It’s the most dominant team of the last decade against the Clemson Tigers for the national championship on Monday night. The Alabama Crimson Tide are the winners of three of the last six college football national championships and this year’s champions of the ballyhooed Southeastern Conference (the SEC has claimed seven of the last nine national championships). This isn’t necessarily David versus Goliath, but it is Goliath versus someone significantly smaller and less accomplished. Clemson have won only one national title in their history and over the last few years the Tigers have become synonymous with underachievement. Clemson come into this game as the only undefeated team in the country, but are still heavy underdogs. History and pedigree may favor the Tide, but this one may not be as lopsided as it may appear.
What’s at stake?
Alabama claim to be going for their 16th national championship (although a thorough examination of college football history would put that number closer to 11). Legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant won six championships between 1961 and 1979. Alabama coach Nick Saban is looking for his fourth national title with Alabama in the last seven years. (He also won a share of the national title in 2007 with Louisiana State). For Alabama, this is about birthright.
For Clemson, winners of one national championship 34 years ago, this is about changing the perception of their program. “Clemsoning” as “the act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance, usually within the context of a college football season.” More to the point, it is the tendency to play poorly in big games and to lose to lesser opponents in stunning fashion. Since 2011, the Tigers have lost 11 games, and eight of them have been to teams that were either unranked or ranked below them. Disappointment, thy name is Clemson.
But not this year. The Tigers come into the title game at 14-0, the only unblemished mark in the country. Their win over Notre Dame in October catapulted them to the No1 spot when the initial College Football Playoff rankings came out in November, with the Crimson Tide ranked fourth after an early loss to Ole Miss at home. Losses by LSU and Ohio State would vault Alabama to the two spot. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting behind Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and winner Derrick Henry – running back of the Crimson Tide. These two squads have been the best teams in the nation throughout the year, and one will exit Monday night’s game as the undisputed national champion.
Let’s start with Derrick Henry.
Henry is a 6ft 3in, 245lbs bruiser who led the country in rushing yards (2,061), rushing attempts (359), and touchdowns (25) this year en route to taking home the Heisman. The junior, who will most likely declare for the NFL draft after the game, isn’t particularly shifty, but has been dominant in the Tide’s biggest games. Henry ran for a career high 271 yards against archrival Auburn, and took over late in Alabama’s 38-0 semi-final annihilation of Michigan State. Alabama quarterback Jake Coker was benched prior to the loss to Ole Miss, but has played better if not particularly well as the season has gone on. His main target has been freshman wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who caught eight balls for 138 yards and two scores last week against MSU.
Clemson’s Watson is the prototypical dual threat college quarterback, having thrown for nearly 3,700 yards this season and rushed for over 1,000. He accounted for 45 of the team’s 66 offensive touchdowns, and rushed for more than 100 yards in five of the team’s last six games (including 145 yards in Clemson’s 37-17 pasting of Oklahoma in the semi-finals.) Running back Wayne Gallman has quietly become one of the top backs is the country, and wide receiver Artavis Scott looks to be the latest in a long line of NFL quality pass catchers to play for the Tigers.
But it is on defense where both of these teams have made their marks. Alabama’s defense is ferocious, finishing second in the nation in total defense and first in points allowed. Four members of Alabama’s starting front seven (linebacker Reggie Ragland, defensive tackle Jarran Reed, and defensive ends A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen) project as first-round picks in this year’s draft, and the Tide have not allowed more than 16 points in any of their last seven games.
But Clemson are no slouch on defense either. The Tigers finished sixth in the nation in total defense and has three players in cornerback Mackensie Alexander, defensive end Shaq Lawson, and safety Jayron Kearse that could also hear their names called in the first round of the draft this spring. Lawson missed last week’s game against Oklahoma with a knee injury, but says that he will be ready go on Monday night.
Alabama and Clemson have more in common than one might think, especially on the coaching side. Former Clemson coach Frank Howard, the sainted patriarch of the program and the namesake of , played his college football at Alabama. Howard ran the Clemson program from 1940 to 1969 when he retired and was replaced by Hootie Ingram, another Alabama grad. Ingram went on to be the least successful head coach in Clemson history, but the Crimson Tide also gave the Tigers their two most successful leaders. Charley Pell, a defensive tackle at Alabama from 1961-1963, revived the program in the late 70s. And when he left to go to take a job at the University of Florida, he handed the reins to Danny Ford, an offensive tackle at Alabama from 1967-1969. Ford went on to deliver the Tigers their only national championship in 1981, and is the winningest coach in program history not named Frank Howard. No3 on the list of coaching wins for the Tigers is current coach Dabo Swinney, an Alabama boy who was a walk on receiver for the Crimson Tide from 1990-1993. Swinney could bring the Tigers their second national title Monday night, but he will have to go through his alma mater to do so.
Clemson win if ...
Coker plays like the liability he was early in the season instead of the competent game manager he has become down the stretch. Clemson’s front seven contain Henry early in the game and Alexander locks down Ridley on the outside. Watson frustrates the Tide defense with his running ability, leading them to take chances on defense and leave the Tigers receivers in one-on-one coverage. And Clemson win the turnover battle.
Alabama win if ...
The Tide defense suffocates Clemson the way they have controlled everyone else over the past two months. Henry’s bruising runs take their toll throughout the game, and he begins gashing a worn out Clemson defense in the fourth quarter. And Coker holds on to the ball. It’s been a winning formula all year long. No reason to change it now.
Prediction: Alabama 23–14 Clemson