Alabama and Clemson will be meeting in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game for a second straight year, but the result will be different this time around.
Alabama has won 26 consecutive games, including beating Clemson last January to claim its fourth national championship since 2009. Nick Saban has built a dynasty in Tuscaloosa, the program everyone else in America is chasing. But Dabo Swinney has something special brewing with Clemson, too, copping back-to-back ACC championships and six straight 10-win seasons. All that’s missing in Death Valley is a national title.
Below are five reasons why Clemson is about to break through with the school’s first national championship since 1981:
1. Lane Kiffin Is Gone, But His Ill-Timed Departure Haunts Bama
Nick Saban severed tied with his offensive coordinator a week before the national title game in one of the most unorthodox and surprising coaching maneuvers in recent memory. It was a lesser of two evils decision for Saban, but neither outcome was going to bode well for the Tide.
For all of his issues, Kiffin will be missed on Monday because no one knew the offensive personnel, especially QB Jalen Hurts, better. Furthermore, no one was more uniquely equipped to call plays against the Clemson D, after having shredded it last season.
It’s been a long time since Steve Sarkisian has formulated a game plan or made in-game adjustments. Those are muscle memory skills that take time to hone, and time is not a luxury he has right now. Kiffin, even when distracted by his other job at Florida Atlantic, gave the Tide its best chance of moving the ball and scoring points in Tampa.
2. The Bama Offense Is Pedestrian
There’s a new coordinator in charge of the offense, as of a few days ago. The passing game is struggling mightily. The Tide is going to need a few more of those NOTs (non-offensive touchdowns) to outscore Clemson.
Thank goodness for RB Bo Scarbrough, who bailed out an inept Alabama attack in the Peach Bowl. Remove his 68-yard fourth-quarter burst and the Tide produced just 258 total yards and a measly 3.6 yards a play versus Washington. Bank on more of the same against an equally salty Clemson defense.
Hurts the passer will continue to sputter after completing just 7-of-14 for 57 yards in Atlanta. And with the downfield passing attack being less concerning, the Tigers can press up linebackers Ben Boulware and Kendall Joseph, and safeties Jadar Johnson and Van Smith, to help contain both Scarbrough and Hurts the scrambler.
3. Clemson D-Line Wins Line Of Scrimmage
Not many teams can compete with Alabama at the point of attack, an area of consistency and perennial dominance in Tuscaloosa under Nick Saban. Clemson is an exception, which it’ll showcase for the nation on a grand stage.
The Tiger front wall will be one of the main storylines late on Monday night, frustrating the Tide O-line with a rare combination of size, agility and brute force. Clemson starts three underclassmen, ends Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell and tackle Dexter Lawrence, around senior tackle Carlos Watkins. All of them can penetrate and blow up plays before they have a chance to develop. And since there’s such breadth of ability from left to right, Bama’s average guards, in particular, are liable to be overwhelmed off the snap. The Tide will sputter on first down, allow pressure and force Hurts into a broader role than he’ll be capable of handling.
4. Alabama Won’t Be In Clemson’s Head
The Tigers are brimming with talent, as well as intangibles, heading into this year’s national championship game.
Alabama wins a lot of games simply by getting off the bus or walking through the tunnel, unnerving opponents with the specter and swagger of a defending national champ. Clemson, though, is different. Even in a 45-40 loss, the Tigers learned last January that they can hang with, and even shake, Saban’s team. Plus, their confidence level couldn’t be any higher after pasting Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl and handing Urban Meyer the first shutout of his coaching career.
Clemson knows it can win Monday. The Tigers believe they’re the superior all-around team. They’re not afraid of Alabama, and that’s a powerful development that won’t show up in a box score or media guide.
5. Deshaun Watson is Ready To Be Vince Young
Watson was the Heisman runner-up. He won’t come in second place in the race to be this year’s national championship quarterback.
Watson was the best player in Glendale when the Tide and Tigers met a year ago, so he already knows he’s capable of beating the country’s best defense. He’s throwing with accuracy, despite tossing too many picks, and he’s supported by one of the top receiving corps in the game.
In other words, Watson is primed for another solid effort against Alabama. Another 478 yards and four touchdown passes? No, because the pace and tenor of a lower scoring game won’t necessitate it. Still, he’ll outplay Hurts, carry the offense during the crucial fourth quarter, and add an exclamation point to an already sterling legacy at Clemson.