College Football Playoff National Championship Preview: Clemson vs Alabama

In the second year of the College Football Playoff, the system has produced an incredible Championship Game matchup between #1 Clemson and #2 Alabama.  Both teams are coming into the game off of impressive wins in the Playoff Semifinals on New Year’s Eve, and these two teams are clearly the best two teams in college football.  This may be the most clear-cut, legitimate, and level #1-vs-#2 championship bout in many years, and perhaps since the legendary USC-Texas matchup in the 2006 Rose Bowl.   The word bout fits this game, because it almost feels like a heavyweight title fight instead of a football game between two teams of young student-athletes.

These teams enter the game as the top two teams in both polls.  ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks the Crimson Tide first in strength of record and game control, while the Tigers rank second in those categories.  In overall efficiency, Alabama is first and Clemson is second, as Alabama ranks first in defensive efficiency and 17th in offensive efficiency, and Clemson ranks second in defensive efficiency and 10th in offensive efficiency.  The Crimson Tide rank first in overall rank in the FPI, while the metric doesn’t as heavily favor the Tigers, leaving them fifth.

This game marks the 15th all-time meeting between Clemson and Alabama, and although Alabama has a 12-2 lead in the series, the two programs have not met since 2008.  That game was the season opener of Nick Saban’s second year at the helm at Alabama, while Dabo Swinney was the wide receivers coach under Tommy Bowden.  Swinney became the interim coach later that season when Bowden resigned after six games, before the interim tag was later removed, as he began to lead the program all the way to tonight’s pinnacle.

Before that meeting in 2008, the teams had not played since 1975.  Alabama has won 12 straight in the series, with Clemson’s only two wins coming in the first two meetings, a pair of shutouts in 1904 and 1905.  In the seven meetings between 1909 and 1966, Clemson scored a total of seven points, while Alabama averaged nearly 33 points in those meetings.  Since their last win in the series in 1905, Clemson has never scored more than 14 points on the Crimson Tide defense, while in the last 10 meetings, the Tide have scored 21 or more nine times, 32 or more seven times, and 40 or more three times, including a 74-point output in 1931.  Of course, all of that means nothing going into tonight’s matchup in 2016.

The Alabama Crimson Tide enter tonight’s game at 13-1, as champions of the SEC, becoming a Playoff finalist with a 38-0 domination of #3 Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl.  Alabama lost to Ole Miss, 43-37, on September 19, but has won every game since, with every game except one (Tennessee) decided by 13 points or more.  The Crimson Tide have faced eight ranked opponents in their first 14 games, although only five of those remain ranked in my most recent top 25.

Alabama is led offensively by Derrick Henry, a workhorse running back who became the second Alabama player to win the Heisman Trophy, rushing for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns on the season.  Henry was held in check by Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, but quarterback Jake Coker had a career night in the win, completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns.  Coker doesn’t have the overall passing numbers of Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, and certainly can’t touch Watson’s rushing numbers, but has actually thrown less interceptions.  Defensively, Alabama’s front seven is one of the best the college game has ever seen, with all seven starters projected among the top 30 prospects for April’s NFL Draft.  It was this defensive front that cut off Michigan State’s offense so definitively in the Cotton Bowl.

The Clemson Tigers enter tonight’s game at a perfect record of 14-0, and are trying to become the first 15-win team in college football history (although teams play more games now than the ever have).  The Tigers are the ACC champions, and had regular season wins over the teams ranked eighth, ninth, and 10th in my pre-bowl top 25, before beating #4 Oklahoma, 37-17, in the Orange Bowl to reach the title game.  Some will point to their ACC conference affiliation as somewhat of a weakness, compared to Alabama playing the SEC, the best conference in college football, but the strength of Clemson’s wins speaks for itself.

