The College Football National Championship Game is officially set and Clemson will take on Alabama at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on Jan. 11.
These two programs have met 15 times, but not since 2008. Clemson has lost the last 12 meetings and the games haven’t been close. In fact, in seven of those last 12 games, Clemson didn’t score and the Tigers didn't score more than 14 points in any of the losses. The last time the Tigers topped the Tide was in 1905. The Tigers also defeated the Tide in 1900 and 1904.
Alabama is seeking its first national title since defeating Notre Dame in 2012. Clemson hasn’t won a national title since 1981.
With the matchup set, here’s a quick primer of some early storylines to watch as we head into championship week.
Clemson’s running game vs. Alabama’s defense: Alabama’s rushing defense has been the best in the country the bulk of the season. It’s allowed just one individual to rush for 100 yards (Georgia’s Nick Chubb) and just two teams to rush for 100 yards (Georgia and Tennessee) this season.
That’s going to present quite a challenge for a Clemson team that used its running game to fuel its win against Oklahoma on Thursday. Running back Wayne Gallman had 26 carries for 150 yards and two scores and quarterback Deshaun Watson had 24 carries for 145 yards and a score. And this was against an Oklahoma defensive front that was playing as well as any defensive front in college football.
Watson can throw the ball, but he wasn’t especially accurate against the Sooners (51.6 percent) and frankly didn’t need to be with the running game working so well. Alabama didn’t face many rushing quarterbacks this season and of the ones that were mobile, none did better than Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, who had eight carries for 21 yards.
Watson's rushing ability will be a unique challenge for Alabama and perhaps Clemson's best offensive weapon.
How does Clemson stop Derrick Henry? Few teams have solved this conundrum, though Michigan State did a pretty good job in the semifinal. Part of that was the Spartans’ front seven selling out for the run, the other part was offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin opting for more of a passing attack.
Michigan State was able to limit Henry a couple different ways. First, the Spartans defensive linemen were cutting the Alabama offensive linemen and the linebackers were coming in for the stop. Second, the Spartans were forcing Henry to move lateral, which is not one of his strengths.
While these practices worked well in the first half, Alabama made some quick adjustments in the second half and Henry’s downhill running style took over in the third quarter. Henry only had 75 yards in the game, but both of his touchdowns came in the second half.
Clemson did well against Oklahoma’s strong running game, limiting it to just 67 yards, but both of the Sooners top backs suffered injuries during the contest. Still, the Tigers made Oklahoma one-dimensional, which frustrated the offense and contributed to the win.
Clemson’s front seven against Jake Coker: Alabama quarterback Jake Coker has gotten a bad rap most of this season. With Henry running the ball as well as he has, Coker has taken a backseat in the offense and has been more of a game manager than an integral part of the Tide’s success. That changed Thursday when Kiffin made Coker the centerpiece of the Alabama offense and he shined, throwing for 286 yards and two touchdowns.
Clemson’s main goal is going to be stopping Henry, which is what Michigan State tried to do, but in doing so, it’s also going to have to put pressure on Coker. The Tigers actually executed this feat well against the Oklahoma offensive line. Clemson got a ton of pressure on Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and sacked him five times. Mayfield, who has been an additional rushing threat for the Sooners at times this season, finished with 10 carries for minus-15 yards.
Coker is no longer an afterthought or even a hindrance in the Alabama offense, which will give Clemson another tough area for which to prepare.
For more Alabama news, visit TideSports.com.
For more Clemson news, visit TigerIllustrated.com.
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