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.