- Trevor Lawrence's play at quarterback paired with a wildly talented defense has made Clemson into an even scarier version of the Deshaun Watson teams that went toe-to-toe with Alabama in two national championships.
Clemson Tigers vs. Alabama Crimson Tide (-6)
Mon., January 7, 8:00 p.m. ET
Three things to know before betting on Clemson-Alabama:
1. The College Football Playoff national title game most people expected is a matchup of a pair of powerhouses squaring off in the CFP for the fourth consecutive season. In the 2015 National Championship, Clemson covered as a 6.5-point underdog in a 45-40 loss. The next season, as a 6.5-point 'dog again, the Tigers pulled off the upset in a thrilling 35-31 championship victory. And last year, in a semifinal game, the Tide won and covered as 3.5-point favorites in a 24-6 victory.
Thanks to the emergence of freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, this year's Clemson team looks more like the Deshaun Watson-led groups than last year's team with Kelly Bryant behind center. The Tide dominated opponents all season long, but so did the Tigers, and Clemson offers bettors value as an underdog of nearly a touchdown. Since the start of the 2014 season, underdogs of between 3.5 and 10 points coming off a game in which they gained at least 525 total yards are 38-12 against the spread in contests between teams that are outgaining opponents by an average of at least 100 total yards per game. Over the same time frame, neutral field underdogs outrushing their opponents by an average of 100 or more yards per game on the season are 35-10 ATS.
Head coach Dabo Swinney's Clemson teams have gone an impressive 75-58 against the spread since he took over as head coach midway through the 2008 season, and they have done especially well for bettors in situations that are similar to this year's CFP national title game matchup. Swinney's Tigers are 17-9 ATS as an underdog, which includes a 12-4 ATS mark as an underdog of between 3.5 and 10 points. They're 6-1 ATS when playing with at least eight days rest, and their 14-5 ATS record on neutral fields includes an 8-2 ATS mark as a neutral field underdog.
2. Lawrence has been outstanding since becoming the Tigers' full-time starter at quarterback in late September, and he showed in Clemson’s 30-3 blowout of Notre Dame in the semifinal last weekend that he’s capable of performing on the national stage. Against the best defense he had faced all season, Lawrence completed 27 of 39 passes for three touchdowns and no interceptions. Both he and sophomore running back Travis Etienne (1,572 rushing yards on 8.3 yards per carry this season) will enter next season among the favorites to win the 2019 Heisman Trophy.
Alabama's defense has shown over its past two games that it can be scored upon by top-tier offenses like Clemson's. The Tide allowed Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm to throw for 301 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in its 35-28 SEC Championship Game win, and allowed Oklahoma's Kyler Murray to throw for 308 yards, two touchdowns and no picks in its 45-34 semifinal victory. Despite winning both games, Alabama covered the spread in neither.
3. The best defenses Alabama has faced have been able to slow the Tide’s attack. Tua Tagovailoa posted his two lowest regular-season quarterback rating numbers in shutout wins over LSU and Mississippi State (129.5 and 138.5, respectively), and he had his worst outing of the season against Georgia in the SEC Championship, completing 10 of 25 passes for 164 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions before leaving the game with an injury.
Alabama has yet to face a defense this season that is as formidable as Clemson’s, which is allowing 4.05 yards per play and 12.9 points per game. The Tigers’ impressive combination of talent and depth was on display against Notre Dame, as a starting defensive line featuring four future NFLers was down one of its stars due to the suspension of DT Dexter Lawrence; replacing him was Albert Huggins, a former four-star recruit and a projected future draft pick. Even without Lawrence, Clemson was able to sack Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book six times and hold running back Dexter Williams, who had rushed for at least 97 yards in five of his eight games this season, to only 54 yards on 16 carries.
Alabama has only faced one elite, well-balanced team this season in Georgia, and it very nearly lost. Clemson may or may not be able to knock off the Tide outright, but is a strong bet to keep this game very close.
Pick: Clemson +6
Confidence Level: High (on a scale of Low/Moderate/High/Very High/Extremely High)