View from Campus: Why Clemson will top Alabama to finish undefeated and win the College Football Playoff
Standing at 14–0, Clemson has made it to college football's biggest stage after a decisive 37–17 victory over Oklahoma. With the Tigers on the verge of making history as the first team to ever finish 15–0, Clemson has plenty of reasons why it will emerge victorious over Alabama.
For Clemson, it all starts with quarterback Deshaun Watson. With over 3,500 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards, Watson is the dual threat that drives Clemson's offense. With much of Clemson's offense structured around read option plays, the decision of whether to throw the ball or keep it and run often falls to Watson. This makes defending him difficult for any defense, even one as disciplined as Alabama, which has struggled against spread offenses.
But Clemson's offense relies on more than just Watson.
Many thought that the suspension of deep threat Deon Cain would limit the Tigers' passing game. The problem with that, however, is that the Tigers have a variety of options. Artavis Scott leads Clemson in receptions (89) and receiving yards (868) and is tied for second on the team with five touchdowns. Charone Peake is a steady possession receiver with 617 yards and five touchdowns. Former walk-on Hunter Renfrow provides matchup opportunities as a slot receiver, and is often a reliable safety valve for Watson. Tight end Jordan Leggett, who leads Clemson with seven touchdown catches, is also a dangerous threat in the red zone.
If people did some digging into Clemson's defensive line history, they would see that Clemson has a penchant for producing quality defensive linemen (the Tigers have seven active defensive linemen on NFL rosters). And this Clemson defensive front is just as steady as its predecessors. With Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd at defensive end, the Tigers have two excellent pass rushers off the edge. Even if Lawson is limited or unable to suit up, freshman Austin Bryant proved to be a reliable option.
On the interior, the Tigers boast a formidable unit of Carlos Watkins, Scott Pagano, DJ Reader, and true freshman Christian Wilkins, who made headlines for the 31-yard catch he made on Clemson's fake punt against Oklahoma. Joined by a pair of run stuffing linebackers in BJ Goodson and Ben Boulware, Clemson has the ability to limit Derrick Henry on the ground just as it did Florida State's Dalvin Cook (outside of the first quarter), North Carolina's Elijah Hood, and Sooner running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon.
Clemson also boasts perhaps the best secondary in the nation, headlined by cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse. Over the course of their 17-game win streak, dating back to last season, the Tigers have kept receivers like Notre Dame's Will Fuller and Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard out of the end zone and limited their big play abilities. Kearse, at 6' 4", 210 pounds, is a tall, rangy safety that plays everywhere on the field. He can play close to the line of scrimmage, where he often acts as a spy, an extra pass rusher, or help in run support. Meanwhile, Alexander is Clemson's best cover corner, and is certain to shade Calvin Ridley all night long.
Does Alabama have enough explosiveness on offense if Alexander limits Ridley? Clemson has proven its ability to limit big plays for opposing offenses, and Alabama may not have the firepower should their best receiving threat become unable to create separation from the Tigers' aggressive secondary. At the end of the day, Alabama has proven itself quite a talented team, especially defensively, but Clemson has repeatedly stepped up to teams in the big moments.
When the dust settles Monday, there's a pretty good chance the college football world will celebrate the first 15–0 team in the sport's history.
Colby Lanham is SI's campus correspondent for Clemson University. Follow him on Twitter.