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National Championship Game Preview: Four Key Storylines for Alabama vs. Clemson Part IV

Alabama vs. Clemson is set, once again. With the national title on the line, what will be the keys this time around for the familiar foes?

The championship is set, and to no one’s surprise, the game that everyone thought would happen back in August came to fruition.

The College Football Playoff national title game will have top-seeded Alabama against second-seeded Clemson, the fourth year in a row that the two teams are playing in the playoff and the third time they are battling for the title.

The Crimson Tide, who will be making their seventh appearance in a title game in the last 10 seasons, earned their way to Santa Clara by using a big first half to beat Oklahoma 45–34 in the Orange Bowl, while Clemson overwhelmed and outclassed Notre Dame 30–3.

Here are some of the top storylines to go over before the game is played on Jan. 7.

LITMAN: Clemson Explodes Past Notre Dame Into Title Game

Is Trevor Lawrence ever going to look like a freshman?

If Alabama wants to defend its national championship, it must stop Lawrence, who hasn’t had a bad game since taking over the starting quarterback job in September from Kelly Bryant. Lawrence was outstanding against Notre Dame, going 27 for 38 for 327 yards and three touchdowns, while hitting nine different receivers. Those young receivers, especially freshman Justyn Ross (six catches, 148 yards, two TD), consistently beat short defenders for jump balls and found cushions in seams, leading to wide open routes.

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Lawrence rarely looked rattled despite facing pressure from as many as five rushers, and early on it was obvious the Irish were going to make him beat them by focusing their energies on running back Travis Etienne.

Clemson, who has won its last 38 games when scoring first, seeks its first title since the Deshaun Watson­–led team in 2016 that beat Alabama on a last-second touchdown pass. Lawrence also has a chance to become the first starting freshman quarterback to lead his team to a national title since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway pulled off the feat in 1985.

DELLENGER: The Football-Crazed Town That Made Trevor Lawrence

Can Alabama neutralize Clemson’s pass rush?

If it seemed like Clemson was in Notre Dame’s backfield every time Irish snapped the ball, it’s because the Tigers were. Even without defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, Clemson routinely pushed around a good offensive line, collecting six sacks and eight tackles for loss. Notre Dame’s running game, which was thought to be a key in at least slowing down the constant pressure, never got started either, running for 88 yards on 35 carries. Getting to the quarterback will be key in Santa Clara: Alabama’s line allowed only 13 sacks all year; Clemson’s gave up just 17.

Who is going to cover Alabama’s stable of receivers?

Tua Tagovailoa throwing to wide receivers Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs and Devonta Smith, along with tight end Irv Smith, is a mismatch problem from any defense—even one as talented as Clemson’s. The Tigers' defensive backs must get their hands on Bama’s receivers early and often, because if a break goes their way or they get a free release, it’s good night—as Oklahoma's defense found out while Bama racked up 45 points in the Orange Bowl.

BISHOP: Tua Tagovailoa Still Has Much to Prove

Bow down to the G.O.A.T.

Win or lose against Clemson, Alabama fatigue isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. (The same can be said about the Tigers). Next season, the Tide will return Tagovailoa, who will be the Heisman frontrunner. Plus, their top four receivers are coming back along with the nation’s top recruiting class. Nick Saban will be sure to keep the trophy case in Tuscaloosa full to the brim until he decides he is tired of winning.