Monday, January 11, 2016

CFP National Championship Preview

Who: (1) Clemson Tigers vs (2) Alabama Crimson Tide
When: January 11th, 8:30 PM Eastern Time
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, AZ
Channel: ESPN

On Monday, all the marbles will be poured into University of Phoenix Stadium for
the second annual College Football Playoff National Championship. The new playoff system has been received with a warm welcome, and has quenched a much needed thirst for fans/critics of the game. This years contest will feature two storied programs between Alabama and Clemson. It's both team's first appearance in the new CFP championship game, and looks to be more memorable than last year's 42-20 Buckeye blowout of Oregon. This game is one of the more anticipated national title games of the past ten years, featuring the reappearance of an SEC team and a Clemson team who's playing just their 4th time ever playing in Mountain or Pacific time, while also not having beaten the Crimson Tide in over 100 years (October 25, 1905 was the last time).

With a chance to etch their names into college football history on Monday night, let's preview the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game:

                      Alabama Crimson Tide 
Flash back to the third game of Alabama's season, as the Tide failed to turn for 'Bama as Ole Miss walked out of Bryant-Denny Stadium with a 43-37 win. At the time, all hope for another title seemed lost, and with five more ranked opponents ahead, the season became overshadowed with question marks. However, coach Nick Saban rallied his troops through the adversity, and now find themselves one win away from another championship after steamrolling Michigan State. Simply put, the Crimson Tide and their fan base possess a "Championship or Bust" mentality. Every. Damn. Season. No "happy to be here" or "soak in the moment" attitude. Don't think about bringing that up in Tuscaloosa. 15 National Championships speak for the themselves, and on Monday, Alabama could very well add another to their collection.

The Tide are headlined by Heisman Memorial Trophy winning-back Derrick Henry. Henry has
collected just about every award he's been nominated for, and rightfully so. With close to 2,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in the regular season, Henry has practically shouldered Bama's attack behind another powerful offensive line. At quarterback, Jake Coker is Alabama's man, and has done a decent enough job to keep opposing defenses honest, although passing isn't the route this team takes too often (68th in passing yards per game). Coker's main target is Calvin Ridley, who leads the team with 75 catches/893 yards/5 TD's. Although not a high flying aerial based crew, Alabama's offense is an aggressive running attack that ranks 17th in offensive efficiency and 33rd in points per game.

Defense is the forte of any great Crimson Tide team, and 2015 has been no different. Alabama has the most dominant defense in the land, as the team ranks #1 in defensive efficiency and rushing yards per game, #2 in overall yards allowed per game and #3 in points per game. If you're not a stat junkie, perhaps watching the defensive unit for yourself will speak more than numbers, as this team plays a tough, disciplined brand of football. The term "defense wins championships" reigns true in Alabama, and is the main reason why the Tide are where they're at, and only continue to get better from here. The past five games for Alabama, their opponents have averaged a mere 8 points per game. If the Tide come to play as expected, it will be on the shoulders of another great defense.

Stat to Boast: 99.5% (Strength of Schedule)
Although Clemson is right behind them at 99.4%, there's nothing quite like having college football's toughest schedule, and still making an appearance in the championship game.

Stat to Roast: 36% (3rd Down Conversion Rate)
The Tide rank 97th out of 128 teams in converting on third down, going a mere 71/197. Down the stretch of a game, this could come back to haunt them if they can't build anything on offense.

                            Clemson Tigers
Since Dabo Swinney took over Clemson, the Tigers have seemingly progressed season after season. 2015 was the proclaimed year the Tigers would pounce into title talks, and those dreams have quickly turned into reality. Swinney has taken this team over with his southern swagger, and more importantly, his coaching ability. Clemson has been battle tested with tight wins over Notre Dame and North Carolina (Both top ten teams at the time) yet their loss column has went unscratched. These Tigers have clawed their way through this season, and that's something we can all dab to.

Derrick Henry wasn't the only player in this game to receive an invitation to New York. Alongside
Henry for the Heisman candidacy was Clemson's gun-slinger Deshaun Watson, a dual threat Sophomore who's been getting it done with both arms and legs. 3,699 yards and 31 touchdowns to 12 interceptions combined with over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, Watson can do it all. In the backfield is Wayne Gallman, who has produced a season that can be talked about with Henry's of Alabama (nearly 1500 yards, 5.5 YPC, double-digit TD's) given  Watson being the feature of the offense. What makes the passing attack for the Tigers potent is Watson's ability to spread the ball around, with four different receivers catching 35+ catches, 5+ scores and 450+ yards. Although just slightly out of the top ten in sacks allowed (13th in the nation with 16) Clemson bests Alabama in every major offensive category, and look to keep the score keeper working overtime against a Crimson Tide defense that allows 219.4 yards per game through the air.

