Here's why the Tigers will win it all on Jan. 9.
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.