These head-to-head matchups next Monday in Tampa will determine the national champion when Alabama and Clemson meet for a second straight year.
As Alabama and Clemson prepare to meet in the postseason for a second straight year, this time at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, which head-to-head matchups will have the biggest impact on the final score? And which battles can each side least afford to lose? We break down the six most compelling duels for the College Football Playoff National Championship Game between the Tide and the Tigers.
6. Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian vs. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables
Welcome to the new job, Sark. Now go out and devise a game plan to help solve the Tiger D and win a national championship. In one of the strangest coaching developments in recent history, Nick Saban parted ways with Lane Kiffin just seven days before the title game. Enter Sarkisian, who’s been a Tide analyst this fall but wasn’t expected to succeed Kiffin until after Monday’s game. His first task, with help from former Clemson assistant Billy Napier, will be to outfox Venables and a defense that just handed Urban Meyer the first shutout of his coaching career. Venables is at the top of his field, aided by an experienced, fast and talented group of defenders. Sark will have his hands full, especially if an erratic passing attack makes Bama predictable.
5. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts vs. CB Cordrea Tankersley and the Clemson Secondary
The Crimson Tide can clearly win games without Hurts being a major contributor through the air. But what worked against the likes of LSU, Florida and Washington might not be sufficient against a team of Clemson’s caliber. Just to be safe, and to keep the Tigers from stacking the box all night, Bama needs Hurts to be more of a threat through the air than he was last week in Atlanta. It won’t be easy.
Led by Tankersley, the Clemson pass defense has been dynamite for a fourth year in a row, sitting sixth nationally with 20 interceptions. Plus, the linebackers do a fluid job of dropping back into coverage, so TE O.J. Howard might not be an option for the young quarterback either.
4. Clemson linebackers Ben Boulware and Kendall Joseph vs. Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough
Scarbrough was an afterthought for much of the year, the trendy offseason choice for Heisman contention who was outshined by sophomore Damien Harris. But Scarbrough had a good month of practice followed by a breakthrough career day in the Peach Bowl. And just like that, stopping him has become the top priority of the Clemson D.
He’s big and fast, with the build-up speed to explode through a secondary. The Tigers need to make contact before Scarbrough is able to generate a head of steam, ideally as close to the line as possible. When he does hit daylight, it’ll be incumbent upon Boulware and Joseph to prevent yards after contact, much the way they have all season long.
3. LT Cam Robinson and the Alabama O-line vs. DE Christian Wilkins and the Clemson D-line
The Tide have always been sound up front under Saban. This current blocking unit, though, has been average by the typical standard in Tuscaloosa. Robinson is the NFL-bound bell cow, and rookie RT Jonah Williams and C Bradley Bozeman have met challenges in their starting debuts. But guard play has been pedestrian and the team hasn’t routinely blown opponents off the ball.
The line was fair against Washington, allowing three sacks. And a fair performance won’t cut it versus a big and powerful Clemson front four that destroys an offense’s game plan. The Tigers owned a pretty good Ohio State O-line last week, with Wilkins, Carlos Watkins, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Scott Pagano all showing the burst and strength to push the pile backwards.
2. LT Mitch Hyatt and the Clemson O-line vs. DE Jonathan Allen and the Alabama Front Seven
Hyatt is one of the country’s best young blindside protectors, a sophomore who’s more polished than most tackles his age. But he’ll be facing the tallest task of his athletic life when Allen is across from him. Allen has been college football’s most disruptive player this season, whipping opponents and harassing quarterbacks in the backfield. And he’s far from alone, getting ample support from fellow end Dalvin Tomlinson, NG Da’Ron Payne and hard-charging linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson.
Tiger C Jay Guillermo can hold his own in the middle, and RG Tyrone Crowder is one of three first-team all-leaguer blockers. But sophomore LG Taylor Hearn and true freshman RT Sean Pollard are beatable, a worry as the Tigers look to put their playmakers in the best possible position to solve the suffocating Bama D.
1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson vs. SS Minkah Fitzpatrick and the Alabama Secondary
In last year’s national championship game, Watson threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns, nearly carrying the Tigers to a victory over Alabama. What can he do for an encore in his final game with the program? Clemson will need its quarterback to be effective through the air, because the ground game has underwhelmed, a situation that won’t change against the Bama front seven.
Watson has the targets, namely receivers Mike Williams, Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow and TE Jordan Leggett, to beat the Tide through the air. But will he have the time check down and find the open man? And will this season’s penchant for picks—an ACC-high 17—haunt Watson against a defense that just silenced Jake Browning and has six pick-sixes this season?