It all comes down to this. Four months after the quest for a national title began, college football’s two preeminent programs are set to meet in Santa Clara, squaring off in the College Football Playoff for the fourth consecutive year and in the national championship game for the third time in four years. Alabama and Clemson dominated their semifinal opponents to set up the meeting everyone has been waiting for, and with their young quarterbacks playing better than ever and their elite defenses bracing for a shootout in the face of endless skill talent on both offenses, the storylines and possibilities are endless despite the predictable title game participants.
Below, SI’s writers and editors make their picks for Monday’s national title game, offering up a final score prediction and the player who will be remembered as the game’s MVP.
Andy Staples: Alabama 38, Clemson 34
These two teams are so loaded that it’s tough to find where one can grab an advantage. But Alabama’s defensive line against Clemson’s offensive line feels like the matchup. That group allows the Crimson Tide to get just enough stops to hang on for the win.
Game MVP: Alabama DT Quinnen Williams. He’s the toughest player to block in the country, and he can wreck entire drives by himself.
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Ross Dellenger: Alabama 30, Clemson 24
This feels like another down-to-the-wire championship game between college football's two best programs over the past five years. These teams are oddly similar—a collection of young, athletic freaks on offense and a seasoned, aggressive front seven on defense. The Crimson Tide gets the slight edge because of their rock star quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, but this is a collision between titans that could go either way.
Game MVP: Tagovailoa. By the end of this thing, Tagovailoa will have those who voted against him for the Heisman Trophy doubting themselves.
Joan Niesen: Alabama 31, Clemson 28
Alabama gets a team that can play with it consistently for a whole game in Clemson—but like Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, the Tigers won't have quite enough to stop the Crimson Tide, especially if star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence isn't able to play. Alabama's defense certainly let up in the Orange Bowl's second half, and Nick Saban won't let that fly for a second consecutive game; expect a steadier performance from the Tide, though that doesn't mean Trevor Lawrence and company won't get enough big plays to stay in the contest until the end.
Game MVP: Tagovailoa. As he did in the semifinal, Tagovailoa is going to lead an offense that looks close to flawless in the title game, with help from the likes of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs and the rest of the Tide receiving corps. If he can stay healthy, he'll be the reason Alabama wins its second straight title.
Laken Litman: Alabama 35, Clemson 30
Alabama has been playing at a different level than everybody else all season, and while that’s not going to change, Clemson will undoubtedly provide the toughest challenge yet. Trevor Lawrence stretches the field and has explosive weapons who make plays for him, while the Tigers’ defense has umatched depth, despite losing first-round draft talent Dexter Lawrence to suspension. But the Crimson Tide’s defense will make enough stops, and Tua Tagovailoa will be too accurate to slow down.
Game MVP: Tagovailoa. The sophomore will win national title MVP for a second consecutive year after making minimal mistakes, showing off his consistent accuracy and proving why he should have won the Heisman.
Eric Single: Clemson 42, Alabama 38
The secondary that everyone said was the weakness of Clemson’s defense played like it had something to prove in the Cotton Bowl, but Notre Dame’s receivers don’t have the speed that Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith bring to the table. With another shootout on deck, Trevor Lawrence will have to be incredible, a challenge that he has met every time he’s been asked to since the Tigers’ close call against Syracuse in September. He poses a different type of dual-threat challenge than Kyler Murray did, because he moves more efficiently than anyone should expect a true freshman to and is more of a threat on zone-read keepers and broken plays than any 6'6" quarterback should be. (It would help his cause if the Tigers got Travis Etienne going early.)
Game MVP: Clemson DL Christian Wilkins. You can’t hope to beat Alabama without getting to Tagovailoa, and even though he’ll receive extra attention without Dexter Lawrence to worry about, Wilkins is the best bet to come up with a tone-shifting play in the backfield. He might even have a touchdown in him.
Molly Geary: Alabama 27, Clemson 24
I think this will be a close (and hopefully exciting) game, but Clemson is going to need to neutralize Tagovailoa the way Georgia did to win this, and that's going to be very difficult now that the QB is healthy. Clemson's elite defense is led by its run D, but Alabama, which has the nation's No. 1 passing S&P+ rank, can beat the Tigers through the air with Tagovailoa throwing to the likes of Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs III and even running back Josh Jacobs.
Game MVP: Tagovailoa. The boring pick—and also the most likely one.
Scooby Axson: Alabama 38, Clemson 28
You will be seeing the same closing image to the 2018 college football season as you have several times over the past decade: Alabama hoisting another championship trophy. Even if Clemson somehow slows the Tide’s ground game, there has been no answer for their receivers on the outside, and Clemson’s secondary is in for a long night if its front four does not get consistent pressure or at least give Tagovailoa something to think about every time he drops back to pass. As talented as Clemson’s is, it just may be too much to overcome this season. Expect a back-and-forth affair that Alabama takes control of in the second half.
Game MVP: Tagovailoa. The sophomore has proved when he is healthy that there isn’t a defense in America capable of stopping him.
Max Meyer: Clemson 35, Alabama 31
There was certainly a drop-off in Tagovailoa’s production when he faced a top-tier defense, as shown by his numbers against Georgia, Mississippi State and LSU. Clemson and its ferocious defensive front will be his toughest challenge this season. The Tigers sacked Notre Dame QB Ian Book six times in the semifinal, and I think they will have the edge in the trenches in this one. On the other side, Trevor Lawrence & Co. will be able to find success against an Alabama defense that has allowed 62 points in its last two games. Clemson is the more balanced team, and I like Dabo Swinney to even up the score on Nick Saban in Alabama-Clemson IV.
Game MVP: Trevor Lawrence. Clemson’s defense will do enough to slow down the Tide, but the Tigers’ freshman quarterback is poised beyond his years and will enter the same rarefied air as Deshaun Watson in Clemson history.