Thanks to a dominant win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, Clemson earned its third trip to the national championship in four years and is set to square off against Alabama on Monday night in Santa Clara. The Tigers lost their first national title matchup against the Crimson Tide in 2016 but won in ’17 thanks to a last-second touchdown pass from quarterback Deshaun Watson. Coach Dabo Swinney’s 2018 team features a rising star at quarterback in Trevor Lawrence, a plethora of talented skill players, and college football’s No. 1 defensive line.
Why will Clemson win on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara? Here are five reasons the Tigers will claim the national title over Alabama:
5 Reasons Why Clemson Will Beat Alabama for the National Title
1. Trevor Lawrence’s Development
After Clemson’s loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last season, it was apparent the Tigers needed to throw the ball downfield more in order to beat teams like the Crimson Tide. Fast forward to 2018 and coach Dabo Swinney had to make a tough decision early in the year surrounding his offense and that dilemma. Kelly Bryant inherited big shoes to fill in replacing Deshaun Watson in 2017 and guided the Tigers to the CFB Playoff. He opened 2018 as the starter, but five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence closed the gap with his big-time arm and ability to open up the passing game. Swinney handed Lawrence control of the offense prior to the Sept. 29 game against Syracuse, which prompted Bryant to transfer to Missouri.
Lawrence’s talent was never in question, but it was uncertain how quickly he would settle into the No. 1 role and unlock the potential of this offense. And needless to say, it didn’t take long for Lawrence to showcase he wouldn’t have much of a learning curve as the starter. The true freshman simply threw for 2,933 yards and 27 touchdowns to just four picks this season. The moment in the Cotton Bowl wasn’t too big for the freshman, as he torched Notre Dame for 327 passing yards and three touchdowns.
Monday night’s matchup and the need to push the ball downfield is exactly why Lawrence won the starting job. Don’t expect Lawrence to be intimidated by the stage.
2. Clemson’s Standout Group of Wide Receivers
Trevor Lawrence and Clemson’s standout group of receivers delivered a handful of big plays in the win against Notre Dame. Receiver Justyn Ross caught two touchdowns of 40 yards or more, while Hunter Renfrow grabbed a 32-yard reception, and Tee Higgins chipped in a 24-yard catch.
Alabama’s secondary ranks 15th nationally against the pass but is more vulnerable than in recent years. With the speed, size and athleticism this group possesses, Clemson should be able to take advantage of matchups in the passing game. At 6-foot-4, Higgins is a tough matchup for opposing defensive backs. The sophomore leads the team with 11 touchdown catches and has 56 overall receptions for 855 yards. Ross isn’t far behind with 847 yards and leads the passing game with an average of 21.2 yards a catch. Renfrow (47 catches) and Amari Rodgers (53 catches) give Lawrence four proven (and talented) options on the outside, with Derion Kendrick, Diondre Overton and Trevion Thompson rounding out the depth chart.
Assuming Lawrence has time to throw, Clemson’s group of playmakers on the outside can win one-on-one matchups and deliver big plays once again.
3. Travis Etienne
Alabama’s defense is only giving up 3.5 yards a rush this season, but that number will be put to the test on Monday night. Clemson running back Travis Etienne earned All-America honors after a terrific sophomore campaign, gashing opponents for 1,572 yards and 22 touchdowns on just 190 carries. Etienne averaged 8.3 yards per rush and recorded seven runs of 40 yards or more.
In the Cotton Bowl win, Etienne rushed for 109 yards on 14 attempts. However, that total underscores just how difficult it is to keep the sophomore in check. Etienne rushed for 47 yards on 13 of his carries but had a 62-yard scamper in the second half. Even if Alabama limits Etienne’s yardage early on, a small opening is all that the sophomore needs to turn a two-yard run into a 60-yard score.
4. Clemson’s Defensive Line
Clemson’s defensive line is the best in college football and will play a key role in how Monday night’s game is decided. The Tigers are holding opponents to just 92.6 rushing yards a game and 2.4 yards a carry. Additionally, no team has rushed for more than 191 yards against this defense in 2018. Clemson also ranks first nationally with 52 generated sacks.
Despite the absence of tackle Dexter Lawrence against Notre Dame, this unit didn’t miss a beat. The Fighting Irish mustered only 88 yards on 35 carries and averaged a paltry 2.5 yards a rush. Quarterback Ian Book was sacked six times and faced constant pressure throughout the game. Senior Albert Huggins started in Lawrence’s place and collected just one tackle but was instrumental against the run.
The leaders of this group are no secret. Senior tackle Christian Wilkins is among the top players in college football, with athletic ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant poised to wreak havoc off the edge on Monday night. This group isn’t just loaded with frontline talent. The depth is plentiful, as freshman Xavier Thomas is a future star, while Nyles Pinckney, Justin Foster and Jordan Williams will rotate in as needed.
Alabama will counter this unit with a standout offensive line, but Mississippi State (four sacks) had some success against this unit when they played on Nov. 10. Clemson is a notch better than the Bulldogs up front, which should allow coordinator Brent Venables to get pressure on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
5. The Revenge Factor
Monday night’s meeting in Santa Clara marks the fourth consecutive year Clemson and Alabama will meet in the postseason. The Crimson Tide own a 2-1 edge in those matchups, but the series is split at one win apiece in national championship contests. Alabama dominated Clemson in last year’s semifinal in the Sugar Bowl, winning 24-6 on the strength of a defense that held the Tigers to an average of 2.7 yards a play.
Swinney’s team features a couple of key seniors – left tackle Mitch Hyatt, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, end Austin Bryant and linebacker Kendall Joseph – who passed on the NFL for one more season in Death Valley. After losing last year’s game and the motivation to come back for one more shot at the title, the revenge factor will be working in Clemson’s favor on Monday night.