Who: Alabama Crimson Tide vs Clemson Tigers
What: College Football Playoff National Championship Game
When: Monday, January 9th, 2017 at 8:00 PM Eastern Time
Where: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay, Florida
Line: Alabama (6.5)
Since the addition of the College Football Playoff, the postseason in NCAA football has become increasingly more, for lack of a better term, chaotic. 2016 was the third year of the new playoff system, and will feature the first ever rematch for a championship since championship games became established in 1992.
The Road To The National Championship
The 2016 season was seemingly harsh to everybody but Alabama. The Tide's road to Monday night, besides a narrow escape of a 48-43 victory against #19 Ole Miss on the road, has come in the fashion of ease and comfort. How impressive has Alabama been? Their last eight games of the season featured six top 20 ranked opponents. The lowest margin of victory? A 10-0 win at LSU. Alabama found a curious draw against Washington in their playoff game, and found themselves much closer to the Huskies than originally thought before pulling away late. Regardless, Alabama reigned supreme in a 24-7 win and now find themselves one win away from stockpiling yet another national championship trophy.
Clemson wasn't as fortunate as their counterparts were this season, as the Tigers often endured rocky times after touching Howard's rock. Notching wins against then ranked #3 Louisville and #12 Florida State added strength to their playoff argument, yet struggles against Troy, NC State and even dropping a game to Pitt at home gave little light to hopes of another shot at Alabama. However, the loss to the Panthers ended up being a blessing in disguise. Since that faithful day, the Tigers turned a complete 180 degrees on their season, and all of the built up anger and emotion was on display as the Tigers boat-raced #3 Ohio State last Saturday, 31-0. Clemson's team have come a long way since losing to Pittsburgh, as the Tigers look to address (and defeat) the elephant in the room.
How does each team stack up in all three phases of the game? Look no further, everything- and everybody, you need to know for Monday night:
Running the show for the Crimson Tide is freshman Jalen Hurts, a duel-threat quarterback that has arguably been Nick Saban's best signal caller since he arrived in Tuscaloosa. Hurts' stat-line doesn't exactly jump off the page (22 TD's, 9 INT's, 64.2 QBR) yet Hurts' ability to extend the play and use his mobility gives Alabama a dimension long needed at the quarterback position.
Bursting onto the national spotlight and likely will receive a lot of attention from Clemson's defense is halfback Bo Scarborough. Bo stands at 6'2" and 228 pounds, and indeed does run with the same power, speed and determination as another Bo who once upon a time played college ball in the same state. Scarborough, coming off a Peach Bowl MVP performance (9.5 yards per carry, 180 yards and 2 touchdowns), will share touches with fellow running back Damien Harris.
Alabama's aerial attack isn't groundbreaking nor showstopping (62nd among FBS schools in passing offense) but could benefit from all attention being focused on the run game. OJ Howard at the tight end position presents matchup nightmares for defenses, while wide receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart are more than capable of making big plays for the Tide, both over 700 yards each and 15 touchdowns on the season combined. Cam Robinson anchors another stellar Crimson Tide offensive line, one of the most reliable in the country.It is to note, however, that the Tide's offensive line has given up 24 sacks on the year, ranking 44th in the nation in pass protection.
Alabama's bread and butter is a physical, punishing brand of running football that sets the pass up perfectly when clicking on all cylinders.
Deshaun Watson is the gun-slinger for a Tigers offense that is one of the best in the country. Watson, who is a back-to-back Davey O'Brien award winner, is one of the nation's most dangerous players when he has the ball. Watson stands tall at 6'3" but moves with agility and play-making ability at a premium to the quarterback position.
Watson is dangerous both through his arm and his feet, but more lethal when throwing the ball to wide receiver Mike Williams. Williams, arguably the best wide-out in the nation and future first round pick, is a big play kid who has the tools to not only go up and grab the ball, but the skills to make big plays after the catch as well. As lethal as Watson presents himself on the ground, halfback Wayne Gallman is often overlooked carrying the ball out of the backfield.