Clemson is led by Watson, a dual-threat quarterback who finished third in the Heisman voting behind Henry and Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey after throwing for 31 touchdowns and rushing for 12.  If Alabama can shut down Watson, running back Wayne Gallman, who has rushed for 1,332 yards and 10 touchdowns, could be an X-factor in the contest.  Defensively, Clemson is led by defensive end Shaq Lawson and cornerback Mackensie Alexander.  Lawson is an electric pass rusher, and Alexander is a shutdown corner, but both enter the game with injury question marks.  Lawson injured his knee against Oklahoma 11 days ago, but is likely to play, although he may not be at 100 percent, while Alexander is a game-time decision with a hamstring injury.

Historically, while Clemson has traditionally had a solid program among the ACC’s best, there’s little contest between the Tigers and the Crimson Tide.  Alabama is playing for their 16th national championship, and only Princeton and Yale have more (and neither has won a championship since 1950).  The Crimson Tide are playing tonight for their fourth title in a remarkable seven year stretch under Nick Saban, who is going for his fifth overall.  Clemson won the national title in 1981 over Danny Ford, but that is their only top five finish in the AP Poll (they’re guaranteed their second such finish this year regardless of tonight’s outcome).  Alabama has finished in the top five a stunning 22 times, and the top 10 in 39 seasons, compared to seven for Clemson.  That being said, while Clemson’s history pales in comparison to their opponent tonight, they are still considered in the upper echelon of programs with the richest history.

There are striking parallels between Clemson’s 1981 national championship season and their 2015 run to tonight’s title game.  Both teams were coached by a former Alabama player, with Danny Ford coaching the Tigers in 1981 and Swinney today.  The quarterback for the 1981 edition of the Tigers was Homer Jordan, from Athens, GA.  Watson, leading this team, is from Gainesville, GA, only about 40 miles from Athens.  Both teams played Wofford in their season opener, and both entered bowl season undefeated and played in the Orange Bowl.  In 1981, that was against Nebraska, the champions of the Big 8.  That conference later evolved into the Big 12, whose 2015 champion, Oklahoma, was defeated by Clemson in this year’s Orange Bowl.  The 1981 team won their games by an average of 18.4 points per game, while this year’s team has won their games by 19.4 per contest.

The team that Alabama has played that is stylistically the most similar to Clemson is Ole Miss, the only team to beat the Crimson Tide this year.  Ole Miss is led by Chad Kelly, a dual-threat quarterback who, ironically enough, played at Clemson in 2012-13.  The Rebels also have a defense with playmakers and athletes similar to those at Clemson.  Dual-threat quarterbacks seem to have given Saban-coached Alabama teams trouble over the years, with some of the teams most renowned losses coming to opposing quarterbacks like Cam Newton (Auburn) and Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M).  Alabama committed five turnovers in that 43-37 loss, and while the defense did allow easily their most points this season (the next most is 23), some of those points were scored off of those turnovers.  However, Alabama has matured exponentially since their loss to Ole Miss, so while that loss proves Clemson certainly has a chance in this game, the team the Tigers are trying to beat is much different, and better, than the one the Rebels beat some four months ago.  The fact Alabama scored 37 points on the Ole Miss defense in a game that they turned the ball over five times is good news for the Tide tonight, as long as they can keep control of the football.

The Clemson opponent who most resembles Alabama is Florida State, although the athletes Clemson will see lining up across from them tonight will be like none they have seen all season.  Clemson defeated Florida State, 23-13, on November 7th, putting the Seminoles away with a late touchdown after the entire game until that point had been a one-possession contest, and the game had been tied entering the fourth quarter.  Following a 75-yard touchdown run by Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, the Tigers defense only allowed two field goals the rest of the game, while Watson threw for 297 yards and rushed for 107 in the victory that clinched the ACC Atlantic Division for Clemson, although by that point they already had much bigger goals in mind, like reaching, and eventually winning, the title game tonight.

