In the past week, college football fans have been spoiled to some of the most exciting football we have seen in years, with the shootouts that occurred in both the Orange Bowl and Rose Bowl topping the list. Then the semi-final games of the College Football Playoffs occurred, and while neither game was really close, they each had their elements of excitement, which all lead us to Monday night, and the rematch of last year’s National Championship.
The best player in the country, yes, I said the best player and I am not talking about Lamar Jackson, will once again line up against the defense of the best coach in the country. In last year’s title game, DeShaun Watson threw for 405 yards and accounted for 4 touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough to beat Nick Saban’s bunch, as the Tide took the title game 45-40.
Alabama enters Monday’s game as winners of 26 straight and is looking for their 5th title in 8 seasons. Clemson takes the field as back-to-back ACC Champions and looking for their first championship since 1981. Will it be the same result as last year, or can Watson will his Tigers to victory and upset the Tide?
Clemson will be the best offense that Alabama has faced all season, sound familiar? This was the same tune we were singing last week about Washington and their superstar quarterback Jake Browning. Those Huskies scored on the opening drive, and then Jonathan Allen and the defense went to work, forcing 9 punts, two interceptions and a fumble recovery on the next, and final, 13 drives. The defense simply dominated Washington, and Browning had no answer for them. They also scored their 11th defensive touchdown that night off a pick-6.
Keys for Clemson
So how does Clemson’s offense do what Washington could not, and sustain drives and put more than one score on the board? They need to play like they did last year in the title game, with an up-tempo offense, calling plays from the line of scrimmage and trying to tire out the defensive front. Easier said than done, of course, as they will be facing quite possible the best defensive front that Nick Saban has ever had in his Alabama tenure. The country’s #1 overall defense, is also the nation’s top rush defense. To put this in perspective, LSU’s Leonard Fournette was held under 35 rushing yards in their November game, for the second straight year. Clemson checks in with the 80th best rushing attack behind Wayne Gallman and his 1,087-yard season.
For Clemson to win this game, Watson will need to take some chances throwing the ball, which of course plays into what Alabama wants him to do. There have been times this season where the defense for the Tide has outscored their opponents, and they will look for some more interceptions to feed the scoreboard. Watson is a brilliant quarterback, but he did also throw a pair of interceptions last week against Ohio State, to total 17 on the season. Only 4 times in 13 games this season has he gone without throwing a pick. He has, however, also had games where he threw for 4, 5 and ever 6 touchdowns.
Now, let’s look at Clemson’s drubbing of the Buckeyes last week in the second game of the College Football Playoff Semi-Finals. From the opening kick-off, it was all Clemson. Their offense ran the ball well for 205 yards and 3 scores, and Watson was able to connect on 23 of 36 passes for almost 260 yards, but it was their defense who really paved the way to the championship game. OSU’s JT Barrett finished the day with a 12.7 QBR and recorded just 19 completions for 127 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Their 1,000-yard back Mike Webber only recorded 24 yards on the day and no receiver had more than 43 yards. It was a solid defensive performance by the country’s #4 ranked defense.
The True Freshman
Now they line up against Alabama and their true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, who has passed for 22 touchdowns and run for another 12. While 34 scores are impressive, and he sits just one touchdown away from tying the school record for most in a season, he has been given the job by Saban to take the snap and play smart football. That doesn’t mean taking chances, it means reading the defense and tucking the ball and scrambling when pressured. It means he has to be willing to run the ball as many times as his running backs like he did against Washington, but let’s make no mistake about it, Clemson is a far superior defensive unit than the Huskies. Their defensive front of Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell are as good, and as mean, as any defensive front that Alabama has come across. They get in the backfield in a hurry and they make sure every quarterback hit, and every tackle, is vicious and painful.
Last week, Buckeye’s quarterback JT Barrett ended the contest with -2 yards on 11 carries. This is the same guy who recorded 845 yards on the ground this season, and had back-to-back 100-yard rushing games to end the season against Michigan State and Michigan. He could not run against Clemson as he was stymied the entire game against Clemson with no room to run and very little time to pass.
If Clemson can contain Hurts from prolonging drives with his scrambling, and protect the line of scrimmage from his quarterback keepers, the Tide will need a great day from their 230-pound running back Bo Scarborough, or else take to the air, which is not something Saban would prefer his quarterback not to do. Hurts is a smart player, but we have yet to see him have to win a game by throwing. In the only real close games Alabama had this year, Hurts threw for 158 yards (5-point win vs Ole Miss) and 107 yards (10-point win vs LSU).
The offensive game plan is not built for him to go out and throw 30 times for 350 yards. In fact, he has attempted more than 30 passes only 5 times in 13 games. He beat Washington by connecting on 7 of 14 attempts for just 57 yards and no touchdowns. All season, the Tide has been content on running the ball on third-and-long plays, but if they get caught down a few touchdowns on the scoreboard, they will have to rethink that plan, but let’s keep in mind that Bo Scarborough ripped off a 68-yard touchdown against Washington on 3rd and 9.
Last year Alabama needed 158 yards rushing from Derrick Henry and 335 yards passing by Jake Coker to out-score Clemson. If Monday’s game comes down to a shoot-out like this, Clemson will have the advantage. DeShaun Watson is built for games like that.
New Sheriff in Town
Former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will not be wearing the headsets on Monday night, that will be Steve Sarkisian’s duty. How will that effect the Tide’s offense? There is no doubt that Nick Saban is one of the most prepared coaches in all of sports, and I have to believe that he will have his team prepared for this change, but Kiffin has also kept Hurts in position all season where he hasn’t had to make plays that he wasn’t comfortable with. Sarkisian hasn’t been in this role with the 19-year old, so late in the 4th quarter, with the game on the line, their newly formed relationship could become a key factor.
As a football game, it does not get better than this. Two top defenses going at it, with great playmakers on either sidelines, this has all the makings of another classic Championship game. Last year the contest featured 85 total points, and while I am not sure the defenses will allow that much this year, I do expect it to be just as good of a game.
I believe Clemson’s defense is going to be very tough on the freshman quarterback, forcing him to make plays in the air, or rely on his backfield to pick up chunks of yards. I don’t see Alabama lighting up the scoreboard, but I don’t see Watson and company doing that either. He takes a lot of chances, and the Tide have a very opportunistic defense, so a late mistake could give Alabama points.
The point spread is 7 in favor of Alabama, and while I think that is too much, I do think Alabama wins their 27th game in a row, and their 5th National Championship in 8 seasons. Then we can put the discussion to bed about who is the greatest college coach ever. Saban cements his legacy by winning the title with a true-freshman quarterback and a new offensive coordinator in the title game.
Alabama will win this game 27-24.
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