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National Championship Preview and Prediction: Alabama vs. Clemson

Deshaun Watson

Deshaun Watson

The 2015 college football season is down to its final game, as Clemson and Alabama are set to meet on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. to decide the national championship. The Tigers handled Oklahoma 37-17 in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31 to clinch a spot in this game, while the Crimson Tide thoroughly dominated Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl.

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These two programs are separated by over 300 miles, but there are plenty of similarities and one big connection. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was a walk-on receiver at Alabama from 1990-92 and later worked as an assistant with the program under Gene Stallings (1996) and again under Mike DuBose (1997-00). Swinney has shaped Clemson into one of the nation’s top 10-15 programs, winning at least 10 games in five consecutive seasons. The bar at Clemson has been raised under Swinney’s direction, and a win on Monday night would give this program its first national championship since 1981. The Tigers are college football’s lone unbeaten, headlined by an explosive offense and an athletic, shutdown defense.

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Playing for national championships, recording double-digit victory totals and winning SEC titles has become the norm at Alabama under Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide set the standard for the rest of college football, claiming at least 10 victories in each of the last eight seasons. Additionally, Alabama is 3-0 in national championship appearances under Saban and is the only team to claim back-to-back playoff appearances. The Crimson Tide’s path to the national championship game featured an early loss to Ole Miss this season, but Alabama rallied by winning its next 11 games – with only one result coming by 13 points or less.

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Alabama leads Clemson 12-3 in the all-time series between these two teams. The last matchup between the Tigers and Crimson Tide took place in 2008, as Nick Saban’s team won 34-10 in a neutral site game in Atlanta to open the season.

National Championship: Alabama vs. Clemson

Glendale, Ariz.

Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 11 at 8:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Alabama -7

Three Things to Watch

1. Alabama’s Defense Against Clemson QB Deshaun Watson

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Mobile quarterbacks and spread, up-tempo offenses have provided the most trouble for Alabama’s defense under Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart. The Crimson Tide have made a few tweaks in recent years, and this unit is more adept at matching spread offenses. But Monday night will be the biggest litmus test for this unit from the 2015 season. Quarterback Deshaun Watson and one of the nation’s best offensive lines lead Clemson’s explosive offense. Watson threw for 3,699 yards and 31 scores this year and added 1,032 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott limited Watson’s rushing attempts early in the year but asked more of the sophomore in the second half of 2015. Watson rushed for 100 or more yards in five out of Clemson’s last six games and finished the year with a healthy 5.5 yards per carry mark. In the 37-17 win over Oklahoma, Watson’s accuracy (51.6) was off, and the sophomore managed only 187 passing yards. It’s no secret Watson is the driving force behind this team. If he struggles, Clemson has no chance to win on Monday night. While the Tigers’ offense is the toughest Alabama will face this year, there’s also an important counter point – Clemson hasn’t faced a defense like the one the Crimson Tide bring to Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 11. Alabama has limited opponents to 4.09 yards per play, 13.4 points a game, ranks first with 50 sacks generated and only one team (Ole Miss) scored more than 25 points. Watson’s rushing yardage and ability to keep plays alive with his legs are two of the keys to watch on Monday night. If Watson is stuffed on running plays and Alabama’s defense has a couple of sacks, Clemson is likely to be facing a deficit on the scoreboard. But if Watson has success on the ground, that’s a huge advantage in favor of the Tigers.

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Related: 10 X-Factors for Clemson and Alabama in the National Title

2. The Battle in the Trenches

While all of the attention in Monday night’s game is likely to follow Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Alabama running back Derrick Henry, this matchup will be won or lost in the trenches. Both units for Clemson and Alabama – offensive and defensive lines – are among the best in the nation. Clemson’s offensive line returned only one starter this fall but emerged as a strength behind true freshman left tackle Mitch Hyatt. The Tigers allowed only 16 sacks in 14 games and averaged 4.9 yards per rush. Alabama’s defensive line is the best in college football, so this will be a monumental challenge for Clemson’s front five. A’Shawn Robinson is the headliner for the Crimson Tide’s front seven, while ends Jonathan Allen (12 sacks) and Jarran Reed are capable of wrecking plenty of havoc. Linebacker Tim Williams (10 sacks) is another asset for Smart and Saban in the pass-rush department. This unit is capable of generating pressure or controlling opposing team’s ground attack with just its defensive line and linebackers.