Many experts have been analyzing tonight’s game through the lens of the matchup between the Clemson offense and the Alabama defense.  As mentioned, Alabama has the best front seven in the country, and has allowed 17 or less in 12 of their first 14 games, while Clemson has scored 33 or more in 11 of their first 14 contests.  Alabama has 50 sacks, which comes out to over three and a half per game, and if they can get to Watson and get him on the ground, Clemson will surely struggle offensively.  If Watson is able to extend plays with his legs long enough for some key completions or favorable runs, and if Gallman can have a good night on the ground, the Tigers should have an excellent chance to celebrate when the clock strikes midnight (in Clemson, 10 p.m. in Glendale, AZ where the game is being played).

Naturally, the opposite aspect of this game is how the Alabama offense matches up with the Clemson defense.  While Alabama’s strongest trait is their defense, and Clemson’s their offense, both teams have been dominant all year, and a team can’t be dominant without being very good on both sides of the ball.  Alabama has scored 27 or more in every game except one this year (Tennessee), while Clemson has allowed 17 or less in eight of their games (including against some of their better opponents, including Oklahoma).  If Alexander is out for the Tigers, it changes the dynamic of this matchup completely, as Coker should have an easier time of dissecting Clemson’s secondary.  If Alexander is able to play, the matchup of him against Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley will be a huge key to how many points Alabama has on the scoreboard at the end of the night.  Clemson’s secondary with Alexander playing would be the best secondary the Crimson Tide have faced this year, and could make them turn to the running game.  Coker comes in on a hot streak, having thrown seven touchdowns and no interceptions in his last four games.  Clemson’s defensive front isn’t quite as good as Alabama’s but is still very strong, including Lawson, and is capable of holding Henry in check.  Naturally, the Heisman winning back is also capable of a legendary rushing performance.  Clemson did a good job containing the run against Oklahoma, who had been averaging 300 yards per game since their loss to Texas.

With both offense vs. defense matchups being pretty even, one thing that could play a factor in the game is the special teams, one facet of the game which very heavily favors Alabama.  The Crimson Tide are only ranked 29th in the FPI’s special teams efficiency, but have five punt return touchdowns and five blocked kicks.  Both of those numbers are excellent, but the Tide can really separate themselves in this faction of the game when considering that Clemson ranks an abysmal 123rd in special teams efficiency out of 128 in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.  With that wide of a gap between these two units, the Crimson Tide can really aid their effort to win the title tonight by making a couple of plays on special teams.

A common theory I’ve heard in the buildup to this game is that a high-scoring game would favor Clemson, while a low-scoring game would favor Alabama.  However, in the event of a high-scoring game, if it comes down to which defense can get just one stop in the second half or fourth quarter, wouldn’t you want Alabama on the field to get that one stop?  Similarly, in a low-scoring game, if it comes down to which offense can score just once down the stretch, wouldn’t you want the Clemson offense on the field for that potential game-winning score?

The spread for tonight’s game favors Alabama by six and a half points, which is interesting considering that Clemson is the undefeated team and top seed in the College Football Playoff.  However, a big reason for this spread is that, while Clemson was impressive in their 20-point win over Oklahoma, Alabama’s shutout of Michigan State was flat-out dominant, and was one of the best performances on that size of stage that college football has ever seen.  Clemson fans might actually like this spread, as the Tigers are 4-0 as bowl game underdogs under Swinney, including wins over Oklahoma the last two years, Ohio State in 2013, and LSU in 2012, all big-name programs just like Alabama.

FPI favors Alabama to win tonight, giving the Tide a 61.9 percent chance at hoisting the trophy.  Personally, I see this as more of a 50-50 game, with two superb football teams who are both more than deserving for a chance to bring their school a championship.  This is one of the hardest games I’ve ever had to make a pick for, and I don’t think either team will necessarily cost themselves the game, as the game should be played at an extremely high level.  In the end, both offenses are going to make their share of plays, and both defenses are going to make their share of plays, but only the Alabama special teams have shown the capability to change a game in their own right.  I don’t like to revert to special teams play to decide who I think will win a game, but this game is that close.  This should be a “whoever has the ball last” and “whoever makes the most plays in the fourth quarter” (or for that matter the final five minutes) type of game.  Enjoy this game, because this has the potential to be an absolute classic.

Alabama 31, Clemson 27

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