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National Championship Preview and Prediction: Alabama vs. Clemson

Deshaun Watson

Deshaun Watson

College football’s 2016-17 season comes to a close on Monday night, as Alabama and Clemson meet in Tampa, Fla. for the national championship in Raymond James Stadium. This is the second year in a row these two teams have met to decide the winner of the CFB Playoff, and both programs won in convincing fashion in their bowl games to reach Tampa. Alabama defeated Washington 24-7 in the Peach Bowl, while Clemson dominated Ohio State 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl.

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In last year’s matchup, these two teams traded punches for 60 minutes, with Alabama eventually edging Clemson 45-40. Behind quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Tigers recorded 31 first downs, 550 yards (6.5 ypp) and torched the Crimson Tide secondary for 405 yards through the air. While Alabama’s standout defense struggled to contain Watson, running back Derrick Henry rumbled his way for 158 yards and tight end O.J. Howard grabbed five receptions for 208 yards. But it wasn’t just the play of Henry and Howard that propelled Nick Saban’s team to a victory. Instead, a few critical plays on special teams proved to be instrumental in Alabama pulling out the victory. Kenyan Drake scored on a 95-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter, and the Crimson Tide recovered an outside kick with the game tied in the final 15 minutes. The recovered onside kick eventually led to a Jake Coker to Howard touchdown pass, which gave Alabama the lead for good in the 45-40 matchup.

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The matchup on Monday night isn’t quite a David versus Goliath scenario, but Alabama is the standard for the rest of college football. Under Nick Saban’s watch, appearances in the national championship or CFB Playoff are an annual tradition. The Crimson Tide are the only team to make an appearance in all three years of the playoff and are one victory away from back-to-back national championships. Additionally, Alabama has won at least 10 games in every season since 2008 and has claimed four national championship trophies under Saban’s watch. On the other sideline, coach Dabo Swinney built Clemson into a national power and was on the doorstep of winning it all last season. After a 19-15 start to his tenure, Swinney has won at least 10 games in each of the last six years. Swinney may not be the X’s and O’s mastermind like Saban, but he’s completely transformed the perception of this program.    

The path for both teams to Tampa was relatively similar, but Alabama dominated at a higher level in 2016. Only one game (Ole Miss) was decided by less than 10 points, and the Crimson Tide finished first nationally in scoring defense, fewest yards per play allowed and second in sacks (50). While the defense performed at a high level once again, Alabama’s offense thrived under former coordinator Lane Kiffin and true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. The Crimson Tide averaged 39.4 points a game in 2016, which was the program’s highest total under Saban’s watch.

Clemson had close calls against Louisville (42-36), NC State (24-17) and Florida State (37-34) before a loss to Pitt (43-42). However, since that loss, the Tigers have been locked in and thoroughly dominated Ohio State in last week’s Fiesta Bowl. The strength of the team is once again the offense, led by Watson and a talented group of skill players. However, the defense is just as strong and ranks among the best in the nation behind coordinator Brent Venables.

Alabama leads the all-time series over Clemson 13-3. The Tigers have not defeated the Crimson Tide since 1905.

Alabama vs. Clemson (National Championship)

Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 9 at 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Alabama -6.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Steve Sarkisian and the Alabama Offense

Changing coordinators a week before the national championship is a risky move by Alabama coach Nick Saban. However, it was clear the Crimson Tide’s offense did not fire on all cylinders in the win over Washington, and it’s fair to say coordinator Lane Kiffin was certainly distracted trying to juggle two jobs. With Saban pushing Kiffin to FAU a week earlier than anticipated, Steve Sarkisian is set to call the plays in Monday night’s game. Sarkisian was already set to take over the play-calling duties in 2017 and essentially operates the same system that Kiffin utilized during his three years in Tuscaloosa. The transition from Kiffin to Sarkisian won’t be too noticeable in terms of how the Crimson Tide offense operates. But there will be differences in how the two coaches call a game, make adjustments or interact with the players on the sidelines.

Sarkisian’s new role is the biggest wild card storyline to watch on Monday night. Any other team that changed coordinators a week before the national championship probably couldn’t make it work. However, Saban and Alabama should have a seamless transition to Sarkisian for Monday’s game.

The biggest challenge for Sarkisian will be getting freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts comfortable in the passing game. In last week’s Peach Bowl win over Washington, Hurts completed only 7 of 14 throws for 57 yards. The freshman added 50 yards on the ground against the Huskies, which gave him 891 for the season. The emergence of Hurts and his dual-threat ability has provided another dimension for this Alabama offense. The Crimson Tide always have a strong ground attack, but the offense is even more dangerous with a mobile quarterback.

Hurts isn’t hurting for talented weapons on the outside. ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley form a standout tandem on the outside or in the slot, while tight end O.J. Howard (41 catches) torched Clemson’s defense in last year’s game. Clemson will counter with a secondary that ranked fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense and is led by standouts Jadar Johnson (safety) and Cordrea Tankersley (cornerback).

Alabama won’t need Hurts to throw for 300 yards on Monday night to win. However, the freshman has to play a mistake-free game, utilize his legs to get 60-80 yards on the ground and hit on a couple of big plays to keep the Clemson defense from crowding the box to stop the run. And of course – adapt to a new play-caller.

