset against a standout defensive front, and he’s due for a better performance through the air. During the regular season, Hurts threw for 2,592 yards and 22 scores and only tossed nine picks on 337 attempts.
Additionally, former coordinator Lane Kiffin found plenty of opportunities and yardage through the air in last year’s championship matchup. Alabama accumulated 335 yards through the air, with tight end O.J. Howard accounting for 208 yards and two touchdowns on five catches. Howard should be a factor once again, and Sarkisian has a deep group at receiver – ArDarius Stewart, Calvin Ridley and Gehrig Dieter – to test the depth of the Clemson secondary.
5. Nick Saban, Talent and Last Year’s Game
Alabama sets the standard for the rest of college football, with Nick Saban building the nation’s most dominant program since taking over in 2007. Under Saban’s watch, the Crimson Tide have won at least 10 games in every season since 2008 and are the only team to make the College Football Playoff in all three years. It’s no secret Saban is the nation’s best coach, but he’s also assembled a standout staff, including new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and defensive play-caller Jeremy Pruitt.
The process for Saban starts on the recruiting trail. Alabama has reeled in six straight No. 1 classes and No. 7 is on its way in February. The combination of elite talent and the game’s best coach has resulted in four national championships. Additionally, only one team – Alabama – has won back-to-back titles since the start of the BCS era in 1998.
Even though Alabama won last year’s matchup against Clemson, Saban certainly wasn’t happy with his defense after giving up 40 points and 550 yards. For a coach that’s driven to fix mistakes and perfection, it’s probably safe to assume Saban and this staff picked up on a couple of things to help their defense. With a week to prepare for the nation’s best roster and Saban (and plenty of assistants in off-field roles to help), there’s a good reason why Alabama is a touchdown favorite.
The NFL's regular season has ended. Despite a truly terrible season, there's a silver lining to the Cleveland Browns' 1-win performance. They own the No. 1 pick of the 2017 National Football League Draft, which will be held on April 27-29 in Philadelphia.
The tentative order of the first round was just announced by the NFL, and is subject to the results of the playoffs. Thus, only the top 20 are featured below. Teams that advance to the NFL playoffs will make up picks 21-32, based on the outcome of the postseason.
2017 NFL Draft Order
|5||Tennessee (traded by LA)||4||12||0|
|6||New York Jets||5||11||0|
|12||Cleveland (traded by PHI)||7||9||0|
|15||**Philadelphia (traded by MIN)||8||8||0|
** The 14th and 15th selections will be decided by coin flip.