Alabama vs. Clemson: College Football Playoff National Championship preview and predictions

Yahoo Sports

No. 1 Alabama (14-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (14-0)

Location: Santa Clara, Calif. | When: Jan. 7 (8 p.m.) | TV: ESPN | Line: Alabama -6

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HOW THESE TEAMS GOT HERE

Alabama: The Crimson Tide became the first team since Yale all the way back before 1900 to beat every opponent in the regular season by 20 or more points. Over the course of the regular season, which featured eight games of at least 50 points, no team came closer to beating Alabama than Texas A&M’s 45-23 Week 4 loss in Tuscaloosa. It wasn’t a soft schedule, either. The Tide beat LSU, Texas A&M and Mississippi State before besting Georgia in a drama-filled SEC Championship Game. The stretch of 20-point wins came to a close as the Bulldogs gave the Tide all it could handle until Jalen Hurts, in relief of the injured Tua Tagovailoa, executed a storybook comeback and preserved Alabama’s undefeated season. From there, Alabama advanced to the College Football Playoff semifinals, where it dispatched of No. 4 Oklahoma 45-34 in a game that was not as close as the final score may indicate.

Clemson: After a somewhat uninspiring start to the season, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney officially made the switch from playing both senior Kelly Bryant and five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence at quarterback to naming Lawrence the starter. That caused Bryant to transfer and led to a close call when Lawrence was injured during his first start against Syracuse a week later. Thanks to third-stringer Chase Brice, Clemson edged the Orange, 27-23. And when Lawrence returned the following week, that started the Tigers’ easy march through ACC play. Over the next eight games, including wins over No. 16 NC State, No. 17 Boston College and Pitt in the ACC title game, Clemson won by an average of 38.25 points. In the College Football Playoff semifinals, the Tigers made quick work of No. 3 Notre Dame, winning 30-3 to set up round four with Alabama.

Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney have met three times with Saban’s Crimson Tide winning twice. (AP)
Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney have met three times with Saban’s Crimson Tide winning twice. (AP)

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW

• Here’s a brief history of the first three parts. This is the fourth time that Alabama and Clemson have faced each other in the last four College Football Playoffs. The first matchup came in Phoenix at the beginning of 2016, when Nick Saban got crazy enough to try an onside kick in the second half and the teams combined for 40 fourth-quarter points in a 45-40 Alabama win for Alabama’s fourth title in seven seasons.

The teams met in the title game a year later in Tampa, where Clemson fans will remind you that Deshaun Watson hit Hunter Renfrow for a last-second touchdown and a 35-31 win over the Crimson Tide. The teams only combined for 28 points in the fourth quarter this time, though Clemson came back from a 27-17 deficit over the final 15 minutes.

The only non-title game meeting came last year, when Alabama and Clemson met in the Sugar Bowl. With Kelly Bryant at QB for the Tigers, Alabama jumped out to a 10-0 and stifled Clemson’s offense for the first time in the three meetings. Alabama won 24-6 to set up a meeting with Georgia for the national championship. Yes, this means that Alabama’s seniors (and redshirt juniors) are making their fourth title game appearance in four seasons at the school.

How does Alabama try to shake Trevor Lawrence? The Clemson quarterback has been unflappable since he took over for Bryant as the team’s starter in the regular season. What does Nick Saban have in store to try to confuse him and force ill-advised throws?

Lawrence picked apart Notre Dame’s defense in the Cotton Bowl. He was 27-of-39 passing for 327 yards and three touchdowns. You can bet that Saban and his defensive staff have looked at that film multiple times and are vowing to do things that Notre Dame didn’t or couldn’t to rattle Lawrence.

A big key to Alabama’s win over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl was the defense’s overwhelming speed in the first couple drives for the Oklahoma offense. The Tide’s defense held serve to start the game and gave the offense a head start over Heisman winner Kyler Murray and teammates. Can they surprise Lawrence? How will Clemson be ready to counter?

• Both teams’ defensive lines and receiving corps are spectacular. Every title game is chock-full of players who will go on to have NFL careers. This ain’t no ordinary title game. The defensive lines of Alabama and Clemson are probably the best in history to meet each other in a championship game. Clemson’s Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell are surefire draft picks and Alabama’s Quinnen Williams and Raekwon Davis are too.

Each team’s receiving unit may be deeper too. It’s no stretch to say that each team has four players who will see NFL action. After losing Calvin Ridley to the NFL, Alabama’s receiving corp seemingly had a lot of production to replace. All Jerry Jeudy did was win the Biletnikoff Award as a sophomore and freshman Jaylen Waddle averaged nearly 20 yards a catch. And we haven’t even mentioned DeVonta Smith (the man who caught the title-winning TD a year ago) and Henry Ruggs.

