Alabama seeks its 16th national championship when it faces off against Clemson on Monday in Glendale, Ariz. The Tigers, meanwhile, have just one title (1981) to their name. Based on history alone, this year’s title game looks like a mismatch, one blue-blood program hoping to fend off a surging up-and-comer.
But championships aren’t won on tradition alone, of course. Alabama and Clemson both boast plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, making for an intriguing matchup on paper. So who truly holds the edge? SI.com offers a position group-by-position group breakdown of this season’s national championship game.
Deshaun Watson finished third in Heisman Trophy voting even before he accumulated 332 yards of total offense in Clemson’s 37–17 win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. That performance made Watson the single-season leader for total offense (4,731 yards) at Clemson, all as a true sophomore coming off a torn ACL. On the other sideline, Alabama’s Jake Coker has looked sharper of late, completing 73% of his passes for 1,703 yards with nine touchdowns in his last 10 games. But Coker simply isn’t the all-around offensive threat that Watson is.
Wayne Gallman’s contributions to the Tigers have gone somewhat unnoticed thanks to Watson’s star-studded campaign. Gallman finished as the program’s single-season rushing leader (1,482 yards) after chipping in 150 yards against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. But Alabama has a Heisman Trophy winner in its backfield in Derrick Henry, who set the SEC single-season rushing mark (2,061 yards) and has more than twice as many touchdowns as Gallman. Throw in Kenyan Drake, the Tide’s capable second-string rusher, and Alabama’s backfield remains a sight to behold.
Clemson’s pass-catching corps took a hit when it lost No. 1 receiver Mike Williams, who hauled in 1,030 yards in 2014, to a neck injury in the season-opener vs. Wofford. Yet Charone Peake, Artavis Scott and Deon Cain (who remains suspended for the title game after violating team rules) stepped up as targets for Watson this year. The same could be said for tight end Jordan Leggett, a first-team All-ACC pick. But Alabama has the single best receiving threat in this game in true freshman Calvin Ridley. The former five-star signee broke Amari Cooper’s freshman receiving record with 1,031 yards through 14 games. Ridley will be the best receiver on the field, and he teams up with ArDarius Stewart against the Tigers.
Alabama finished the year with three All-SEC picks on the offensive line: center Ryan Kelly (first team), tackle Cam Robinson (first team) and guard Dominick Jackson (second team). Kelly and Robinson were the only two returning starters on the Crimson Tide’s offense, and they helped pave the way for Henry’s Heisman-winning season. Clemson, meanwhile, placed two linemen on All-ACC first- or second-teams in guard Eric Mac Lain and center Jay Guillermo. That unit allowed just 16 sacks this season, 19th nationally, and protected another Heisman finalist in Watson.
Alabama’s front seven has been historically great in 2015, and that dominance starts up front. The Crimson Tide made up half the All-SEC first-team defensive line with end A’Shawn Robinson and nose guard Jonathan Allen. That line helped Bama finish first nationally in rushing defense (2.3 yards allowed per carry) and sacks per game (3.57), with Allen getting to the quarterback 12 times alone. Clemson’s defensive line is no slouch, with All-ACC first-team end Shaq Lawson teaming with fellow end Kevin Dodd and tackles D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins to more than make up for the loss of All-America end Vic Beasley. Lawson amassed 10.5 sacks on the year as the Tigers ranked seventh in the FBS with 3.07 per game. After missing most of the Orange Bowl with a left knee injury, Lawson is expected to play in the national championship game. Clemson makes it close, but it’s hard for any team to match the ferocity of Alabama’s defensive front in 2015.
Tigers linebackers Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson, two of the team’s top three tacklers in 2015, both earned All-ACC honors after also combining for 22 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Boulware and Goodson proved their ball-hawking ability in the Orange Bowl, as well, securing one interception each off Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. Alabama has its own deep arsenal of linebackers that have fortified its front seven. Senior Reggie Ragland is the Tide’s top tackler (97), while Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams have combined for 16.5 sacks. Both squads load up talent in the middle, but Alabama’s depth sets it apart.
The back end of Alabama’s defense has been its Achilles’ heel in recent years, giving up far too many big plays. This season, however, that group has seemingly improved. The Crimson Tide rank fifth in the nation in passes defended at 6.5 per game—up from 5.14 in 2014—behind players like first-team All-SEC safety Eddie Jackson and cornerback Cyrus Jones. Clemson safety Jayron Kearse and cornerback Mackenzie Alexander both earned first-team All-ACC honors this season, and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley is also a disruptive threat. The Tigers’ secondary has been the more consistent unit in 2015.
Clemson is the more dangerous in the kicking game with Greg Huegel, who knocked in 86.2% of his field goals this season and set a program record with 25 made kicks. Alabama, however, has the edge at punter with sophomore JK Scott (44.4 yards-per-punt average). But the real game-changer is the Tide’s Cyrus Jones, who leads all FBS players with four punt returns for touchdowns this season, an Alabama record.