When Alabama has the ball, it will face a similar challenge against Clemson’s defensive front. The Tigers are loaded with athleticism and speed in the trenches, headlined by end Shaq Lawson and tackle Carlos Watkins. But this unit is a bit of a mystery for Monday night’s game. Lawson is dealing with a knee injury and may not be at full strength. If Lawson can’t play or is at less than full strength, it’s a huge blow for a defense that limited opponents to 3.6 yards per carry and generated 43 sacks in 2015. The Crimson Tide’s offensive line is anchored by left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly, and this group showed steady improvement over the course of the season. In the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State, Alabama altered its usual approach and came out throwing to alleviate the pressure on running back Derrick Henry. Quarterback Jake Coker responded with one of his best efforts of the season, completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two scores. Can the Crimson Tide’s offensive line protect Coker and successfully open up holes for Henry to run through against a tough Clemson front seven?

Related: 5 Reasons Why Alabama Will Beat Clemson for the National Title

3. The Playmakers

Some of college football’s top skill players will be on display in the national championship. Alabama running back Derrick Henry was relatively quiet (75 yards) in the Cotton Bowl, but the low production was largely by design on the strength of Michigan State’s front seven. The Heisman Trophy winner faces another talented front on Monday night and will look to get back on track by recording another huge performance to close out the season. Receiver Calvin Ridley is quarterback Jake Coker’s go-to option in the passing game, but he will be matched against Clemson’s shutdown cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Will Ridley break free of the secondary for any big plays?

When Clemson has the ball, this offense has its own set of playmakers at running back and receiver. Wayne Gallman might be one of the nation’s most underrated running backs. In 13 games, Gallman has rushed for 1,482 yards and 12 scores and gashed Oklahoma for 150 yards in the Orange Bowl. Receiver Artavis Scott plays a key role in establishing the screen game for Clemson’s offense, and the sophomore has recorded 89 catches for 868 yards this year. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Alabama devote most of its attention in the secondary to stopping Scott and forcing the other receivers to make plays. Will the game’s biggest plays come from the players in this group? Or will a few unsung heroes make the biggest difference on Monday night?

Three Under-the-Radar Numbers to Know

Turnover Margin: Alabama +9, Clemson -1

Third-Down Defense: Clemson No. 2 nationally, Alabama No. 5

Plays of 30+ Yards or More Allowed: Alabama: 16, Clemson: 26

Position-by-Position Breakdown of Alabama vs. Clemson

Position

Advantage

QB

RB

WR

EVEN

OL

EVEN

DL

LB

DB

Special Teams

Coaching

Final Analysis

The national championship isn’t a new experience for Alabama and coach Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide are looking for their fourth title in seven seasons and are considered by the Vegas odds to be a touchdown favorite. Clemson has won plenty of big games during coach Dabo Swinney’s tenure, but this is the program’s biggest stage and toughest opponent from the 2015 season. In order to beat Alabama, the Tigers need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, press the tempo, allow quarterback Deshaun Watson to make plays with his legs, and force the Crimson Tide to win by going to the air and not grinding it out with running back Derrick Henry. Also, Clemson can’t afford to lose the turnover battle or consistently take field goals instead of touchdowns once it reaches the red zone. Alabama’s gameplan for Monday night is simple. Win the battle at the line of scrimmage, contain Watson and get Henry on track to open up downfield shots for Coker and Ridley. Will Clemson claim its first title since 1981? Or will the Crimson Tide add another title to the trophy case in Tuscaloosa? 

Predictions

 

Prediction

MVP

Steven Lassan@AthlonSteven

Alabama 27Clemson 20

Derrick Henry, RB

Mitch Light@AthlonMitch

Alabama 27Clemson 23

Calvin Ridley, WR

Braden Gall@BradenGall

Alabama 31Clemson 17

Derrick Henry, RB

Jasmine Watkins@JasmineLWatkins

Alabama 34Clemson 24

Derrick Henry, RB

Rich McVey@RichMcVey

Alabama 28Clemson 24

Derrick Henry, RB

David Fox@DavidFox615

Clemson 35Alabama 31

Deshaun Watson, QB

Mark Ross@AthlonMarkR

Alabama 31Clemson 23

Calvin Ridley, WR

J.P. Scott@TheJPScott

Clemson 41Alabama 24

Deshaun Watson, QB

Kevin McGuire@KevinonCFB

Alabama 26Clemson 20

Derrick Henry, RB

Allen Kenney@BlatantHomerism

Alabama 20Clemson 16

Tim Williams, DL/LB

Jon Kinne@JonRKinne

Alabama 31Clemson 20

Derrick Henry, RB

Brandon Cavanaugh@Eightlaces

Clemson 33Alabama 30

Deshaun Watson, QB