College Football: Alabama vs Clemson, Championship Game Preview
#1 Alabama vs #2 Clemson, Monday January 9, 8pm ET, ESPN
My thoughts on the main matchups, and prediction.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Alabama Offense vs Clemson Defense
This matchup features the biggest story headed into the game, though it does not involve any players or what happens between the lines. If Alabama loses the game, and does so by not generating “enough” offense, Nick Saban will have left himself open for more questioning/criticism than he has faced since Chris Davis’ (Auburn) Kick-Six in 2013. Regardless of what “mutual parting” may have meant here, seeing your Offensive Coordinator of 3 seasons depart abruptly, and handing the play-calling duties to a consultant who has been out of coaching for over a year just days before the biggest game of the season, is a bold move. Steve Sarkisian has said all the right things so far, and he has been around the players and the system for most of this season, so it’s not like he just walked in off the street. But it still looks risky.
As far as where the matter will actually be settled, on the field, by the players, Alabama’s offense will have its work cut out for it. Clemson’s defense looked very impressive pitching that shutout last weekend against JT Barrett (a very similar QB to Jalen Hurts) and Ohio State. On the other hand the Tigers’ D struggled badly in the 2nd Half against Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans, two other multi-dimensional QBs. One thing DC Brent Venables will certainly try to have an answer for is TE OJ Howard, who burned them for 2 TDs and over 200 receiving yards in last season’s title game. Hurts will need to have a bigger game through the air than he did against Washington, who limited him to 7-14 and 57 yards passing. Granted, the Tide eventually wore down the Huskies’ stingy D and ran it down their throat in the 4th Qtr….but Washington’s offense did absolutely nothing after an early TD, and while QB Jake Browning is no slouch, he’s no Deshaun Watson. As good as Alabama’s defense is, they cannot be expected to carry the load for 3 quarters like they did last week. I think the play-calling transition is being way over-emphasized, but no matter who is on the headset, the offense must score.
Clemson Offense vs Alabama Defense
Speaking of Alabama’s defense and Deshaun Watson, here is where the game’s marquee matchup is, despite all the intrigue over the Tide’s play-caller. In last season’s matchup Watson tore up Alabama’s vaunted defense, to the tune of 405 passing yards and 4TDs on the way to 40 points, and another 73 yards rushing to boot. He wasn’t stellar last week against Ohio State, throwing 2 INTs (which will land you in bog trouble against Alabama), but he did manage 2 TDs from 53 yards on the ground (plus one more throwing). Watson will need numbers much more similar to last season’s title game than last week’s semifinal for the Tigers to win. Not only did Alabama lead FBS in defensive efficiency (by a very wide margin), but they were also very opportunistic, returning 6 INTs for TDs (t2nd in FBS) and 5 more TDs on returned fumbles. Clemson has been among the worst in FBS this season in turnovers (26), but they were last season too (27). But again, this time they MUST take care of the football. And while they will do most of their damage through the air, the Tigers will need a little more out of Wayne Gallman on the ground than they got against Alabama last season (45 yards on 14 carries) just to keep the defense honest and to limit Watson’s exposure to hits/injury.
Here’s where Alabama has an edge. While they didn’t rank terribly far apart in efficiency (#50 out of 128 for Alabama in FBS, #69 for Clemson) Alabama makes more big plays in their return game, and does a good job of helping out their defense in field position. Both team have trustworthy FG kickers, should the game come down to that.
I don’t think we will see the sort of high-scoring affair we did in last season’s final. It will be more about field position and limiting big mistakes that give away opportunities. It is particularly incumbent upon Clemson to not give up defensive/special teams scores that will put more pressure on the Tigers’ offense and make them more one-dimensional. Despite Clemson having the better QB/offense, Alabama has the overall edge in this matchup. While the Tide’s offense will need to step up some and score more early to keep it tight, they should do just enough and will eventually wear down Clemson’s defense to the degree that they can put the game on ice in the 4th Qtr, as has been their M.O. all season against tougher opponents.
Alabama 30 – Clemson 26