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2. Clemson’s Offense Against Alabama’s Defense

This is the most anticipated one-on-one matchup for Monday night’s game. It’s a showdown of strength versus strength, as Clemson ranks 13th nationally by averaging 39.5 points per game, and Alabama’s defense ranks first by limiting opponents to 11.4 points per contest. The Crimson Tide create a lot of havoc at the line of scrimmage (50 sacks) and rank among the nation’s best in generating takeaways (27). In addition to its ability to create turnovers, Alabama’s defense also converts those takeaways directly into points. This unit has scored 11 times on defense this season, which is a concern for a Clemson offense that has lost 26 turnovers in 2016.

Finding a weakness for Alabama’s defense isn’t easy. However, mobile quarterbacks and spread attacks give Saban and the Crimson Tide the most trouble. Clemson checks off both of those boxes, with quarterback Deshaun Watson likely to give this defense a lot of trouble once again. Watson totaled 478 yards in last season’s 45-40 loss to Alabama and was able to extend several plays with his mobility. In 2016, Watson threw for 4,173 yards and added 586 yards on the ground. The junior did not run as much this season as he did in 2015, but with the national championship expected to be his final game in a Clemson uniform, the coaching staff isn’t going to hold back on letting Watson run as much as necessary. As mentioned above, interceptions have been a slight problem for the junior in 2016. After tossing 13 over 491 attempts in 2015, Watson has been intercepted 17 times on 523 pass attempts in 2016.

Watson’s ability to extend plays and attack downfield will be a tough assignment for an Alabama defense that is not as deep in the secondary as in previous years. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and cornerback Marlon Humphrey are the headliners in the secondary for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, but this unit allowed 18 plays of 30 yards or more in 2016. Clemson has a deep array of targets for Watson to utilize, starting with 6-foot-3 receiver Mike Williams (90 catches), tight end Jordan Leggett (39), Deon Cain (33), Artavis Scott (73) and sure-handed sophomore Hunter Renfrow (34).

How will Alabama counter Clemson’s offense and hope to slow down Watson? The Crimson Tide need to win on early downs and keep the Tigers in third-and-long situations. The battle in the trenches will be critical for both sides, as well as limiting the big plays. Considering the firepower on Clemson’s sideline, it’s likely this offense is going to churn out its share of yards. However, the Crimson Tide would trade yards for stops on third downs and in the red zone.

3. Rushing Attacks and Offensive Line Play

Much of the focus for Monday night’s game will be centered around the two quarterbacks – Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson – but the battle in the trenches and ground attack will be just as critical to the outcome.

Both teams have experienced their share of ups and downs in the trenches and will be matched against a standout line on the other side.

Alabama’s defensive front is anchored by first-team All-American Jonathan Allen at end, while tackle Da’Ron Payne is an underrated cog in the middle. Allen and Payne are a big reason why the rush defense is first in the nation and will be tasked with disrupting the timing of Clemson’s offense at the initial snap. Can the Tigers match the physicality of Alabama’s front and protect Watson? Additionally, can Swinney’s front five generate a push on the ground? Running back Wayne Gallman has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns but managed only 45 yards in last year’s matchup. The Tigers don’t need 100 yards from Gallman to win. However, a little balance would keep Alabama’s standout line on its heels.

While Alabama proved it could win a shootout over Clemson last season, the Crimson Tide would prefer a lower-scoring game and to control the overall pace and tempo. To do so, the offense needs its line to step up. Tackles Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams are two of the best in the nation, and this duo will be matched against a standout line on the other side. The Tigers are loaded with athleticism, talent and depth in the trenches, with the front four headlined by tackles Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence, along with end Christian Wilkins.

In last week’s win over Washington, Alabama recorded 269 yards on the ground. Bo Scarbrough accounted for 180 yards on 19 carries and is likely to see around 20 carries on Monday night. The Tigers rank 19th nationally against the run and limit opponents to just 3.5 yards per carry. Can Clemson slow Scarbrough and prevent Alabama from controlling the tempo by grinding it out on the ground? Or will the Crimson Tide win the battle in the trenches and keep Watson and the high-powered offense on the sidelines? Generating a pass rush against Hurts will be critical for coordinator Brent Venables. If the Tigers can force Hurts to beat them from the pocket – instead of making plays with his legs or attacking the edges – there’s a good chance Clemson will hoist the national championship trophy.

Five Numbers to Know

Turnover Margin: Alabama +8, Clemson +1

Third-Down Offense: Clemson 5th nationally, Alabama 21st

Third-Down Defense: Clemson 6th nationally, Alabama 7th

Red Zone Offense: Alabama 24th nationally, Clemson 71st

Red Zone Defense: Clemson 22nd nationally, Alabama 45th nationally

Predictions for Alabama vs. Clemson

 

Prediction

MVP

Steven Lassan

 31  27

Jonathan Allen, DL

Mitch Light

27 24

Bo Scarbrough, RB

John Gworek

23 21

Deshaun Watson, QB

Rich McVey

  34 24

Jalen Hurts, QB

Mark Ross

27 24

Mike Williams, WR

Braden Gall

34 31

Deshaun Watson, QB

Allen Kenney

24 21

Deshaun Watson, QB

Bryan Fischer

31 27

Tim Williams, LB

Jim Weber

31 30

Deshaun Watson, QB

Kevin McGuire

26 23

Bo Scarbrough, RB

J.P. Scott

31 20

Jordan Leggett, TE