Alabama has set the standard for the rest of college football to aim for in recent seasons, as the Crimson Tide have won three national championships under coach Nick Saban and were the only team to make the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons. Saban is a perfect 3-0 in National Championship contests at Alabama and is considered the favorite by Vegas to win on Jan. 11 over Clemson in Glendale, Ariz. Even though the Crimson Tide have inked the No. 1 recruiting class in five consecutive years, it’s not just about assembling talent for Saban and this coaching staff. Alabama thrives at roster and player development, which has translated into eight straight seasons of at least 10 wins.
The 2015 version of the Crimson Tide isn’t much different than Saban’s previous teams. Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart have assembled a suffocating defense, and the offense leans heavily on running back Derrick Henry and a standout offensive line. Alabama suffered a 43-37 loss against Ole Miss in mid-September and finished the year by winning 11 consecutive games, including 10 of those matchups by 13 points or more. Why will the Crimson Tide beat the Tigers? Here are five reasons to believe in Saban’s team on Jan. 11.
5 Reasons Why Alabama Will Beat Clemson for the National Title
1. Alabama’s Defense is the Best in the Nation
Defense wins championships. That’s an old cliché mentioned when discussing playoff or championship games, but there is some truth in that statement. Saban and Smart have developed a factory of elite defenses at Tuscaloosa, and the 2015 version ranks among the best in college football over the last five years. Alabama’s defense led the nation in fewest points allowed per game (13.4) and ranks second nationally in yards per play allowed (4.09). The dominance extends after a deeper look at the stat sheet. The Crimson Tide led the nation with 50 sacks, ranked fifth in third-down defense, have allowed only 11 touchdowns on 25 red zone trips, forced 26 turnovers and rank first nationally in rush defense. Even though Ole Miss (40.8 ppg) ranks higher on the scoring offense stat sheet, Clemson’s explosive attack (38.4 ppg) will be the toughest challenge for Alabama’s defense in 2015. Mobile quarterbacks have provided the most problems for the Crimson Tide defense in recent years, but Smart and Saban made a few tweaks, which allowed this unit to be more effective against spread offenses. Additionally, the secondary climbed from No. 30 nationally in pass efficiency defense (2014) to No. 4 in 2015. Even if the Tigers land a few big plays, the Alabama defense still has the necessary personnel, depth, talent and scheme to keep Clemson’s dynamic offense in check.
2. Battle in the Trenches
Alabama’s defense is loaded with NFL talent at each level, starting in the trenches with tackle A’Shawn Robinson and ends Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen. Robinson sets the tone up front with his ability to win the battle at the point of attack, allowing a standout group of linebackers opportunities to make plays around the line of scrimmage. Allen led the team with 12 sacks, while Reed registered eight quarterback hurries and is another 300-pound athletic force up front. The talent extends to the linebacking corps, as senior Reggie Ragland is one of the best in the nation at this position, and Tim Williams finished second on the team with 10.5 sacks. Dillon Lee and Denzel Devall are two other key cogs in this unit, while Reuben Foster (64 stops) is known for his big hits. Clemson’s offensive line was its biggest question mark on offense to open 2015, but this unit emerged as a strength by January. While the line has played well since a few early-season struggles, this unit has not faced a defense with the overall depth, talent and athleticism the Crimson Tide will bring to Glendale, Ariz. It's not just the defense playing with a stacked depth chart in terms of talent in the trenches. When Alabama is on offense, expect its line to challenge Clemson’s standout defensive front. Center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson are two of the nation’s best at their respective positions, and redshirt freshman Ross Pierschbacher has started all 14 games at left guard. The Tigers overwhelmed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl with their talent in the trenches. However, Alabama is stocked up front and capable of beating Clemson for the edge at the line of scrimmage.
3. Alabama QB Jake Coker is Ready to Step Up
Coker’s performance in Alabama’s win over Michigan State was one of the biggest storylines in the College Football Playoff. With the Spartans expected to focus on stopping running back Derrick Henry, coordinator Lane Kiffin asked more of Coker in the Cotton Bowl. The senior delivered with a sharp performance, completing 25 of 30 throws for 286 yards and two scores. Coker’s 286 passing yards were a season high and continued a run of improvement for the Mobile native. The senior has tossed only one interception over the last six games and completed at least 60 percent of his passes in each contest during that span. With an elite defense and ground attack at his disposal, Coker doesn’t have to carry the Alabama offense. However, the senior needs to limit mistakes and deliver the ball to a solid group of playmakers at receiver in space. Clemson’s secondary is sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense, while the front seven helps the Tigers rank 18th nationally against the run. With Clemson having the necessary talent up front to slow Henry’s production on the ground, Coker may need to replicate his production from the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 11. Judging by his recent performance, the senior is up to the task.
4. Alabama RB Derrick Henry
Henry wasn’t a complete afterthought in the 38-0 win over Michigan State, but the Heisman Trophy winner only recorded 75 yards and two scores on 20 carries. Additionally, the 3.75 average on attempts was the second-lowest total of the season for the junior. While those statistics are notable, the opponent had a lot to do with Henry’s workload, production and focus on the gameplan for Alabama. With the Spartans gearing up to stop Henry, the Crimson Tide focused more on opening up the passing attack. Clemson is expected to use a similar approach on Jan. 11, as the Tigers own one of the nation’s best front sevens and limited opponents to 124.4 rushing yards per game in 2015. But a deeper look at those totals suggests Henry and the Alabama offensive line could find success. The Tigers allowed 197 rushing yards to Florida State, 242 to Syracuse, 181 to North Carolina and 142 to South Carolina. Clemson also allowed 4.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter and may not have standout end Shaq Lawson available due to injury. Henry may not find much success early, but two-yard carries could become eight-yard rushes in the fourth quarter. The junior stepped up in Alabama’s clutch situations or when the offense needed to grind out the clock late in games, and it’s a safe assumption Henry will play a key role in the Crimson Tide’s hopes of winning on Jan. 11.
5. The Nick Saban Advantage
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer isn’t far behind, but Alabama’s Nick Saban should sit at the top of any list ranking the best coaches in college football. In a one-game scenario with a national championship on the line, it’s tough to pick against Saban and this Crimson Tide coaching staff. Saban has won at least 11 games in each of the last five seasons and went 7-1 in SEC play each year during that span. While last year’s loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff was a surprise, Alabama went 3-0 in appearances in the BCS National Championship under Saban. In addition to Saban, the Crimson Tide’s staff is loaded with experience in the assistant ranks. Lane Kiffin was a shrewd hire for Saban, adding a few spread, up-tempo elements to the offense, and his gameplan against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl was flawless. The national championship matchup versus Clemson is Smart’s final game at Alabama, as he will take over at Georgia as the head coach on a full-time basis after this contest. While Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has emerged as one of the top 10-15 coaches in the nation, and coordinator Brent Venables is one of the best assistants in college football, the edge in coaching goes to Alabama and Saban. With a quick turnaround to the national championship game, as well as getting the players focused on the Jan. 11 contest, the experience, development of gameplans and track record of Saban is a huge asset for the Crimson Tide. If a team needs to win one game in any scenario, there's not a better coach to have on its side than Saban.