It’s easy to get caught up in the big picture of a national title matchup like Alabama’s showdown with Clemson on Monday. Nick Saban vs. Dabo Swinney! Clemson’s explosive offense vs. Alabama’s shutdown defense!
Those are exciting, to be sure, but they tell you little about what will actually shape the game’s outcome. What strengths can Saban and Swinney play to that will give their respective teams an edge? What aspects of the Crimson Tide’s defense need to shine to stall the Tigers’ attack?
Let’s look at some of the most critical battles on both sides of the ball that could determine who hoists the championship trophy in Tampa on Monday night.
Alabama RT Jonah Williams vs. Clemson DE Clelin Ferrell
Kevin Dodd is the rare Alabama opponent who can thank the Crimson Tide for making him some money. Dodd dominated in last year’s championship, racking up three sacks and a ridiculous 10 QB pressures, according to CFBFilmRoom.com. That performance helped him go No. 33 overall in the NFL draft.
Fortunately for Clemson, even if Clelin Ferrell produces anything approaching Dodd’s numbers, the redshirt freshman is still stuck with the Tigers for at least one more year. Ferrell shined in Clemson’s Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State, recording a sack and three tackles for loss.
Now he prepares to battle Alabama right tackle Jonathan Williams. Williams earning a starting tackle spot at Alabama as a true freshman speaks to his talent, but he remains perhaps the closest thing to a vulnerability on a stout Crimson Tide offensive line. However, he has improved rapidly over the course of the season and was the second highest graded player on Alabama’s offense in its Peach Bowl win over Washington, according Pro Football Focus.
The battle on the opposite side of the line between Clemson’s Christian Wilkins and Alabama’s Cam Robinson may draw more attention due its star power, but Dodd showed last year how critical the right tackle/left end duel can be. It may also be the Tigers’ best shot to get consistent pressure on quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Alabama QB Jalen Hurts vs. Clemson pass rush
Speaking of Hurts, Alabama’s true freshman passer has the most significant challenge of the game. For the Crimson Tide to establish a rhythm offensively, they need Hurts to force Clemson to at least respect Alabama’s aerial attack. What puts this in jeopardy is the Tigers’ loaded pass rush, which ranks third in the country in sacks with 49 this season. With Ferrell, Wilkins, Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence, Clemson’s defensive line is loaded with talent capable of getting into the backfield.
Hurts has generally been solid if not elite for Alabama this season but has struggled greatly when forced to throw in a hurry. He’s completed just 23.7% of his passes when under pressure and throwing at least five yards downfield, according to CFBFilmRoom.com. Barring total defensive domination by Alabama (possible but not likely), Hurts will have to be better for the Crimson Tide to win. If he gets rattled by the Tigers’ rushers, Alabama’s offense will be reduced to a predictable pattern of runs that Clemson will eventually stop. To put up the points to win, the Crimson Tide will need more than that.
Clemson WRs vs. Alabama secondary
Is this a bit of a copout picking Clemson’s entire wide receivers corps and Alabama’s entire secondary? Perhaps, but ultimately winning one battle in the passing game won’t mean much for the Crimson Tide if they lose other battles.
Marlon Humphrey draws the toughest assignment, as he’ll likely have to battle with Tigers star Mike Williams (90 catches, 1,267 yards, 10 touchdowns this season), but as Clemson showed in last year’s title game, it can burn the Crimson Tide plenty with its less-heralded receivers. So even if Humphrey plays an exceptional game and shuts down Williams, it won’t matter if Hunter Renfrow or Jordan Leggett goes wild. For Alabama to contain Clemson’s passing attack, each member of the secondary must win its assignments. The Tigers have too many weapons and Deshaun Watson is too good of a distributor for anything less.