Four Factors That Will Decide Who Wins the 2018 Sugar Bowl

The matchup is the same, but the X-factors have changed as Alabama and Clemson stand in each other’s way of a title for the third straight year.
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Most college football fans were probably either overjoyed or aggravated by the College Football Playoff selection committee’s decision to slot No. 4 Alabama alongside No. 1 Clemson in the final four. The former camp is giddy over the prospect of watching the last two national champions trade blows on the sport’s grandest stage again (only one round earlier), while the latter group would have preferred to see some new blood in the title picture.

Wherever you stand, the Sugar Bowl is enticing enough even without taking into account the recent history between the Crimson Tide and the Tigers. Both look capable of winning it all, but a blowout doesn’t feel totally out of the realm of possibility, either. Here are four things to watch when they meet in New Orleans on Monday night.

Kelly Bryant’s playmaking

The quarterback piloting Clemson’s offense this season doesn’t pose as large a passing threat as the one that did the previous two seasons (two-time Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson), but while Alabama is doubtless relieved Watson decided to leave for the NFL this offseason, the Crimson Tide haven’t faced many playmakers as advanced as Bryant this season.

The 6'4", 220-pound junior is a powerful downhill runner who can make defenders miss when he’s flushed from the pocket, and the Tigers can keep his legs fresh by feeding a bevy of capable tailbacks: true freshman Travis Etienne, sophomore Tavien Feaster and redshirt juniors Adam Choice and C.J. Fuller, two of whom (Etienne and Feaster) have combined to average 6.8 yards per carry. And Bryant shouldn’t be dismissed as an ineffective thrower. He’s only a few weeks removed from dicing up Miami’s stingy defense for 252 yards and a touchdown on 23-of-29 passing, including a 15-for-15 stretch to open the game, in a 35-point win to take the ACC championship.

Surrendering huge gains through the air shouldn’t be Alabama’s primary concern; Bryant ranked ninth among qualifying ACC quarterbacks in completions longer than 10 yards this season. But give him time to survey the field, and Bryant could pick the Crimson Tide apart with quick darts to keep the chains moving. One thing’s for sure: Alabama doesn’t need a reminder of how important it is that it doesn’t leave Hunter Renfrow open. He’s been targeted 69 times this season, second only to fellow junior Deon Cain (80) among Clemson wideouts.

How thin is Alabama’s linebacking corps?

The Crimson Tide have sustained their dynasty by filling the roster with four- and five-star recruits year after year, but they’re not immune to depth chart attrition, and one area of their defense in particular looks shaky as they enter the closing stretch of the season. A possible campaign-ending foot injury to true freshman Dylan Moses, reportedly suffered during a practice earlier this month, is the latest blow for a linebacker corps that has seen a handful of important contributors go down for periods of varying length, including senior Shaun Dion Hamilton (kneecap), redshirt junior Christian Miller (biceps) and sophomore Terrell Lewis (elbow).

Alabama can take comfort in Miller, Lewis and sophomore Mack Wilson (foot) nearing full strength for the Sugar Bowl. (Stud junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, who suffered a hamstring injury against LSU in early November, also will welcome the extended layoff.) And there’s enough talent and depth on this defense to compensate, including at linebacker, where senior Rashaan Evans took home second-team all-conference honors after racking up 10.5 tackles for loss. Yet Alabama’s defensive dominance under Nick Saban has been so unrelenting that we’ve become inured to it. The expectation is that the Crimson Tide can cycle players in and out of the lineup without losing anything in the exchange. For the most part, that line of thinking has been spot on, but this much shuffling could be costly at the margins, and against an opponent like Clemson with the playmakers to take advantage, it might be the difference between a close win and a stinging defeat.

Clemson’s defensive line

One position unit could turn this game in Clemson’s favor. Not even Alabama, which has mechanized the process by which blue-chip defensive line recruits come to Tuscaloosa to be groomed into NFL draft picks, can match the Tigers’ stable of trench behemoths. End Clelin Ferrell and tackle tandem Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence were worthy first-team All-ACC selections, and second-team end Austin Bryant might have joined them had NC State’s Bradley Chubb not produced at such a high level all season.

No one program should be able to assemble a group of massive human beings who can move so gracefully, with such purpose and coordination, to blow up opponents’ game plans. That Clemson did attests to its growing stature as a destination for elite high school defensive linemen—the No. 1 strong side defensive end (Xavier Thomas) and No. 3 weak side defensive end (KJ Henry) in the class of 2018, according to the 247Sports Composite, signed with the Tigers this month. In the short term, it’s bad news for a Crimson Tide team that will have little recourse if it can’t count on tailbacks Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs to keep the offense on schedule.

If Wilkins and Lawrence can clog up Alabama’s running lanes to force it into obvious passing situations, Ferrell, Bryant and the rest of the Tigers’ pass rushers can chase Hurts toward the sidelines, rush him into ill-advised throws or get to him before he’s able to release the ball. There’s no clear-cut formula for neutralizing Clemson’s front. Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Brian Daboll can only hope to minimize the chaos it creates.

Can Alabama hit any home runs?

Hurts has taken a lot of heat for his perceived shortcomings as a passer during his two seasons as Alabama’s QB1, but he has tossed only one interception in 2017 (against Arkansas in the middle of October), and he ranks sixth in ESPN’s comprehensive Total QBR metric. Hurts isn’t the sort of pinpoint dime-dropper that Oklahoma rode to the playoff this season, but he’s a reliable caretaker of the offense who makes enough plays with his legs to keep defenses on their toes, and Clemson can’t discount the possibility that he’ll connect with one of his receivers for a game-breaking bomb.

Alabama ranks 11th in the country in Football Study Hall’s Passing IsoPPP, a metric that measures explosiveness, and only one SEC signal-caller (Missouri’s Drew Lock, who had eight) completed more passes of 60 yards or more than Hurts (five). The Tigers won’t sleep on first-round draft prospect Calvin Ridley, whom the Crimson Tide have targeted 59 more times than any other wideout this season, but true freshman Henry Ruggs III gives Hurts a legit home run threat: Five of Ruggs’s seven receptions this season have gone for touchdowns, and he’s averaging 25 yards per catch.

But don’t be surprised if Ruggs isn’t involved against Clemson. Alabama has thrown the ball his way only 14 times all year, and he recorded no catches in two of the Crimson Tide’s last three games. Either way, Alabama won’t feel as comfortable taking deep shots if it’s stuck settling for short pickups on the ground, so it’s crucial that either Hurts or Alabama’s tailbacks provide a reliable source of early-down offense.