TAMPA — Alabama comes to Tampa with aspirations to burnish its dynastic résumé. The Crimson Tide, who have won 26 straight games, could win their fifth national title in eight seasons and help coach Nick Saban tie Bear Bryant by securing a sixth national title.
Clemson arrives here with goals to begin establishing itself in the same elite conversations with Alabama. The Tigers haven’t won a national title since 1981 and bungled last year’s title game with careless special teams. Now they hope to made coach Dabo Swinney the fifth active coach with a national title.
The collision of dynasty destiny and plucky spoiler makes for a compelling title game. Alabama (14–0) has been slotted as a touchdown favorite for the game, with it buzzsaw defensive ends, marauding tailback and a tight end who projects as a first-round pick. Clemson has the best player on the field in quarterback Deshaun Watson and boasts an equally disruptive defensive front along with a unique weapon to stretch the defense in receiver Mike Williams.
So who is going to win? Sports Illustrated reached out to eight coaches and NFL scouts, who traded anonymity for their honesty to break down the game. The resulting opinions were much closer than the Vegas line, and just five of the eight picked Alabama. With the action turning from the drama of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s departure and onto the field, here are the factors that will determine Monday night’s title game according to those who know both teams the best.
Clemson’s glaring weakness
It’s a scary proposition for Clemson that Alabama’s defensive line, the team’s definitive strength, is matched up with Clemson’s obvious soft spot.
Said one assistant familiar with Clemson: “The offensive line is a weak link for sure. Two years ago I thought they were not very good. This year at times they’ve played a little better. They need Watson running on the perimeter to negate their offensive line.”
Said another: “Their right tackle [Sean Pollard] is atrocious. I think Wayne Gallman is a special back, and he’s proven that. But they’re not going to be able to go up and down the field and hand it off to move the chains.”
Alabama’s glaring weakness
It will be interesting to see if Clemson is able to incorporate anything that Washington did to slow down Alabama’s offense. An NFL scout pointed out an intriguing trend with Huskies opponents. After Washington clamped down on Washington State (45–17), it left a blueprint for Minnesota to do the same (17–12 in the Holiday Bowl). Same with Colorado, which Washington beat 41–10 before Oklahoma State thumped 38–8 in the Alamo Bowl.
The Huskies defense really only gave up 17 points in the Peach Bowl, as a pick-six turned the game in the waning moments of the first half and put Washington in a 10-point deficit that felt insurmountable. The issue with Clemson borrowing the gameplan from the Huskies, the scout said, is that Clemson plays an exotic and blitz-heavy college defense whereas Washington plays more of a structured NFL defense.
Any Clemson gameplan will revolve around forcing freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts to beat the Tigers with his arm. “The guy can’t throw,” the scout said. “He can’t throw. I think they’re going to struggle. He’s a below average thrower. If Clemson jumps out to a two-score lead, they may be the ones scoring on defense instead of Alabama.”
A key statistic here: Alabama’s passing offense is No. 81 nationally, one spot ahead of Ohio State, which got exposed in the semi-finals as being one-dimensional.
Key to stopping Alabama
An NFL scout who studied Alabama closely this year pointed out the importance of the jet sweep, a Lane Kiffin innovation in the offense, to their repertoire. “The jet sweep is the first thing you have to stop because that sets up their play action. They give the jet sweep away by their formation, which Washington figured out and ran a trap defense to the field. That eliminated Alabama from any success with perimeter runs.”
Washington’s gameplan focused on essentially baiting Hurts to throw downfield, as the Huskies appeared to respect his arm strength but not his accuracy. After Washington safety Budda Baker dropped an interception, the Crimson Tide essentially didn’t throw the ball past five yards for the rest of the game.
Another opposing assistant who played Alabama late in the year pointed out that half of Hurts’s attempts were completed at or behind the line of scrimmage. “If Clemson gets a two-score lead, Alabama won’t be able to come back,” said the scout, who predicted a Clemson victory.
Key to stopping Clemson
One assistant who has studied both teams closely pointed to an evolution in Alabama’s defense this season. He said the Tide’s success in scoring 11 defensive touchdowns can be linked to the ability of elite rushers Tim Williams (9 sacks and 16 tackles for loss), Jonathan Allen (9.5 sacks and 15 TFLs) and Ryan Anderson (8.0 sacks, 17 TFLs) to pressure the quarterback. “They get there in three seconds or less, every single time,” the coach said. “They don’t have to blitz you.”
