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Sugar Bowl Preview and Prediction: Alabama vs. Clemson

Jalen Hurts, Alabama Crimson Tide Football

Jalen Hurts, Alabama Crimson Tide Football

For the third consecutive season, Clemson and Alabama are set to meet in the College Football Playoff. But the stage is slightly different this time around, as the Tigers and Crimson Tide are meeting in the Sugar Bowl for a trip to Atlanta and a chance to play for the national title. The two previous meetings between these two programs took place in the title game, with each team earning a victory.

Clemson Tigers QB Kelly Bryant

Alabama enters the Sugar Bowl in a unique spot. The Crimson Tide are favored by three points, but unlike the last two years, this team isn’t the overwhelming favorite to win the national title. Alabama finished 11-1 in the regular season but failed to win the conference title for the first time in three years after a loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl prevented coach Nick Saban’s team from reaching the SEC Championship. While the Crimson Tide fell short in their quest to add another SEC title trophy to the case in Tuscaloosa, this team still won at least 10 games for the 10th year in a row and are the only program to make an appearance in the CFB Playoff for all four seasons. After losing to Clemson in last year's title game, this team isn’t short on motivation for Monday night. However, Saban’s program has a few shortcomings to overcome in order to win it all for the 2017 season. The defense has been hit by injuries and roster turnover in the front seven, while the offense averaged only 23 points a game over their last three matchups against Power 5 teams.  

Clemson enters the CFB Playoff looking to repeat as national champions. That’s a rare feat in college football, as only one team (Alabama) has done it since 1998. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team opened the year looking to replace star quarterback Deshaun Watson, but junior Kelly Bryant proved he could handle the controls under center. And as usual, Clemson was strong on defense under coordinator Brent Venables. The Tigers limited opponents to 12.8 points a game and wreaked havoc all year behind the line of scrimmage. Clemson lost just one game (at Syracuse) and only two of its 12 wins came by one score.

As mentioned previously, this is the third year in a row Clemson and Alabama have met in the CFB Playoff. The Crimson Tide hold a 13-4 series edge over the Tigers. Clemson has not played in the Sugar Bowl since 1959. Alabama’s last trip to this postseason game took place in the 2014 season, as the Crimson Tide fell to Ohio State in the first round of the CFB Playoff.

Sugar Bowl: Clemson (12-1) vs. Alabama (11-1)

Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 1 at 8:45 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN

Spread: Alabama -3

Three Things to Watch

1. Alabama’s Rushing Attack Against Clemson’s Front Seven

Strength versus strength. Alabama’s offense starts with a punishing ground game that averages 265.3 yards a game and six yards a carry. Only two opponents – LSU and Florida State – held the Crimson Tide to less than 200 yards on the ground. And in last year’s title game, Clemson surrendered 221 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries to Alabama’s ground attack.

The lead back for coordinator Brian Daboll is junior Damien Harris (906 yards and 11 touchdowns), with Bo Scarbrough (549 yards and eight scores) also expected to see plenty of work on Monday night. Daboll has an embarrassment of riches in the backfield that extend to sophomore Josh Jacobs and true freshman Najee Harris. And if Harris and Scarbrough are slowed, Clemson has to somehow find a way to keep quarterback Jalen Hurts in the pocket and out of the mix from creating big plays on the ground. The sophomore was second on the team with 768 yards and eight touchdowns this season. This group of backs is also running behind one of the nation’s top offensive lines, which includes standout tackle Jonah Williams and center Bradley Bozeman.

Alabama’s offense is at its best when it is ahead of the chains and not trying to rally from third-and-long situations. The Crimson Tide are seventh in the SEC in third-down conversions, so Daboll has to find ways to get this ground game on track to keep Hurts in favorable situations.

Clemson’s defense has consistently ranked among the nation’s best since Brent Venables arrived in Death Valley. In addition to the overall suffocating nature of this defense, Venables and the defensive assistants continue to churn out elite players in the trenches. This season, the Tigers have four players worthy of All-America consideration up front. Versatile junior Christian Wilkins accumulated 8.5 tackles for a loss in 2017, with ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant combining for 31.5. Sophomore tackle Dexter Lawrence chipped in three tackles for a loss and was a key cog in a rush defense that limited opponents to just 112.9 rushing yards a game. Another challenge for Alabama in this matchup will be to avoid negative plays. The Tigers average eight tackles for a loss per game.

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Which side will win out on Monday? Will Clemson’s defensive front dominate and not allow the Alabama ground game to get on track? Or will the Crimson Tide find running room and keep the Tigers from putting Hurts into obvious passing downs all night?

Related: College Football's 2017 All-America Team

2. Clemson’s Offense Against Alabama’s Defense

Despite losing quarterback Deshaun Watson and key playmakers Wayne Gallman (RB) and Mike Williams (WR), Clemson’s offense was still one of the best in the ACC this year. The Tigers averaged 35.4 points a game – down from 39.2 in 2016. This unit also averaged 5.96 yards a play, which is down just slightly from a 6.19 mark last fall. While the production by the offense didn’t change much, there was one significant tweak made by co-coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott.

Similar to the last couple of years, Clemson can still have a prolific passing game. However, the offense has shifted more to the run with quarterback Kelly Bryant under center. The Tigers average 204.1 rushing yards a game in 2017, which is an increase from the 169.7 mark from last season. Freshman Travis Etienne (744 yards and 13 TDs) and sophomore Tavien Feaster (659 yards and 7 TDs) have anchored the bulk of the work at running back, while Bryant (646 yards and 11 TDs) will be utilized on designed runs.

How will Clemson’s rushing offense fare against Alabama’s front seven? Due to roster turnover from last season and injuries in 2017, the Crimson Tide aren’t quite as dominant as their 2016 unit. Alabama is still only giving up 94.1 yards a game on the ground, but Auburn, Mississippi State and LSU each found running room in November against this front seven. The injury bug claimed another defender in practice leading up to this matchup. Freshman Dylan Moses suffered a foot injury and is out for the remainder of 2017. While Moses is sidelined, Saban and this staff will get a full workload of snaps out of Mack Wilson, Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis after all three battled injuries during the regular season and returned to action in the Iron Bowl against Auburn. Shaun Dion Hamilton’s presence on the interior of the linebacking corps will be missed in this matchup, but Wilson and Rashaan Evans are still a formidable duo in the middle of the defense.

In order for Clemson to win, Bryant, Etienne and Feaster can’t struggle to find running lanes all night. If the Tigers get the ground game going and stay out of third-and-long situations, that will open up some shots for Bryant downfield. The junior is completing 67.4 percent of his throws for 2,678 yards and 13 scores. When Bryant looks to throw, Deon Cain or Hunter Renfrow (a player Alabama's defense is certainly familiar with) figures to be the top target. However, this offense is not as dynamic as the 2016 version at attacking downfield through the air.

Related: 5 X-Factors for the Sugar Bowl

3. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts and WR Calvin Ridley

The stat sheet doesn’t show it, but Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts has looked more comfortable in the pocket as a passer this season. The sophomore has only passed 222 times and completed 135 of those throws for 1,940 yards and 15 touchdowns. Hurts has tossed just one pick and is tied for third among SEC quarterbacks with seven completions of 50 yards or more.

When Hurts drops back to pass, his first read is to junior Calvin Ridley. He caught 55 of Alabama’s 171 receptions this season and is only 104 yards away from a 1,000-yard campaign. Ridley is one of college football’s best receivers, but the Crimson Tide will need more than just his presence to win on Monday night. The team’s second-leading receiver was a three-way tie with 13 receptions and no player emerged as a clear No. 2 target to take some pressure off of Ridley. Clemson’s pass defense has been stingy all year. The Tigers are fifth nationally in pass efficiency defense and have allowed just 14 passing scores in 2017.

The success of Clemson’s defense starts in the trenches. Can Alabama’s offensive line successfully block this group on passing downs? And when the Crimson Tide look to throw, Hurts needs more out of his secondary weapons to keep the chains moving on third downs. Considering the Tigers are going to aim to slow down Alabama’s ground game, the Crimson Tide’s chances of winning could rest on how well Hurts executes in the passing attack.

Final Analysis

Expect the rubber match between these two programs to feature less scoring than the first two matchups. Alabama and Clemson enter the Sugar Bowl ranked as the top two scoring defenses in college football this season. Points are going to be at a premium in this one, and a few big plays or turnover could decide which team moves on to the national title game. Can Clemson establish the run against Alabama’s defensive front? And how will the Tigers’ front seven perform against the Crimson Tide offense? Assuming this one is close in the fourth quarter, both teams are probably going to need a little more out of their quarterbacks through the air. Will Bryant or Hurts be the one that connects on just enough throws to lead their offense to victory? This one should be close. But Clemson’s defensive front and ability to get Alabama into third-and-long situations will be the difference.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Clemson

Prediction: Clemson 27, Alabama 24