For both Alabama and Clemson, their national title game opponent will be the toughest they face all season. So what helped get both teams to this point suddenly may not work. Will the Tigers be able to establish a running game against Alabama’s defensive front? Will Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt find the right game plan to limit Deshaun Watson? How will new Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian fare in his debut?
All of those questions are fair game. Establishing where the Crimson Tide and the Tigers have an advantage could help provide some answers, so let’s get to the position-by-position breakdown.
One quarterback is a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and one of the most prolific collegiate players of the decade. The other is a true freshman. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is a true game changer who paralyzes opposing defenses with his running abilities, is advanced with both his intermediate and deep throws and who can stiff-arm just about any linebacker if he needs a few extra yards for a first down. Over the past two seasons, he’s passed for over 8,000 yards and 73 touchdowns and run 1,691 more with 20 scores. He might be the game’s most elite player even though he never won the Heisman. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts is advanced for a true freshman, but he’s struggled on deep passes and getting the ball into the hands of two talented vertical receivers (Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart). Hurts is good and will be a top player by either next season or his junior year, but for now, this decision is easy.
Alabama throttled Washington in the Peach Bowl behind its suffocating defense and a star performance from running back Bo Scarbrough. Scarbrough finished the game with 19 carries, 180 yards and two touchdowns, but one of the primary postgame talking points was that he didn’t get the ball enough. That decision might have cost Lane Kiffin his job as offensive coordinator before the title game (head coach Nick Saban called it a “mutual decision” in a statement that nobody believed) and was the most confounding bit of play calling from Kiffin since he didn’t run Derrick Henry enough in the 2015 Sugar Bowl against Ohio State. Scarbrough gashed a formidable Washington front seven and recorded one of the finest touchdown runs in College Football Playoff history, yet the Crimson Tide offense spent most of the game struggling to find tempo and bouncing passes. Scarbrough’s 2016 production was limited (he wasn’t a consistent option until Alabama’s final two regular-season games), but he showcased a bruising style against Washington and proved he should be the focal point of Alabama’s offensive game plan.
Clemson running back Wayne Gallman has spent most of his collegiate career overlooked. He’s compiled back-to-back 1,000-yard-rushing seasons and improved over the last four games of 2016 after struggling through the middle of the season. Gallman is a great option to pace Tigers’ attack and spread the defense out since Alabama will be busy trying to contain Watson and his host of receiving threats. The 6’0”, 210-pound back is a strong rusher who could surprise, but no running back is successful against an Alabama defense that surrenders under 70 yards rushing per game. Just ask Washington’s Myles Gaskin and the remnants of every running back before him.
Alabama’s Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart are legitimate game-breakers. Ridley showed his outstanding vertical abilities during last year’s playoff, and Stewart is a shifty weapon who can be deployed in the slot and out wide. Stewart is a toy that Sarkisian will want to use; it’s conceivable that Sark will draw up several inside screens to get Stewart into space similar to how he used wide receiver Nelson Agholor at USC. That should take pressure off of Hurts, who has struggled making intermediate throws, and Scarbrough, who the Bama fan base wants to see tote the ball at least 25 times. If Stewart can become an integral part of the Tide’s offense in the title game and Ridley is opened up for a couple of successful deep shots, there’s a strong chance the Tide blow this one open. That will require Hurts to complete the throws that he’s struggled to execute for most of the season. Neither Ridley nor Stewart were used effectively against Washington, and the Alabama offense was an unfettered mess outside of Scarbrough. The Tide will also target graduate transfer Gehrig Dieter for a couple of short first downs to keep drives going.
Clemson’s receiving corps is a terrifying lot for any opposing defense to cover. The Tigers have one of the most complete wide receivers (Mike Williams), who didn’t play in last year’s title game due to a neck fracture and finished this season with 1,267 yards and 12 touchdowns. Williams is big and physical enough to overwhelm Alabama’s oversized cornerbacks, better in the air than most college receivers, and has the hands and reach to stick back-shoulder throws for first downs. After him come the speedsters (Deon Cain and Artavis Scott) who are threats to take a screen for a big gain and will be utilized to find open space—or whatever space Alabama allows. Cain is another Tigers receiver who missed last year’s title game (due to disciplinary reasons) and offers a wrinkle that makes the 2016 Clemson offense more effective than the 2015 edition. Add in not-so-secret weapon Hunter Renfrow, who gashed the Tide defense for 88 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s title game, and you get a sense of how deep the Tigers’ receiving unit is. Don’t forget about Ray Ray McCloud, another speedster who has been quiet recently, but has similar big-play abilities.
This category is separated from receivers because this game features two surefire NFL players with big bodies and sure hands. Alabama’s O.J. Howard was the star of last year’s title game, logging five catches for 208 yards with two touchdowns after a quiet regular season. He had another middling regular season this year (489 receiving yards, one touchdown), but he seldom drops passes and is an excellent red zone target. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables will be keen to not let Howard burn his defense a second time, but that hardly undermines the quality threat that Howard is when he’s locked in.
