The road ends Monday.
The college football season will conclude with the two teams everybody has been penning for nearly 4 seasons to end will end in Santa Clara. Simply put, these have been the two best teams for a long time. Great football has been played by both teams all year round and one team can say they went 15-0 for an entire season. So this will be the first time in College Playoff history (and in this run between Alabama and Clemson in their match-ups) that two teams will face off for the national title undefeated.
Alabama rolled in the season, curb-stomping their opponents, ending most games by halftime, not because of how dominant their defense was, but how dominant their offense was with a Heisman contender in Tua Tagovailoa and a surplus of gifted athletes at his disposal. As the season progressed the defense went through a small run of dominating as Tua had injury issues. The final weeks saw Bama had some struggles in the first halves of games (notably the Citadel, Auburn, and Georgia) but turning on the next gear and dominating the second half. And then Alabama took one quarter to just dominate Oklahoma and prove it was too much for the Sooners to handle.
Clemson had some kinks to start the year, notably in the first month, struggling with Texas A&M and later on Syracuse (where they needed to come back to win on that). However, when the ACC got into the heart of conference play, the Tigers started to destroy their foes similar to what Alabama had done (maybe even more impressive) thanks in part to their young quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Clemson continued its dominance in all aspects (including coaching), dismantling Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.
So who has the edge here? Let’s see.
CLEMSON WINS IF:
THEY KEEP POISE: I’ve mentioned this time after time with teams facing Alabama. Sometimes teams overhype themselves to play Alabama and have that “Oh, it’s Alabama. We gotta show them we belong and we can beat them!” And then they are pretty much done for by the first half (LSU, Oklahoma). Clemson has seen Alabama for now four games in January and in a few of those games they are not fazed at all by the presence of the Tide (still don’t know what on Earth happened last year in the Sugar Bowl). I always think that because of the excitement teams have against Alabama that it gives the Tide that psychological edge. Clemson is a team that doesn’t really do a lot of that stuff. They play with a lot of passion, but it is very controlled. If you look at the year where the Tigers beat Alabama and they were down, there was no panic on Clemson’s sideline. They continued to play their game. If Alabama gets up early on them, they won’t be bothered from all likelihoods.
THEY SUSTAIN LONG DRIVES: Back to the year Clemson beat Alabama. It felt like the second half the Tigers kept the ball the entire time. It wore Alabama’s defense out and it also kept the Tide’s offense out of rhythm. It means Lawrence will have to make key plays down the field either with his arm or his legs (notably the arm). However, he is a great quarterback even as a freshman so I expect him to make some key plays.
THE SECONDARY STEPS UP: Clemson’s front four is something to behold even without Dexter Lawrence in the lineup (granted it will benefit the Tide’s run game without him in there). However, while the Tigers secondary isn’t horrible by any means, I feel like where they are from a talent perspective isn’t anywhere near the Tigers defensive line. That is going to be a huge mismatch for Clemson against Alabama’s receivers of Jeudy, Ruggs, the Smith boys (DeVonta & Irv). If you saw the Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame had some success early attacking the middle of the field with the passing before they inexplicably went away from it. Clemson will need to step up in a big way from their defensive backs. It may not look like Oklahoma’s defense (then again, not many do), but they could have their troubles Monday.
ALABAMA WINS IF:
THEY STOP MAKING MISTAKES, PHYSICAL AND MENTAL: The physical part hasn’t been an issue (i.e. dropped passes or blown coverages). I’m talking about those penalties that keeps drives alive for the other team or those silly formation penalties that keeps Alabama from getting the first down. The one thing that has been an issue for Alabama this year and it has really been very un-Saban-like has been the dumb personal foul penalties and such. We heard how in the Orange Bowl that Alabama’s defense took exception to Kyler Murray winning the Heisman over Tua and that they were tired about how great the Sooners O-line was. They just seem like after the first quarter they played frustrated and angry more than poise. Even Saban said it after the win over the Sooners was that game was more of them making mistakes than Oklahoma really beating them. But this has gone on for the last few games. This has to stop as Clemson is a team that capitalizes on those mistakes. In other words, Alabama has to go back and play in that “business” approach that really nets them their wins.
THEY MAKE HUNTER RENFROW A NON-FACTOR: Renfrow has been a pain in Alabama’s side since Bear Bryant coached against him 40 years ago (sorry, couldn’t resist). Is Renfrow the major receiver on the Tigers? No he isn’t, but he is that guy that when there is a big catch to be needed such as a third down play or a red zone play, he gets it every time out. And in the first two games of the Alabama/Clemson match-ups, Renfrow has been clutch as clutch can be. Last year’s Sugar Bowl game Renfrow had five catches for only 31 yards and you never felt like Renfrow was a factor in Alabama’s dismantling of Clemson. In other words, we know what will happen on third downs and that Alabama will always have to keep their eyes on #13. If not, the Tide could have some major issues again.
THEY PRESSURE LAWRENCE: Trevor Lawrence will be a great quarterback for the next few years in Death Valley. But he is a freshman. Alabama will really have to dial up pressure early and often to take him down. Have him try to beat you with the arm and if so legs. They cannot let him sit back in the pocket dictating what he wants to do with the football. One reason why Alabama won that game over Oklahoma in the first quarter was their ability to pressure Kyler Murray. It went away really the rest of the game. They have to get after him entirely. If not, Alabama will probably do what they did in the Oklahoma game and that is try to dominate the ball on the ground. And Clemson isn’t Oklahoma in that sense.
OUTLOOK: Both offenses are very strong top to bottom. Great running games. Great passing attacks with great receivers all over the place. Defenses are pretty strong throughout. However, if there is a team that lags a little bit in one area, it is Clemson at the secondary. Alabama could really take advantage of the Tigers secondary with all the weapons they have and I don’t know if Clemson has an answer for it. And I think that is where Alabama will end up taking home their third title in four years and sixth title in ten years. But again, this game will still be a fun one to watch. ALABAMA 41, CLEMSON 28
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat