Well, this is it. Another fantastic college football season is coming to an end. This season gave us coaches dabbing, refs behaving badly, the “Hog Mary”, the BYU miracle(s) game, the “Block 6”, the too-incredible-to-be-named Duke-Miami multiple lateral endings, and numerous other memorable moments. But it all comes to a close Monday night in Glendale when the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide square off for the national championship. Here’s our National Championship Game Preview.
National Championship Game Preview: The Story Remains the Same
For Clemson, they’ll attempt to earn the school’s second national title and first since 1981. The Tigers can finally put to be the term “Clemsoning.” After years of Clemson fans listening to the derisive term batted around the sports world and emerging into popular culture, there could be no better way to finally exorcise it than by hoisting the championship trophy. They are a loose group, led by a loose coach, and still don’t believe that they are getting the respect they deserve for their season. An undefeated season that included regular season wins over Notre Dame and Florida State, an ACC Championship win over one-loss North Carolina, and a convincing Orange Bowl win over streaking Oklahoma. All this, and they still enter the game as a touchdown underdog to Alabama.
At Alabama, the team will attempt to earn the school’s … well, we’ve lost count. Depending on which Alabama fan or media source you talk to, they claim between 15 and 19 national titles. Either way, it’s an embarrassment of riches. More relevant, though, is that this squad is going for Alabama’s fourth national title in seven years. The narratives around this Alabama team center on dynasties and the growing legacy of head coach Nick Saban. The Tide are a team that is accustomed to the spotlight, comfortable on the big stage. In fact, Alabama is one of the historically rare teams that seem to play better the brighter the lights and with more on the line.
It’s a game of contrast; the loose and carefree Tigers against the business-like Tide, the dabbing Dabo against the methodical Saban, “Clemsoning” against 15 national titles.
National Championship Game Preview:
College Football Playoff National Championship Game presented by AT&T, Glendale, Arizona
Clemson (14-0) vs. Alabama (13-1)
January 11th, 8:30 p.m. ET
While the storylines might be contrasting, the teams aren’t. On the surface, these teams don’t seem like that they’re similar. But looking into the numbers, you’ll find that these two teams took similar paths to wind up at the end of the journey. That path includes a dominate defense, a methodical offense led by one dominating force, and winning at the line of scrimmage.
The Tigers are led by sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson is known for his mobility – but that’s a tremendous mistake. While he is a very effective runner, gaining over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground this year – he’s an even more effective passer. Watson completed more than 68% of his passes this year for over 3,500 yards. Those are incredible numbers alone and when you add them to his ground numbers they become nightmarish for any defensive coordinator. Add a 3:1 TD-to-Interception rate and you can see why Watson was in New York for the Heisman Presentation.
But the Tigers quarterback wasn’t the only reason Clemson finds itself in Glendale. As good as Watson was, the defense was actually statistically better. Clemson’s defense was the sixth ranked defense in the FBS this season. They were ninth against the pass, 18th in rushing defense, 16th in scoring defense, and – this is a key statistic here – second in the nation in third down conversion defense. A stout run scheme, a top-tier secondary, and a defense that doesn’t give up a lot of third downs is exactly the recipe for success against Alabama. While Alabama’s defense received a lot of attention (deservedly so), Clemson was putting together an almost identical defensive performance this season.
As you would expect, the Tide’s defense wasn’t too shabby either. They were the second overall ranked defense in the FBS this year. They ranked first against the run, 18th against the pass, first in scoring offense, and fifth on third down conversion defense. Alabama’s defense is fast and big. While Clemson’s strength is in the back end of the defense, Alabama’s strength lies in its front seven.
Alabama’s offense is centered around their Heisman Trophy-winning running back, Derrick Henry. Henry amassed 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns rushing this season, breaking numerous SEC records along the way. There isn’t much complexity to Tide’s offense; just keep pounding the rock with Henry until the other defense wears down.
So two different teams who win in similar ways. Here’s a few things that will make a difference.
First, Deshaun Watson. Alabama’s defense isn’t a schematically complex defense. What they are – as I said before – is big and fast. Watson’s maturity in the pocket and decision-making, especially when deciding to run, will be key for the Tigers. Watson will get his chances in the passing game, and expect that to center around junior tight end Jordan Leggett. Leggett had 35 receptions for 447 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Watch for Clemson to push their receivers deep into the secondary and force the Alabama linebackers to choose between shadowing Watson or covering Leggett and the Tiger running backs underneath. If Watson can stand tall in a collapsing pocket and continue to hit Leggett over the middle the Clemson offense can soften up the Tide defense. Watson must be selective when he runs. The Tide linebackers will make normal 8-to-10 yard gains into 4-to-6 yards gains. It’s not that Watson has to win this game with his arm; he has to win it with his head by using his arm.
Next, watch the line of scrimmage. If Alabama’s offensive line can establish an effective rushing attack and give Jake Coker time and space, the Alabama offense can move on Clemson. Clemson’s defensive line is good, but they haven’t seen an offensive line as good as Alabama’s all year. Many of the weapons Alabama possesses are things Clemson has seen this year. Talented running back? Cook of Florida State. Fast defense? Florida State. Big and strong defense? Notre Dame. But they haven’t seen an offensive line like the Tide offensive line all season. If Coker can duplicate his 25-30, 83% completion rate performance from the Cotton Bowl in this game, Clemson will be in trouble.
Clemson will also be in trouble if the Tide front four can get constant pressure on Watson and keep his running lanes closed. For the exception of Ohio State, there isn’t a front-seven in the nation that comes close to Alabama. The performance of Clemson’s offensive line will be the single biggest variable of the championship game.
So, who wins? I think Kirby Smart puts together his best game plan in his last game as Alabama Defensive Coordinator. The Alabama line gets effective pressure with four most of the night and enforces strict lane discipline. One of the Alabama linebackers will be assigned to Watson on every play with less than five rushers. Alabama’s offense continues to execute well. A steady does of Henry early sets up Coker in the play-action focused on second-level routes with tight end receptions and receiver in-routes. And the two areas where Alabama has been better than Clemson this season is turnovers and special teams. Don’t be surprised if Alabama gets one or even two scores from special teams or defense. Alabama continues to put pressure on Clemson all night long. Clemson is able to hang in and keep it close, but in the end can’t overcome Alabama’s lethal combination of strength and speed.
So while this season provided another year’s worth of memorable plays and highlight reel moments, the story ends as it so often has before. Alabama wins yet another national championship.
Prediction: Alabama 34, Clemson 24