The College Football Playoff committee got what it wanted: No. 1 vs. No. 2. Few could argue that Clemson and Alabama haven’t proved themselves worthy of playing for the national championship. Each has looked impressive all season, never more so than in their routs of their respective semifinal opponents.
Clemson stifled Baker Mayfield and No. 4 Oklahoma in a 37–17 victory, one in which the Tigers’ defense held the Sooners scoreless in the second half. Alabama dismantled No. 3 Michigan State in one of the most lopsided games of highly ranked teams in recent memory, blowing out the Spartans 38–0 and embarrassing Mark Dantonio’s team.
Ahead of the title game on Monday, here are three matchups to watch that could ultimately decide who wins the national championship.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson vs. Alabama’s secondary
Watson backed up his Heisman-finalist recognition by shining brightly on the big stage against Oklahoma. While he only threw for 187 yards and one touchdown (he was picked off once as well), where he really hurt the Sooners was on the ground. Watson carried 24 times for 145 yards (6.0 yards per rush) and a touchdown, and the combination of he and tailback Wayne Gallman wore down Oklahoma’s defensive line.
Don’t expect Watson to find the same amount of running room against Alabama’s vaunted front seven, which leads the nation in rushing defense. Watson is going to have to beat the Crimson Tide with his arm. While he may need to run a fair amount to keep the defense honest and to set up the pass, he won’t be able to win the game on the ground alone.
It won’t be an easy task. Alabama’s defense held Michigan State quarterback and future NFL draft pick Connor Cook to 210 yards passing, no touchdowns and intercepted him twice.
Alabama running back Derrick Henry vs. Clemson’s front seven
Michigan State’s defense kept Henry in check for the most part, limiting him to just 3.8 yards per rush and 75 yards rushing overall on 20 carries. The Heisman trophy winner did find the end zone twice, but Alabama had more success through the air than on the ground. Michigan State entered with the 11th-best rushing defense nationally, and Henry will face a similar task when Clemson’s 18th-best rushing defense lines up opposite him.
Clemson’s front seven is as fast as it is physical, and it’s headlined by projected first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson. Henry is going to need to try and find space in the interior of the Tigers’ defensive line and go north-south, rather than east-west, where Lawson & Co. will be waiting. If Henry can’t get a rhythm going and the run game stalls, Alabama will be forced to rely heavily on quarterback Jake Coker. He had the game of his life in the semifinal, but calling on him again to have a similar Herculean performance may be asking too much.
Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley vs. Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander
This is going to be a fun one. On one side is a 6’1” freshman wide receiver who’s caught 83 passes for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns while at times looking like the second coming of recent Alabama greats Julio Jones and Amari Cooper. On the other is a redshirt sophomore who is arguably the best man-to-man cover corner in the country and a projected first-round draft pick.
Ridley was superb against Michigan State. He torched the Spartans’ defense, catching eight passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. He has incredible hands, next-level speed and route-running skills that belie his age. Alexander, meanwhile, has as good recovery speed as any defensive back in college football. It’s no wonder opposing quarterbacks don’t find much success throwing in his direction. If Coker can hit Ridley on a deep ball or two, it’ll help open the run game for Alabama and would stretch the Clemson defense. But if Alexander can shut down Ridley, it could be a long day for Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.