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.