Tigers tight end Jordan Leggett is one of Watson’s favorite targets. For a big player, he can break open long run, and he’s is similarly surehanded. Leggett was quiet in the semifinal against Ohio State (one catch, four yards), but showcased his strengths in the ACC title game against Virginia Tech with two touchdowns, including a 21-yard scoring grab that required outsprinting a speedy Hokies secondary. Because Alabama’s pass rush is so ferocious, Clemson may resort to dumping short passes off to Leggett and Renfrow early just to keep the pressure off of Watson. Leggett will be essential to the Tigers’ chances of pulling the upset.
Alabama’s line is as thin as it has been since its dominant run over the past six years, but it’s still a sturdy unit with one of the game’s best left tackles, Cam Robinson. Communication between the line and Hurts was bad during the Peach Bowl, causing the Tide to take two uncharacteristic delay-of-game penalties and triggering a meltdown from Saban. Alabama still blew enough holes in a top Washington front seven to open up Scarbrough’s career game.
Clemson’s line is very young (its left tackle, Mitch Hyatt, is a sophomore and right tackle, Sean Pollard, is a freshman), and it will receive the test of its career against Alabama’s front seven. The Tigers have protected Watson well for most of the season, but there is no comparing any opponent to the Tide. Watson will mitigate some of the Tide’s pressure with designed runs and his ability to make plays on the run, but that won’t make life any easier on his line. Their job, simply, is to keep Watson upright as often as possible. There is virtually no chance they’ll be able to open up lanes for Gallman because, well, nobody can at the collegiate level.
These are the nation’s two best defensive lines and there is little, if any criticism to levy at either. Alabama has the nation’s best defensive player (Jonathan Allen) and is joined by two violent pass-rushers in Tim Williams (an outside linebacker who blitzes often) and Dalvin Tomlinson. Add in former No. 1 overall recruit Da’Shawn Hand and sophomore Da’Ron Payne on the interior, and there’s no escape for any offense. Nobody runs effectively on the Tide, and they deliver frequent bone-crushing hits and invade the backfield several times per series. The defensive line is a key spark driving Alabama’s penchant for turning turnovers into touchdowns (the defense has 11 scores this season), too. They are, literally, an awesome group.
Copy and paste that description for Clemson, a ludicrously deep bunch that features three mammoth interior linemen (Carlos Watkins, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence) and a defensive end (Clelin Ferrell) who spent the whole Fiesta Bowl terrorizing Ohio State. Lawrence and Ferrell are freshmen, mind you. At the risk of being lazy, there is little to say about each group other than that they are the best, they will tear up the opposing offensive lines, stuff running backs inside and keep each quarterback on the run. Take the time to ignore the ball on a couple plays and watch just how overpowering they are.
Edge: Alabama (barely)
While Allen has received all the plaudits as Alabama’s best defensive player, linebacker Reuben Foster may be the most valuable asset the Tide have. What sounds like heresy isn’t too far off. Foster is a powerful, sideline-to-sideline playmaker who blows up the run better than any other linebacker in the country and seldom misses a tackle on short passes. He’s supported by outside linebackers Ryan Anderson and Williams, two lithe, powerful players who have been among of the Tide’s best turnover creators this year, to make this yet another Bama unit that has no weaknesses. Part of the problem with playing Alabama is its defense is never out of position and never blows coverages. The veteran linebacker play is a key reason for that success.
Clemson’s unit is anchored by bearded maniac Ben Boulware, an excitable middle linebacker who led the Tigers with 110 tackles. He and fellow linebacker Kendall Joseph, the primary run defender of the group, lead a sturdy unit that played its best game of the season in its shutout of Ohio State. While Boulware and Joseph are the tackling machines, SAM linebacker Dorian O’Daniel may be the most versatile of the group and best equipped to handle Alabama’s short-range passing game. This is a deep and effective group, even if it pales in comparison to Alabama’s.
Alabama is great everywhere, but this is where the Tide are most susceptible defensively. Defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick is one of the best around, but he was shredded by Renfrow for a large chunk of last year’s title game. Marlon Humphrey is a surefire first-round pick (some mock drafts have him going in the top 10), but he will face a daunting challenge if he’s assigned to cover Williams or Scott. It’s hardly an indictment of the group, but Clemson has so many weapons, that holes are bound to open (I think). Like the rest of the Tide defense, the secondary is outstanding; it just faces a challenge like it hasn’t seen all season.
The Tigers are led by cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, who logged two tough interceptions in the ACC title game and is one of the premiere shutdown corners in the conference. Tankersley is aggressive and opportunistic and a good bet for a big play. The Clemson safeties may be the key to this unit’s success. Jadar Johnson is bulky strong safety who flies downhill and is capable of huge hits. Sophomore free safety Van Smith is a sure tackler whose versatility allows Venables to move him around the defense. It’s a deep group, but it just may not be good as Alabama’s.
There is an obvious answer to this question. One coach has five national titles and made the call of the century with a game-altering onside kick last year. The other coach has taken a program once known for big-game failures and turned it into one of college football’s blue bloods. Dabo Swinney’s legacy would be secured with a victory in this game, but it’d be foolish to say he’s a better coach than Nick Saban. Even Swinney would tell you that.