Championship storylines: Breaking down biggest questions ahead of Alabama-Clemson
- Which head coach's legacy improves more with a win? What's the most exciting individual matchup to watch? SI's college football experts break down the top storylines of Alabama-Clemson.
For the second straight year, Alabama and Clemson will meet for the national title. While the teams may be recycled, there’s no shortage of storylines as the Crimson Tide and the Tigers prepare to meet in Tampa on Monday night. The rematch itself adds plenty to consider after Alabama prevailed 45–40 in last year’s championship.
What’s at stake for head coaches Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney? What could be the deciding factor in the game? Who’s the most exciting player on the field? SI’s college football make their picks for these questions and more to get you ready for the game.
Which head coach's legacy improves more with a win?
Andy Staples: Clemson's Dabo Swinney
Dabo Swinney's legacy would improve more with a win, because he doesn’t have a national title yet. Even if Nick Saban never ties Bear Bryant, he’d still be considered one of the best college football coaches ever (if not the best). A win would put Swinney into an exclusive club to which Saban already belongs.
Pete Thamel: Swinney
There’s a strong argument that Nick Saban looms as the greatest coach in college football history. Another national title would certainly cement that status. With back-to-back national title game appearances, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney is on the cusp of being mentioned with this generation’s elite coaches. Becoming the fifth active coach to win a title would put him in elite company with Saban, Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer and Jimbo Fisher. That’s why Dabo’s legacy would improve more.
Lindsay Schnell: Swinney
It has to be Dabo's because win or lose, people will still talk about Saban in "greatest ever?" conversations. Dabo, on the other hand, is right on the brink. Beating what some are hailing as the greatest defense of all time, or at least one of the greatest in recent memory, is the type of line you put at the top of your résumé. And Dabo is still pretty young (47) so this could be the first of a few titles.
Brian Hamilton: Swinney
Well, Nick Saban has won five national championships. Swinney has won five fewer than his counterpart at Alabama. This pretty much ends the discussion. Even though that sixth career title would tie Bear Bryant, Saban's status among alltime greats is fairly firmly established. Swinney still needs to get over the hump, and doing so against the master would be a colossal statement.
Joan Niesen: Swinney
Dabo is the clear answer here to me. A win would give Saban his sixth national championship, tying him with Bear Bryant. That would certainly enhance his legacy, but only incrementally. We already know he's a living legend. For Dabo, a title would be more than an incremental boost. His first championship would put him among a completely different tier of coaches.
What's the biggest difference between this year's matchup and last year's?
Andy Staples: The fear factor (or lack thereof)
Clemson, unlike most of Alabama’s opponents, won’t fear Alabama. The Tigers will respect the Crimson Tide, but there is zero chance they’ll lose getting off the bus like some of Alabama’s opponents do. After last year’s game, they’ll feel they’re on fairly even footing with the Tide. Ole Miss, the team that played Alabama the closest this season, was in a similar situation after beating Alabama in 2014 and 2015.
Pete Thamel: Alabama's offensive evolution
The full evolution of Alabama’s offense really changes the game, as the quarterback run game looms as an entirely new dimension for the Alabama offense. The other giant difference will be the disappearance of Lane Kiffin from the sideline, as Alabama scored 45 points in their title win against Clemson last year. (O.J. Howard is still running open in my memory from the last year’s title game). Does doubt creep into the Tide offense after the first three-and-out?
Lindsay Schnell: Both teams’ confidence
While Clemson didn't play intimidated last year, the Tigers have to come into Monday night with their chests puffed out because not only do they know how to score on Alabama, but they also just shut out another college football giant. The Crimson Tide, on the other hand, did not look sharp offensively against Washington (maybe that changes with Lane Kiffin gone though). All of this adds up to Clemson acting like the favorite.
Brian Hamilton: Alabama’s true freshman dual-threat quarterback
This works in two ways. On the one hand, it gives the Clemson defense another dimension to worry about, which wasn't really the case with Jake Coker when these teams last met. On the other hand, Jalen Hurts is a freshman playing for a national title against a defense that just crushed an offense led by a quarterback who once finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Joan Niesen: Alabama’s offensive changes
Alabama's offense lost Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry and gained freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. The Crimson Tide's 2015 quarterback, Jake Coker, was more of a conventional passer, whereas Hurts has been dynamic on the ground. Add in offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's departure on Monday, and to me, there's no arguing that this offense will look different than it did a year ago.
If you get one player from either roster to build a team around, who would you pick?
Andy Staples: Alabama DE Jonathan Allen
Alabama DE Jonathan Allen. He just wrecks opposing offenses, and he’s capable of playing anywhere along the defensive line.
Pete Thamel: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
This answer is simple, but it’s too obvious to ignore. Deshaun Watson was so unstoppable in last year’s national title game that Nick Saban needed to onside kick to prevent him from scoring. Saban has called Watson “the best player in college football since Cam Newton,” a high compliment that underscores how no other player on either roster can come close to Watson’s value.
Lindsay Schnell: Allen
You've seen him, right?
Brian Hamilton: Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence
Lawrence is 18 years old, weighs 345 pounds and once bench-pressed 225 pounds 30 times. He didn't record a tackle in the Fiesta Bowl, but Pat Elflein, Ohio State's All-America center, made it a point to talk with Clemson's true freshman defensive tackle after the game. "You're a monster," Elflein told Lawrence. One of the best ways to start the climb to national title contention is by deploying a massive, savage defensive line. Lawrence is massive and savage and no one is sure if he can grow a beard yet. Not a bad place to start.
