TAMPA, Fla. – The college football season has been long.
One hundred and twenty-eight teams started the season with one dream in mind: to lift the golden College Football Playoff trophy high at season’s end.
One hundred and twenty-six of those teams did not make the cut.
Only two teams did.
The University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson University Tigers will face-off once again in the College Football Playoff National Championship. Last year, the Tide defeated the Tigers 45-40 in one of the most thrilling title games of all time, rivaling the classic Texas vs. USC BCS Championship game in 2006.
In that loss, Clemson Quarterback Deshaun Watson played valiantly. He passed for more than 405 yards and four touchdowns and was an onside kick recovery from possibly leading Clemson to its first championship since the 1981 season.
In 2016, both teams fought through grueling regular seasons, conference championship games, and playoff semifinals on their respective roads to Tampa.
As the Southeastern Conference champion, Alabama Crimson Tide (14-0, 9-0) made its way through the regular season with ease in almost every game. The Tide owns the nation’s longest winning streak, winning 26 consecutive games dating back to Sept. 19, 2015 vs. Ole Miss. Alabama has outscored its opponents by an average of 25 points per game during the streak.
With the win over the Washington Huskies in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Alabama reached 14 wins for the third time in school history. That is the most 14 win seasons in the history of college football.
A win in the semifinals by a score of 24-7 was enough to get Bama to the national title game, but the 17 point offensive performance was not good enough for head coach Nick Saban to allow offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to remain on staff through the remainder of the season.
Kiffin accepted the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic in mid-December. According to Saban, Kiffin could not juggle the offensive coordinator responsibilities and everything that goes with being a head coach, even if it were just for one more week. Now the play calling lies on the shoulders of former University of Southern California head coach Steve Sarkesian.
Sarkesian has been on the Alabama staff since September as an offensive analyst. While he is familiar with the players and the playbook, he has not been able to coach on a sideline since he was fired at USC. The title game will be the first time Sarkesian has been able to interact with players and coaches in a game since the middle of the 2015 season before he was let go from USC.
The Clemson Tigers (13-1, 8-1) flirted with disaster all season. Six of the Tigers’ wins were decided by seven or few points in 2016, including a 30-24 victory over Troy and a 24-17 win over conference foe North Carolina State. The Tigers only loss of 2016 came on Nov. 12. against Pittsburgh by a score of 43-42.
The Tigers heated up down the stretch, especially in the College Football Playoff semifinal against The Ohio State Buckeyes. The Clemson story usually starts with offense. But in the semifinals Head Coach Dabo Swinney proved he has a defense that can keep his team in any game.
In the semifinals, the Buckeyes only muscled up 215 total yards of offense, and did not manage to get on the scoreboard. The game marked the first time an Urban Meyer coached team had ever been shutout.
When Clemson has the ball
Much like last year, the Clemson offense relies on quarterback Deshaun Watson. So far in the 2016 season, Watson has thrown for 4,173 yards and 38 touchdowns. Nick Saban has been very vocal about how he believes Watson is the best player in all of college football.
One negative for Watson this season is his high number of interceptions thrown. He has thrown 17 picks through 13 games including two in the semifinal game.
Watson’s greatness is not solely based on his ability to make throws down the field. His ability to extend plays and drives with his legs will keep any opposing defensive coordinator up at night. In 2016, Watson rushed for 586 yards and eight touchdowns and was his teams’ second leading rusher.
When Watson is not making plays all on his own, he likes to get the ball to future first round NFL pick Mike Williams. Williams has reeled in 90 catches for nearly 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Williams will not be Alabama’s only problem. Clemson has receiving options downfield including running back Wayne Gallman who loves to catch passes out of the backfield.
The turnovers may be an aspect of the game Alabama can take advantage of. In 2016, the Alabama defense scored 11 times when taking the ball from its opponent. The Tide’s latest defensive touchdown came just before halftime vs. Washington when Ryan Anderson picked a pass off in the flat, ran over a much smaller running back, and ran uncontested into the end zone.
In last year’s meeting, Alabama lost contain on Watson too many times. Watson beat blitzes throughout the night giving Alabama fits. If Alabama expects to win Monday night, it cannot afford to let Watson scramble around in this game for extra yards. The ability of edge rushers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson to keep Watson in the pocket will be one of the biggest factors that will decide the outcome of this game.
When Alabama has the ball
The Tide offense goes as its freshman quarterback does.
When Jalen Hurts is hot, the Alabama offense can score a large amount of points.
When Hurts is cold, like he was against Washington, the Alabama offense cannot get in rhythm.
In the game against Washington Hurts threw for 57 yards and no touchdowns. Most of that may be due to Kiffin’s inability to prepare his offense for that game. Regardless of any circumstance, Hurts will have to be hot in this game for Bama to have a shot.
In the latter quarter of the season, Alabama’s main threat has been running back Bo Scarbrough. In the Peach Bowl, he rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-sealing 68 yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Ardarius Stewart does the majority of the damage in the receiving game for the Tide, but the Clemson defense will not be able to key in on just him. Calvin Ridley, O.J. Howard, and Gehrig Dieter are all valuable weapons for the Alabama passing game.
On defense, the Tigers are led by senior linebacker Ben Boulware. Boulware makes all of the on-field calls for the Clemson defense and is as close as you can get to having a coach on the field.
Expect the Tigers to force Hurts to make throws by bringing extra men in the box to stop the Alabama running game. If the Tigers let Alabama’s committee of running backs get going, the passing game could open up for Hurts enabling him to have a much better game through the air than he had against the Washington Huskies.
If there is a team who can dethrone the Tide it is the Clemson Tigers. Clemson is one of the hottest teams in the country with one of the hottest quarterbacks in the country, which is usually the only way a team can knock off a Nick Saban coached team.
In this game, something will have to give. Alabama’s defense is giving up just over 11 points per game and the Clemson offense is scoring well above that with 39.5.
If history is an indicator of what will happen in this game then Alabama fans can relax. Clemson has not had very much luck against Alabama in the past. The Tide is 13-3 all-time vs. Clemson.
Nick Saban’s history in title games should also take some of the edge off for the Bama faithful. Nick Saban is 5-0 in national title games. He is 4-0 at Alabama and 1-0 at LSU.
Monday night, one team will lift the College Football Playoff trophy high. Will it be Alabama for the fifth time in eight seasons or will Dabo Swinney bring Clemson its first national title since 1981?
The national title game will be nationally televised, and is set to kick off Monday, Jan. 9. at 7:17 p.m.
Jeremy Law for SylacaugaNews.com | © 2017, SylacaugaNews.com/Marble City Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.