Clemson boasts Tee Higgins, who made a spectacular touchdown grab against Notre Dame, and freshman Justyn Ross, who beat single coverage twice against the Fighting Irish for long touchdowns. Sophomore Amari Rodgers had 46 catches as a sophomore and yes, Hunter Renfrow is still on the team. Expect a lot of jokes about Renfrow’s seemingly endless college career Monday night. And don’t be surprised if and when Renfrow sticks on an NFL team in 2019.

• Can Clemson run the ball? The Tigers have not had running success against Alabama in any of the previous three playoff meetings. After 38 carries for 145 yards in their first meeting (powered by Deshaun Watson’s 20 carries for 73 yards), Clemson has not come close to averaging three yards a carry in its last two games against Alabama. Lawrence is fantastic. But can he succeed against Alabama’s defense if the run game isn’t working?

That’s why Travis Etienne and the Clemson offensive line’s ability to run block may be the biggest key to Clemson’s success in this game. Thanks to his 62-yard TD that sealed the game against Notre Dame, Etienne has scored in 13 of Clemson’s 15 games this season and has rushed for over 100 yards in nine games. Asking Etienne to break 100 against Alabama may be too much. But he definitely needs more than the 22 yards he had against Alabama last season.

• One of Clemson’s best players is ineligible. Clemson confirmed Thursday that three players — defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, offensive lineman Zach Giella and tight end Braden Galloway — remain ineligible after failing drug tests due to the presence of ostarine, a banned substance. The three missed the Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame and will again be out in the title game.

Lawrence is the headliner of that trio. The junior has been a three-year starter at defensive tackle and is a projected first-round pick should he enter the 2019 NFL draft. Even with Lawrence out of the lineup, the Tigers controlled the line of scrimmage against Notre Dame. Albert Huggins, a key part of the defensive line rotation, started in Lawrence’s place and will do the same against Alabama. Lawrence is a key part in Clemson’s rush defense and that’s where he will be missed. Alabama has three NFL-caliber backs in Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs. Containing that trio will be a tremendous challenge for the Tigers.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Quinnen Williams, DL, Alabama: After one year redshirting and another year as a reserve, Williams emerged as a monster on the defensive line for the Tide this season as a redshirt sophomore. The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Williams won the Outland Trophy, given to the country’s best interior lineman, and rightly so. Williams has 67 tackles, 18 tackles for loss and eight sacks from the nose guard spot. With his quickness and balance, Williams has been consistently disruptive, blowing opposing offensive linemen off the ball and getting into the backfield routinely. Containing Williams will be a top priority for Clemson.

Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson: Lawrence, a true freshman who was the No. 1 recruit in Rivals.com’s class of 2018 rankings, showed he was ready to handle the bright lights with his sterling performance against Notre Dame. He picked the Irish secondary apart, quickly identifying mismatches — especially when Irish star Julian Love was sidelined in the first half. Standing at 6-foot-5, Lawrence is able to stand strong in the pocket and survey the defense while also being athletic enough to extend plays. That was on display against Notre Dame when he completed 27-of-39 passes for 327 yards and three scores. But staring down the Alabama pass rush is a completely different animal. Lawrence will have to play his best game yet.

PREDICTIONS

Nick Bromberg: I’m torn here. I can make a case for either team winning the game outright and I thought it was crazy that Alabama opened as an eight-point favorite, even if that opening line was designed to get some Clemson money to come in. As noted in the things to watch, I think Clemson’s ability to run the ball is important. Will they make Alabama respect the run enough to open up deep shots for Lawrence? I’m not sure. Alabama 43, Clemson 40 

Sam Cooper: As dominant as Alabama was this season, Clemson has played every bit as well, if not better, over the final months of the season. Both teams are stacked. But in the end, I wonder if Trevor Lawrence can make the big throws with pressure in his face. And on defense, has Clemson’s secondary been tested? Alabama’s receivers going against the Tigers defensive backfield could prove to be the difference. Alabama 40, Clemson 37

Pat Forde: The fourth rivalry installment produces its third classic, with Tua Tagovailoa outdueling Trevor Lawrence and leading to the most unlikely of all endings — a clutch Crimson Tide field goal for the win. Alabama 38, Clemson 35.

Pete Thamel: The talent disparity here doesn’t match the gap in reputations. Alabama got shredded by Oklahoma for 471 yards, and Clemson has the offensive skill to put up a similar performance. Clemson’s defensive front should be able to stuff the run and rattle Tua Tagovailoa, even without star tackle Dexter Lawrence. Look for another classic, with Clemson relishing the underdog role and pulling an upset. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence will win the MVP and continue his ascent to superstardom. Clemson 35, Alabama 31.

More from Yahoo Sports:

Forde: College Football Playoff teams show how scoring has supplanted defense as the way to win
Thamel: How Saban’s evolution changed Alabama
Bromberg: How the combo of high school offenses and 7-on-7 changed football forever
Wetzel: Ticket prices plummet for college football title game

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