Clemson is 60 minutes away from the second national championship in program history. Under coach Dabo Swinney’s direction, Clemson has emerged as one of the nation’s top programs, winning at least 10 games in each of the last five years. 2015 has been a historic season for coach Dabo Swinney’s squad. The Tigers are college football’s only remaining unbeaten team, won the ACC title, handled Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and bring a 17-game winning streak to Glendale, Ariz. for the national title matchup against Alabama. Swinney’s team has thrived behind an explosive offense and quarterback Deshaun Watson, while the defense quickly reloaded behind standout coordinator Brent Venables.
While Clemson has won a lot of big games under Swinney’s watch, the national championship matchup against Alabama is the biggest stage this program has experienced in recent years and the toughest game on its 2015-16 schedule. Why will the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide? Here are five reasons to believe in Swinney’s team on Jan. 11.
5 Reasons Why Clemson Will Beat Alabama for the National Title
1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
Alabama running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy, but a strong case could be made Watson is the best or most valuable player in the nation. Watson showcased his potential as a true freshman in 2014, throwing for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns in eight games. However, Watson was limited due to injuries, including a torn ACL suffered in late November against Georgia Tech. The sophomore showed no ill-effects from last season’s injuries and emerged as the nation’s best quarterback in 2015. Watson threw for 3,699 yards and 31 scores and recorded 1,032 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2015. The sophomore became more of a factor in the ground attack over the second half of the season, recording at least 100 rushing yards in five out of the last six games. Watson is the type of quarterback that has provided the most headaches for Alabama’s defense in recent years. The Crimson Tide have lost seven games over the last five seasons, and there’s a familiar pattern among the quarterbacks – Jordan Jefferson, Johnny Manziel, Trevor Knight, Nick Marshall, Cardale Jones, Bo Wallace and Chad Kelly – mobility or the ability to extend plays with their legs. Not only is Watson a sharp passer, but the sophomore’s legs and ability to extend plays will be a huge asset and provide plenty of headaches for Alabama’s defense.
2. Clemson’s Offensive Line Can Handle Alabama’s Defensive Front
Despite returning only one starter on the offensive line, Clemson’s front five has been one of the best in college football this year. The Tigers allowed only 16 sacks in 14 games and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.99 yards per carry. This unit had its share of ups and downs early but showed steady improvement over the course of the season. True freshman Mitch Hyatt started all 14 games and joined guard Eric Mac Lain and center Jay Guillermo as the anchors for this group. In the Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma, quarterback Deshaun Watson was sacked just once and the offense recorded 312 rushing yards. Alabama’s defensive front is the best in the nation and will present a tougher challenge than the one the Tigers played in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma. However, with the development of Clemson’s offensive line throughout the year, combined with Watson’s mobility, the Tigers have the pieces in place to match the play of the Crimson Tide in the trenches.
3. Clemson’s Defensive Line Can Create Problems for the Alabama OL
As mentioned in the previous section, Alabama’s defensive line and linebacker units form the nation’s best front seven. However, Clemson isn’t too far down the list of best defensive fronts in college football. Under the watch of coordinator Brent Venables and defensive line assistants Dan Brooks and Marion Hobby, the Tigers quickly reloaded up front after losing several key pieces at the end of the 2014 campaign. Gone from last season’s front that led the nation with 131 tackles for loss were ends Corey Crawford, Tavaris Barnes and Vic Beasley and tackles Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson. Despite the personnel losses, this unit hasn’t missed a beat. End Shaq Lawson was the unit’s top performer, recording 10.5 sacks and earning second-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports. However, Lawson isn’t the only standout for this defense in the trenches. Junior Kevin Dodd (18.5 TFL, 9 sacks) is another threat off the edge, while the interior is in great shape with Carlos Watkins, D.J. Reader and Christian Wilkins. B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware are two standouts in the linebacking corps, and both players are active around the line of scrimmage. Lawson suffered a knee injury against Oklahoma, and his status is uncertain for Jan. 11. Even if Lawson is sidelined, Dodd, Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin are capable of creating plenty of havoc against Alabama’s offensive line and slowing running back Derrick Henry. Clemson ranks 18th nationally against the run and first in tackles for loss (117).
4. Playmakers at Running Back and Wide Receiver
With speed and athleticism at running back and receiver, Clemson’s skill talent can put a lot of pressure on Alabama’s defense. Wayne Gallman might be the nation’s most underrated running back, recording 1,482 yards and 12 scores on 269 carries this season. Gallman has the speed to attack the edges, while also bringing an element of power to attack the middle of the field. Zac Brooks and C.J. Fuller will spell Gallman at running back. The receiving corps won’t have Deon Cain available due to suspension, but Artavis Scott (89 catches) is the team’s go-to option. Scott’s ability to make plays off screen passes helps to set up the deep balls to Charone Peake (14.0 ypc) and Germone Hopper (15.1 ypc). Tight end Jordan Leggett (35 catches) is another valuable weapon for Watson, and freshman Hunter Renfrow (15.5 ypc) is a security blanket over the middle. In order to beat Alabama’s defense, offenses have to spread the field and attack a secondary that ranked ninth in the SEC by giving up 15 passing plays of 30 yards or more. That's exactly the type of ability Clemson's group of skill players will bring to Glendale, Ariz. and Alabama's defense on Jan. 11.
5. Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander
Alabama’s receiving corps faced question marks to open the season after the loss of the top three options – Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones – from 2014. However, this group has improved over the course of the season, significantly helped by the emergence of freshman Calvin Ridley. In 14 games, Ridley has grabbed 83 receptions for 1,031 yards and seven scores. Additionally, ArDarius Stewart (61 grabs) and Richard Mullaney (37 catches) stepped up in 2015 and made key receptions in the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State. Tight end O.J. Howard (33 receptions) is another weapon Clemson will have to account for on Jan. 11. Clemson’s secondary has surrendered a few big plays (16 of 30 yards or more), but this unit features a lockdown All-America cornerback in Mackensie Alexander, while safety Jayron Kearse (second team) and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley (third team) earned All-ACC honors. Expect to see Alexander matched on Ridley on Jan. 11, which forces Alabama to rely more on Stewart and Mullaney. If Alexander contains Ridley, that’s a huge advantage in Clemson’s favor in the national championship.