By rushing four or five guys, the Tide have been able to use exotic pass coverages, knowing the quarterback will be harried into bad decisions. They get to the quarterback within three seconds nearly every snap.
Alabama failed miserably to slow down Watson last season. He completed 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards with four touchdowns and one interception and rushed for 73 more yards. The Tide need to be able to pressure him more consistently in order to halt the Tigers.
“They’re not as good as they’ve been on the back end, other than Minkah Fitzpatrick,” the coach said. “But they look better because they don’t have to blitz you. They’ve had better defensive talent and better defenses, but this one just rushes the passer and covers with six or seven guys.”
The Sark factor
No topic got more varied answers than the one regarding the impact of handing over play calling from Lane Kiffin to Steve Sarkisian. That’s not surprising, as it’s an unprecedented move by Saban. Imagine if a college basketball coach jettisoned his top assistant coach the Sunday night of the Final Four between the semifinals and the title game, and that coach was in charge of half of the gameplan. There’s just no way to quantify it.
The discussion led to some fascinating insight on play calling, something often discussed but rarely understood by fans and media.
One play caller familiar with the teams summed it up this way: “It could be an utter disaster. It could be awesome.”
Another coach familiar with both teams offered this: “I don’t think it’s as big of a deal as most people. He’s been there all season. He comes from the same tree. He knows the language. The plays will be the same. Can’t tweak much in a week.”
Others, however, thought it would be a big deal. “You can be rusty now,” a veteran play caller said. “It’s game one and if it takes you a quarter to figure it out, it may be too late. They’re going to run the same stuff, but there’s a different feel and way of doing things. From what I saw, Lane communicated a lot and checked a lot from the sideline. They didn’t want to put a lot on [Hurts].”
A defensive coach familiar with Kiffin over the years found him predictable and said this move eliminates any tendency studies Clemson can do. He hinted that the surprise element could be an advantage for Alabama. (Sarkisian’s tendencies, coaches said, are an affinity for bootleg throws into the flat and tight splits for difficult coverage angles).
The key word coaches used was “rhythm.” Sarkisian hasn’t called a game since USC’s 2014 Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska (he turned over play calling duties to Clay Helton at the start of the 2015 season). Sarkisian admitted that he’d be naïve to think there wouldn’t be “a couple of glitches,” as listening in on the head set and commanding the offense are radically different things.
Will he get tight in a big spot? What happens if Alabama opens with a turnover or a few three-and-outs? It’s the most fascinating subplot of this game. “I think Steve will do a great job,” former LSU coach Les Miles said. “I don’t think that the size of the game will get to him. He’ll melt it all down and put himself in a position. Hey, this is what we call. He’s been there a year.”
Most important matchups
One of the defining traits of Saban’s Crimson Tide defense is he essentially forces offenses to adjust to them. They don’t adjust to offenses. There’s one player in the title game that can alter that notion—Clemson receiver Mike Williams.
Last year, Williams missed the title game with a neck injury. (Speedy receiver Deon Cain was suspended and missed the title game as well). Williams caught 90 balls this season, 10 of which went for touchdowns. He averaged 14.1 yards per catch and is considered a lock to go in the first round of the NFL draft.
Multiple coaches pointed to how Alabama covers Williams as the game’s key matchup. “I don’t think Alabama can match up with Mike Williams in a single safety look,” a coach said. “I don’t think anyone can.”
But will the Tide change their defense to stop him? A great indicator of how the Williams matchup is going for Alabama will be what types of catches he makes. One coach had a theory: If Alabama softens its press coverage on him, a change of strategy, and lets him catch balls in front of him they’ll have a better chance to win. “If he has 100 yards, but it’s not downfield, it’s in small chunks of yards, that will be good for Alabama.”
Basically, if Clemson is able to connect downfield and disrupt the Alabama defense, it will be a harbinger of victory for the Tigers.
Clemson’s biggest concern, other than tackling Bo Scarbrough, will be tracking Tide tight O.J. Howard. He caught five balls for 208 yards and two touchdowns last year, as the Tigers essentially left him uncovered the entire game.