Although Wayne isn't the featured player of the offense, he's scored in all but two games the entire season. With special playmakers across the board for the Tigers, Clemson only needs an above-average offensive line in order to facilitate points. Keeping players like Watson upright and healthy is what the Tigers have managed to do up to this point, with no need to bully teams like Alabama does. The Tigers offense runs through Deshaun Watson in both passing and running the football.
The Bottom Line
Both offenses thrive off the play of their dual threat quarterbacks. While both Watson and Hurts are dangerous, both are known to be careless with the ball on more then one occasion. Watson has the higher upside and is more polished than Jalen Hurts, while also having more big-play threats around him. If this game turns to a shootout, I'll take my chances with the Tigers' offense.
Welcome to the Alabama portion of the program. The Tide's defense has been arguably Saban's most dominant squad during his coaching tenure. How good is this defense? They have scored 11 touchdowns purely on their side of the ball, while only giving up 15 the entire season.
Alabama's defense has limited nine of their opponents to ten points or less, while giving up an average of about twelve points per game. Conclusion? They're not too shabby. The oil to their defensive engine is the front seven. The Tide traditionally play a 4-3 defense, allowing their rush to come purely from their edge rushing defensive ends while also holding ground in the middle. Jonathan Allen, star defensive end for the Tide, took home honors such as SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Bednarik and Nagurski awards as best defensive player, while also being voted a unanimous All-American.
Seven out of eleven players on this defense are graded in the top 25 nationally at their positions on Pro Football Focus. Alabama's secondary is nearly as good as the front seven as well, allowing the second-lowest QBR in the country. You can't run, you can't pass, you may not even be able to hide.
The best comparison for this defense is 11 food deprived wolves stumbling upon a wounded animal.
Although not at the holy level many are putting Alabama's defense on, the Tigers have quite the defense on their side of town as well, just ask Ohio State (O-H-I-31-0). Indeed the Tigers' defense has stepped up their play as of late, becoming one of the more aggressive and efficient squad's in the country (rank 7th in scoring defense, 8th in total defense).
What we all thought was a top-notch OSU offense quickly turned into a laughing stock, mostly thanks in-part to the orange and white brick wall. Carlos Watkins plays at defensive tackle for Clemson and consistently wreaks havoc upfront, totaling 10.5 sacks and 44 total tackles this season alone. The Tigers also feature an extremely fast and poised group of linebackers.
Players such as Kendall Joseph and Dorian O'Daniel at the linebacker spot excel at play recognition, and could potentially pose problems for Alabama's backfield. Alabama's defense is in a class of it's own, yet Clemson hoists a defense that is worthy of bragging for as well.
Both of these teams have defenses that are good enough to win a ball game. The only question with the defense of Alabama is if they are able to contain Deshaun Watson, as they have yet to see a quarterback than can do what he does since the last time these two teams met. I also do think Clemson has a better chance of limiting Alabama's opportunities, as opposed to vice-versa. That being said, the Crimson Tide have too many play-makers on that side of the ball for an offense to truly exploit them.
Simply put: Clemson's defense is good, Alabama's is one for the record books.
Defensive Advantage: Alabama
Adam Griffith is the Tide's kicker, coming into the match-up 20-27 on the year. Griffith can be reliable, yet that may be too friendly of a term. A 74.1% of conversion isn't exactly what you want out of your kicker, especially going 3-for-7 on field goals from 40 yards and further. Griffith ranks outside the top 40 kickers out of all FBS schools. JK Scott, punter for Alabama, is third in the nation on average yards per punt (47.4), providing the Tide with a vital advantage in the game of field position. Bama's touchback percentage when kicking off sits right at 50% as well.
Greg Huegel is Clemson's place kicker, and to Griffith's credit, Huegel isn't much more to brag about. Actually, Huegel has a lower kicking percentage than Griffith (73.7%). Andy Teasdall, punter for the Tigers, also sits behind his Alabama counterpart in yards per attempt, kicking on average 38 yards. Kickoffs for Clemson also haven't been friendly, only reaching the end zone on kicks for 38% of the time.
