The national championship game is set, and No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama left no doubt that they belong. The Tigers steamrolled No. 4 Oklahoma for a 37–17 win in the Orange Bowl hours before the Crimson Tide shut out No. 3 Michigan State in a 38–0 rout in the Cotton Bowl.
Now Clemson and Alabama will meet in the second College Football Playoff national championship game on Jan. 11. The battle for a national title provides enough intrigue, but in case you need more, here are 10 reasons to be excited for this year’s championship game.
1. These are clearly the two best teams
Even before Clemson and Alabama walloped their respective playoff semifinal opponents, these were clearly the two most deserving teams. Whether you trust the playoff rankings, the AP poll, the coaches poll or S&P+ ratings, the Tigers and Tide were undeniably the top two squads. Even the BCS would have gotten this year’s championship matchup right.
The playoff has been an irrefutable success and certainly adds appeal to the postseason, but it does increase the possibility of the best team not winning the national championship. Upsets, injuries and flukes happen and can keep teams alive over more deserving squads. Just ask college basketball: For every scintillating Cinderella run in March Madness, there’s a team that was indisputably better over the course of the entire season that got left behind. Of course, four is a lot less than 68, so this is not as big of an issue for college football, but there will come a year when a weaker No. 4 seed gets lucky and denies a dream championship clash between the two top teams. For this year, though, we know the two best teams are in their rightful spots in the national championship.
2. Can Alabama handle the spread?
It’s been the Achilles’ heel of the Nick Saban era. Spread offenses denied the Crimson Tide a chance to play for the national title in each of the past two seasons and nearly did so this year and in 2012 as well. Whether led by dual-threat quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel and Nick Marshall or just big arms like Chad Kelly, spread offenses have been just about the only kind to vanquish Alabama. So can Deshaun Watson and Clemson’s attack become the next to do so?
3. A championship-worthy battle in the trenches
It’s no surprise that Alabama’s offensive and defensive lines are among the best in the country. A’Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and Jarran Reed headline an imposing and deep defensive front, while the Tide’s offensive line won the Joe Moore Award for best in the nation.
Clemson’s units, however, are capable of matching Alabama’s, as the Tigers demonstrated Thursday. Even with star defensive end Shaq Lawson missing nearly the entire game, Clemson still dominated on both sides of the line against Oklahoma. The Sooners gained just 67 yards on the ground to the Tigers’ 312, and Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield was sacked five times. Clemson returned just one starter to its lines this season but has rebuilt both units with stars-in-waiting like Lawson and new talents like true freshman left tackle Mitch Hyatt.
4. Jake Coker: national championship MVP?
The inconsistent game manager became the offensive playmaker for Alabama in the Cotton Bowl. With Michigan State doing everything it could to contain Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, Coker stepped up to deliver 286 yards on 25-of-30 passing with two touchdowns. His performance earned him offensive MVP honors for the game and will likely change how Clemson’s defense preps for the national title game. If Coker plays as well as he did Thursday, the strategy of “stop Henry and force Alabama to win through the air” won’t work.
5. Calvin Ridley vs. Mackensie Alexander
Key to Coker’s breakthrough in the Cotton Bowl was true freshman Calvin Ridley’s clutch performance. Ridley provided the first offensive spark of the game with a 50-yard grab to set up Alabama’s first touchdown and continued to hook up with Coker for eight catches for 138 yards with two scores. His touchdown grab along the left sideline was sensational.
But Ridley now has to battle with one of the top cornerbacks in the nation in Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander. Alexander likely won’t match up with Ridley on every play, but he’ll definitely pay him some extra attention. The Tigers sophomore has helped contain a number of dynamic receivers this season, including Notre Dame’s Will Fuller (two catches, 37 yards) and North Carolina’s Mack Hollins (two catches, 41 yards).
6. The possibility of a national championship speech and dance from Dabo Swinney
Swinney’s postgame interviews after big wins are always can’t-miss TV, so one can only imagine the amount of emotion that would pour forth if Clemson wins its second national title and first since 1981. And then of course there are the famous Tigers celebratory dances in the locker room:
7. Nick Saban’s pursuit of Bear Bryant
The only coach with more national titles than Saban just happened to coach at the same school. With a win over Clemson, Saban would match the legendary Bear Bryant with five national championships. Bryant won all five of his at Alabama whereas Saban’s first came at LSU, so he’d still trail the Bear in titles in Tuscaloosa. But five championships, including four in seven years, would be a remarkable feat.
8. The villain
The consistent level of success Alabama has achieved under Saban naturally breeds plenty of enemies. So the Crimson Tide know they won’t be the national fan favorites in this year’s title game. A villain like an established power is great for intrigue, though. Whether you like Alabama or not, you probably care about the Tide in some fashion.
9. Swinney’s Alabama roots
This is the storyline that you’re guaranteed to be sick of by Thursday at the latest. So allow me to do my small part in that by reminding you that Swinney grew up in Alabama, played wide receiver for the Tide and got his start in coaching with the program as a graduate assistant and later a wide receivers and tight ends coach. There’s some thought he might be persuaded to leave Clemson for Alabama when Saban retires.
None of this will actually affect the game, as both Swinney and Saban are far too concerned with the next 10 days to think about future hypotheticals, but it’s the kind of story that will get plenty of discussion between now and kickoff.
10. It’s not on New Year’s Eve!
If you were one of the people who watched last year’s playoff on New Year’s Day but didn’t turn in for this year’s on New Year’s Eve (and a little over a third of you were), you’re in luck! The national championship won’t be in the middle of your party like the Cotton Bowl was or during your workday like the Orange Bowl was. You’ve got no plans for next Monday night, so there’s no reason to miss this one.