Tonight, Clemson and Alabama meet for in college football’s National Championship Game for the second straight season. Last year’s meeting produced a 45-40 classic, won by the Crimson Tide, and many expect the rematch to be as good or even better.
Experts are split between whether Clemson or Alabama will win this time around, but there are five reasons why I think Clemson will win tonight’s game:
5. Semifinal performances
In the College Football Playoff’s semifinal round on New Year’s Eve, Clemson had the better performance, beating 3rd-seeded Ohio State 31-0 to hand Urban Meyer the worst loss of his coaching career. Alabama, on the other hand, was facing 4th-seeded Washington, and only led 17-7 early in the fourth quarter before eventually winning 24-7.
Clemson will be a much tougher opponent than Washington, who had a chance entering the fourth quarter despite not playing their best, something that could be troublesome for the Crimson Tide. From the opposite perspective, Ohio State’s team has a similar makeup to Alabama (even if Alabama is collectively a better team), and Clemson completely dominated every facet of the game in the Fiesta Bowl victory.
4. Jalen Hurts vs. Clemson’s defense
Alabama QB Jalen Hurts is trying to become the first true freshman starting quarterback since 1985 to win a national championship, but will be facing the Clemson defense, the toughest unit he’s met all season. Hurts struggled in the Peach Bowl win over Washington, going 7-for-14 for just 57 yards. Alabama’s offensive line struggled protecting Hurts in that game, as he was sacked three times, and now will face a much tougher test against the Clemson defensive line.
That group, led by Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins, has the third most sacks in the country (49), and sacked Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett three times in the Fiesta Bowl. For Alabama to win, both Hurts and his offensive line will have to play their best , something I think Clemson will be able to prevent from happening.
Alabama has had a huge distraction over the last seven days after head coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin parted ways on January 2. Kiffin, who was originally slated to stay with Alabama through the Playoff before becoming head coach at Florida Atlantic, got to jump ship for Boca Raton early, and Saban promoted offensive analyst Steve Sarkisian, the former head coach at USC and Washington, to offensive coordinator.
This story has been a huge storyline over the last week, and now the Alabama offense has to prepare to face the Clemson defense with a different coordinator than they have had all season, and one in Sarkisian who hasn’t been an offensive coordinator since 2008. This would be a big deal if Alabama’s quarterback were a senior; the fact this is happening with a true freshman leading the offense potentially creates even more turbulence.
Clemson, in the meantime, has essentially been distraction-free in the lead-up to tonight’s game, and appears to have a wholly focused approach to the game, which leads to my next point.
Clemson is completely motivated for tonight’s game, as they attempt to avenge last year’s defeat against the Crimson Tide. In recent years in sports, when there has been a rematch on a championship-level stage, the team that lost the first meeting has often gotten their revenge in the second, and Clemson has shown more than motivation to do it themselves.
While Clemson wasn’t as impressive in some of their early-season victories as they were in the 2015 season, after their 43-42 loss to Pittsburgh, the Tigers have been a different team, proving their focus with their results. The team’s defensive leaders even pointed to their “All In” mentality as a big reason for their blowout win over Ohio State, and nearly every player has said they have wanted to meet Alabama again this season, to finish some unfinished business, especially on defense (after allowing 45 points last year).
There is added motivation in addition to just last year’s result. Clemson is a six-point underdog in the title game, and under Dabo Swinney the Tigers are 5-1 as bowl underdogs, with the only loss coming in last year’s title game.
This point isn’t to say that Alabama isn’t motivated–Nick Saban is a master at motivating his players–but that the Clemson team, which has the talent to match Alabama, is so motivated and so focused that they will be hard to beat.
1. Clemson’s offense
In last year’s game, the Clemson offense put up 40 points against Alabama, and Watson was clearly the best player on the field. The two-time Heisman finalist threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for 73 yards in last year’s game. In three career Playoff games, Watson has averaged 284 passing yards, 92 rushing yards, and three touchdowns per game.
Last year, Nick Saban said Watson was the best player Alabama had faced since Cam Newton, and Watson is even better this year, having thrown for more yards and more touchdowns than a season ago, even with less help from the rushing game (175 yards per game this year, 225 last year).
Alabama under Nick Saban has historically struggled, at least by their high standards, against dual-threat quarterbacks, and Watson certainly fits that bill. These struggles have even continued in second (and even third) games against a player, so I expect Watson to be just as good as last year in tonight’s rematch.
Watson could actually play even better (as hard as that is to believe), because in last year’s title game the Tigers were without wide receiver weapons Mike Williams (who was injured) and Deon Cain (who was suspended). Their participation in tonight’s game could be very problematic for the Alabama defense.
#2 Clemson (13-1) vs. #1 Alabama (14-0)
Tonight, 8:00 pm ET, ESPN
at Tampa, Fla. (Raymond James Stadium)
Favorite: Alabama by 6
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Clemson- 2nd, Alabama- 1st
Prediction: Clemson 31, Alabama 23