Although not quite on the same level as their opponents defensively, Clemson does command respect of the defensive front as well. After facing an uncertainty with a left knee injury, All-American defensive end Shaq Lawson was quoted as saying there is "A very good chance" he plays Monday against Alabama. Much like Henry is important to 'Bama, Lawson is almost as important to this Tigers defense. Although seen as a bit shaky in previous games, the defense got back on track in the semi-final game against Oklahoma, and to the hopes of Tiger faithful everywhere, got clicking just in time. Athletically, the Clemson defense is top-of-the-line and is full of playmakers at all three levels of the field. Ranked 5th in pass defense and 4th in sacks, the Tigers look to turn the Tide into a one-dimensional offense.

Stat to Boast: 255 (Minutes Clemson has led in 4th quarter during current 17 game winning streak)
During the Tigers streak of 17 games consecutively won, there has been a total of 255 minutes played during the final quarter, and Clemson has led for every single one of those minutes. This shows the Tigers don't shrink when push comes to shove, and Clemson plays their best football when it matters most.

Stat to Roast: 32.60% (Ranking in Special Teams Efficiency) 
Viewed as the step-child in the "Three phases of football" family, many fans, analysts, players and even coaches sleep on the special teams phase of the game. Between offense and defense, this part of the game determines field position and provides points when unable to score a touchdown. Unfortunately, people to forget about special teams until a huge mistake is made, or your team needs a game winning field goal. Out of all 128 FBS teams, Clemson comes in at 123rd in special teams efficiency. Translation= Alabama should have outstanding field position and will enforce the opposite for Clemson.

How Alabama Can Win 
Pound the football. The Crimson tide possess one of the best backs in all of football behind one of the best offensive lines in all of the land, there's no reason to not give Derrick Henry 25-30 carries against a team that allows 129 rushing yards per game. By running the football, you chew clock, let your best player have a consistent touch of the ball, keep Deshaun Watson off the field, wear the defense down, give your defense rest, and most importantly, make things easier for quarterback Jake Coker. No need for Coker to come out slinging the ball, if Alabama gets Henry going, they will be able to dictate the tempo from the start. Defensively, keep Deshaun Watson in the pocket. Although Watson doesn't usually struggle throwing the ball, the sophomore still has a "run first" mentality inside of him, and should Watson not be able to takeoff when he pleases, inaccurate balls and mistakes will start to come.

How Clemson Can Win 
Make this game a shoot-out. The Crimson Tide don't have many weaknesses, but pass defense is one of the minor question marks coming into this game. With one of the most potent dual-threat quarterbacks at the helm, Clemson should get creative with how they approach Alabama on offense, which means using different personnel sets that haven't seen the light of day. Nick Saban does an excellent job of preparing his men, yet how can they prepare for something exotic they haven't seen? Deshaun Watson should have the ball in his hands, passing or running, for a good 65% of the plays ran by Clemson. Give the ball to your best play-maker and let him run wild. If the Tigers are able to get Watson going early and often, this will force Alabama into a game of catch-up that the Tide had no plans on playing. This means stacking the box with 8-9 men and clogging running lanes for Derrick Henry. Backing Jake Coker into a corner and forcing him to make plays with his arm is exactly what Clemson wants. Forget the extraordinary game Coker had against Michigan State, Clemson isn't a Big Ten defense. Should Clemson turn this game into a track meet, the Tigers will easily outlast the efforts of Alabama's aerial attack.

The Bottom Line
This is Alabama's game to lose. The Crimson Tide are so technical and fundamentally sound it's bonkers. The Clemson defense is solid, but not enough to stop Henry all night. Sooner or later the defense will get worn down, and Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will smell the blood in the water and continue to attack the Tiger's front seven. On the flip side, this may be one of the best defenses Nick Saban has had the pleasure of coaching. The saying "Defense wins championships" consistently reveals itself to be true, and Clemson's offense doesn't appear to have the key to unlock 'Bama's defense. Frankly put, the Tigers are a good football team. Dabo Swinney has the program going in the right direction, and will likely see the playoffs again soon. However, Nick Saban and company have been here before, and the experience of the ups/downs of the biggest stage in college football remains unequaled.


Alabama defeats Clemson, 26-13

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