Joan Niesen: Watson
It's a no-brainer. I want Watson. He's probably the best quarterback in college football (sorry, Lamar Jackson, I think I've finally changed my mind), and he's certainly the best quarterback between the two rosters, so voilà.
Which individual matchup are you most excited to watch?
Andy Staples: Alabama freshman right tackle Jonah Williams vs. Clemson DEs Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell.
Kevin Dodd feasted on former Alabama right tackle Dominick Jackson last year. Williams is a future star who should provide a lot more resistance to Clemson’s rushers.
Pete Thamel: Clemson WR Mike Williams vs. the Alabama secondary
Looking forward to watching rangy Clemson receiver Mike Williams go against the high-end Alabama secondary, which will likely mean a match-up with Minkah Fitzpatrick. Williams looked dominant against Ohio State in one-on-one coverage and snagged a sweet one-handed grab on the sideline. Williams wasn’t around last season for the College Football Playoff. Could he be the difference this year?
Lindsay Schnell: Williams vs. the Alabama secondary
If there's a "weak" part of the Tide's defense (and I use that term loosely), it's the secondary. We didn't get to see Williams in action last year due to his neck fracture, so I'm sure he's anxious to torch Alabama’s defensive backs, or at least try. The Tide do such a good job getting pressure on the quarterback though, it can be tough for receivers to get the ball in space (just ask Washington's John Ross). But Watson moves so well he should be able to find Williams on the run.
Brian Hamilton: Clemson QB Deshaun Watson vs. the Alabama secondary
The Crimson Tide defense has posted 11 scores all by itself this year. Watson has now thrown 17 interceptions on the season, but the Clemson quarterback also unleashes rocket-fueled throws that make it through the narrowest seams and into the tightest spots. Can Watson do that consistently enough to pierce a secondary that makes quarterbacks pay for even the slightest error?
Joan Niesen: Alabama DE Jonathan Allen vs. Clemson LT Mitch Hyatt
Line play is without question my favorite element of football, making this an easy answer. Allen is my favorite player to watch on the Crimson Tide, and Hyatt rarely, if ever, allows opposing rushers to get to Watson. Clemson's offensive line as a whole has been one of the best in the country, and it's young; Hyatt is a sophomore, and his counterpart of the right side of the ball, Sean Pollard, is a freshman.
Which under-the-radar player could make a huge impact?
Andy Staples: The punters
I know we’re expecting a shootout because last year’s game was a shootout, but if the score is low, the punters (JK Scott for Alabama and Andy Teasdall for Clemson) could make a huge difference. Both are excellent field flippers who could force the opposing offense to travel much farther than expected.
Pete Thamel: Alabama P J.K. Scott
One of the most valuable players for Alabama in the Peach Bowl was Scott. He averaged 45.9 yards per kick, but more impressively helped the Tide control the field position game. In the second quarter alone, he pinned Washington at the nine, 20 and four-yard line. The hunch here is this year’s title game is less of a shootout, which will make Scott a big factor.
Lindsay Schnell: Clemson WR Hunter Renfrow
Renfrow did it last year, so why not again?
Brian Hamilton: Alabama TE O.J. Howard
Howard might not be under the radar to Clemson, as he hauled in five catches for 208 yards with two scores in the national title game a year ago. But the Alabama tight end goes into Tampa with 41 catches and just two touchdowns all season. He had four receptions against Washington in the Peach Bowl, suggesting the Crimson Tide might be trying to relocate the 6'6", 251-pound senior. You wonder if he'll be the same threat he was last year against the Tigers' linebacker corps.
Joan Niesen: Clemson LT Mitch Hyatt
I feel like I'm the queen of repetition here, but Hyatt stands out to me. If he can keep Jonathan Allen away from Deshaun Watson, that could be a major key to the game for Clemson. Sure, Alabama's defense has multiple weapons, but if Hyatt can neutralize perhaps its most threatening and allow Watson to do his thing, the Tigers have a real chance.
Which statistic could prove key to the outcome?
Andy Staples: Alabama's defensive touchdowns
It’s Alabama’s 15 non-offensive touchdowns. As Washington tailback Myles Gaskin so astutely pointed out before the Peach Bowl, those touchdowns seem to infuse every phase of Alabama’s game with more energy.
Pete Thamel: Alabama's passing yardage
Alabama has the No. 81 passing offense in the country. (Interesting nugget, Ohio State’s is No. 82). Obviously, Steve Sarkisian’s first Alabama gameplan will be run heavy after the Tide neglected Bo Scarbrough in the semi-finals. But Alabama is going to need some semblance of a pass game from Jalen Hurts, as Clemson is going to load the box and dare the Tide to beat them over the top.
Lindsay Schnell: Kickoff and punt return yards
Do not underestimate the value of kickoff and punt returns. Either can turn a game, like it did for Alabama last year with Kenyan Drake's 95-yard kick return touchdown. It seems unlikely that in the rematch someone else would take a kickoff or punt all the way to the house, but just a long return that sets up a score could flip the game quickly.
Brian Hamilton: Red-zone touchdowns
Clemson's defense has surrendered 21 touchdowns on 36 opponent trips into the red zone. Alabama surrendered eight touchdowns on a remarkably minuscule 21 opponent trips into the red zone. If either offense can even make it that far, and if it can somehow cross the goal line instead of settling for field goals when it does, the odds of winning might skyrocket.
Joan Niesen: Turnover margin
Alabama's +8 turnover margin on the season stands out to me. Clemson is just +1 in the same category, and Watson threw 17 interceptions this year, which is no small number for a player who was in serious contention for the Heisman. If Alabama can force a few turnovers and hold onto the ball itself, that'll go a long way toward guaranteeing a win.