All polls, committees and rankings aside, the time has come for the biggest college football game of the year. It’s important to look at what each team brings to the table and what we will expect to see come Monday night in Arizona. It will be a battle of strengths vs. strengths on college football’s biggest stage.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama’s team can only be described as vintage Nick Saban. A defense that even in the SEC has won games this year just by lacing up their cleats. A special teams who has been “special” in ever sense of the word with five touchdowns (leads the FBS). Not to mention, an offense that manages the game through the air and Heisman-winning running back, Derrick Henry, who has the experience and running ability of a seasoned veteran. This combination has lead to a 13-1 record, their 25th SEC title and a shutout victory in the Cotton Bowl. For any other team or coach in the country, that resume would be a solid decade for a program, but this is Alabama. Not only does the eye test make this Crimson Tide team great, but the stats back them up as well.
Henry has rushed for 2061 yards and 25 touchdowns, with both stats holding the top spot in the SEC. He has been the cornerstone and workhorse with 359 rushing attempts. To put that into perspective: Alabama ran 1017 plays over the course of the season, meaning Derrick Henry touched the ball on 35% of the Crimson Tides’ plays and accounted for 34% of their offense. Although it is easier said than done, if Clemson wants to stop Alabama, their best bet is going to be forcing them to pass the ball.
The surprise of the season was the maturity and performance of the hometown boy from Mobile, Ala., QB Jake Coker. Coker has a passer rating of 143.2 and hasn’t thrown an interception since Nov. 11 vs. Mississippi State. He is the only reason the Ole Miss game was even worth watching in the fourth quarter, leading his team to a 20 point deficit comeback that would fall just short.
Defenses win championships, and these are where the numbers get scary. The Crimson Tide has allowed only six rushing TDs all year. Since losing to Ole Miss, they have outscored opponents 372-117. During the regular season, they held opposing QBs to a 7.8 QBR and forced a three and out on 34% of opposing teams’ offensive possessions. Opposing offenses rush for a meager average of 71 yards per game, which is 12 yards fewer than any team in the FBS. Nick Saban’s boys are no strangers to the big stage, and there is little doubt that they won’t be ready for Monday night.
The task is a tall one, but of all the teams, Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers’ high-powered offense is up to it. They were the dominating force from the ACC and are undefeated leading up to the National Championship. Not to take anything from the speed and strength of Clemson’s defense, but the spotlight will be on the high-octane offense. Dabo Sweeny’s team has wins against four CFP Top 25 teams. Deshaun Watson saw a majority of his success in the air; however, it is his ability to run the zone read and triple option that makes him even more dangerous. His unpredictability could be the Achilles heel to the hard-hitting Alabama defense. Watson’s growth is what is most impressive. Last year Sweeney was forced into a 2-man system where Watson only rushed for 200 yards and threw for 1466. This season, he passed for nearly 3700 yards and was one of only two Tigers to rush for over 1000 yards. The stats and the accolades don’t stop with their leader on the field, but everyone on that side of the ball has helped Clemson maintain their high level of success throughout the season.
If Clemson wants to find Alabama’s kryptonite they may not have to look farther than their own locker room. The Clemson offense ran the most plays of any team in the FBS this year with 1122. The only team who came close to that number of offensive snaps that Alabama played this year was Ole Miss, who gave the Crimson Tide its only loss. Many have noticed similarities between the offenses of Ole Miss and Clemson, which ranked 10 and 11 respectively in total offense.
The most impressive part of Clemson’s offense is it can come from anywhere. Clemson was one of two teams to rush for 3200 yards and pass for over 3900 yds. The only other team that was on the top 25 of both lists with Clemson in the FBS was Baylor, who many people believe to be the best offense in the country.
The next team that Clemson has similarities with and that Alabama had trouble defeating this year was Tennessee. The Alabama front seven had a difficult time handling the athleticism and misdirection of an athletic quarterback. There is no doubt Watson is the most athletic player Alabama has seen all season.
With these teams’ contrasting styles and contrasting strengths it will make for a very memorable game. It will come down to the key matchups of the Clemson defensive line vs. Derrick Henry, Deshaun Watson vs. the Crimson Tide defensive front seven, and finally Nick Saban vs. Dabo Sweeny. Who will triumph? We will find out on Monday night.
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