Special Teams is so vastly overlooked in the game of football. You really only pay attention to it when you need it. In reality, special teams has just as much importance as any other facet of the game. Collectively, both teams surely have room for improvement in all areas, yet JK Scott is enough of a difference maker for field position to be key. If this game is as close as advertised, the better special teams unit typically pulls through, and in this case Alabama holds the slight edge.
Special Teams Advantage: Alabama
How Clemson Can Win
Despite what a 24-7 scoreboard will show, Washington hung with Alabama right until the very end, and more importantly proved that the Tide weren't invincible. If Clemson wants to win, their first priority rests within stopping the rushing attack of Alabama. Successfully doing so will not only mean the damage of Bo Scarborough is limited, but also puts the game in the hands of a freshman quarterback. Surely Jalen Hurts' weapons are more than capable of making splash plays, but a well paced run game for Alabama would essentially send title hopes down the drain for Clemson.
Offensively, spreading the ball and utilizing the entire field is just about the only way to move the football against this defense. Sure, run up the middle here and there just to keep the defense honest. However with Alabama allowing a mere 62 yards rushing per game, there's no sense in forcing a run game that is unlikely to unfold against this front seven. The Tigers are fortunate to have two elite playmakers in Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams on their offense. Let Williams stretch the defense deep downfield and get creative with giving Watson space, and Clemson really like their chances.
How Alabama Can Win
Changing offensive coordinators a week before a national championship is almost unheard of, yet the Crimson Tide's offense took the "New Year, New Me" attitude to heart, changing coordinators as Steve Sarkisian takes over duties earlier than expected. If we're being honest, Lane Kiffin leaving might just be a blessing in disguise, as many have questioned his game plan/play-calling. The Tide's biggest key to victory will be simplifying things for Jalen Hurts. This translates to relying on his running backs to shoulder some of the load, while also keeping his reads/progressions simple and short. Hurts has the ability to hurt the defense with either his arm or legs, adding another dimension to an already stellar offense. Should Jalen play a mistake free game while being able to get the ball to his best playmakers, Alabama could have a real shot at repeating as national champions.
Defensively, the Tide simply need to continue to do what they've achieved all year: Control the line of scrimmage. Alabama has the best front seven in all of the nation, while also being the most physical. With a player as gifted as Deshaun Watson, the first step in stopping him is controlling the line of scrimmage, thus not allowing plays to develop and having the defense dictate the flow of the game, rather than the Tiger's offense.
Revenge, Or Repeat?
We were treated to a very special championship game last season. As dominating as Alabama was, Clemson came without four points of bringing home their first championship trophy since 1981. The second act of Alabama vs Clemson gives promise to be one of the best matchups we have seen in recent memory. This game pits one of the best motivators in the country in Dabo Swinney against Nick Saban, a man who is one win away from all but cementing his holy status among the sport.
The David vs Goliath narrative for this matchup is non-existent, and doesn't carry much value. The Tigers are just as good of a football team as the Crimson Tide are, and their play will show. Clemson has the better offense, Alabama has the better defense. This game will likely come down to its final minutes, with one team making a defensive stand.
To see Clemson win this football game should not be a shock to those that follow the sport. Yet through time and time again, the old saying of "Defense wins championships" ring true through every year. Nick Saban has only lost twice in games where he had multiple weeks to prepare, and with a legendary defense, it's hard to pick against the Crimson Tide. I'm trusting the better defense, and the preparation/adjustments of Coach Saban.
I believe the Tide roll to victory in the ousting minutes of the contest.
Alabama 24, Clemson 20
Donnie Druin is an award winning writer from the Arizona Newspaper Association. Follow him on Twitter @DonnieDruin for everything sports, or to question his credibility since his team can't hold a 14 point lead with seven minutes left in the Rose Bowl