Breaking down the College Football Playoff championship game between Alabama and Clemson (Monday, ESPN, 5 p.m.):
Clemson has the nation’s best quarterback and perhaps the best player overall in junior Deshaun Watson, who torched the Alabama defense in last season’s 45-40 title game loss. If you’re looking for one reason why Clemson might hold the edge, look no further: Watson alone is cause for confidence. Alabama has landed very solid play from true freshman Jalen Hurts, but his performance in the Peach Bowl win against Washington showed how a well-balanced defense can limit his effectiveness throwing the football.
Alabama rolls out one five-star running back after another in waves, with the latest to make his mark — Bo Scarbrough — tearing through the Huskies with a game-high 180 rushing yards. Clemson has a good one in junior Wayne Gallman, who has back-to-back seasons with at least 1,000 yards, but there might be no team in the country with more depth and talent than the Crimson Tide. If all else fails in the passing game, the Tide can try to bully and batter the Tigers with Scarbrough, Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs.
In what seems strangely familiar, Alabama has once again put together a defense that compares favorably to some of the top units in recent history. They are strong up front, led by All-America end Jonathan Allen; loaded in the middle, highlighted by All-America linebacker Reuben Foster; and opportunistic in the secondary, as seen in the team’s 11 defensive touchdowns on the season. But Clemson is no slouch, as seen most clearly in the NFL-type talent overloading the defensive line. Alabama might have the better defense, but the Tigers have a defense more than capable of leading the team to victory on Monday night.
The failures seen in last year’s loss to Alabama motivated Clemson to make major changes on special teams. That’s led to a nice rebound in production from the return game and coverages teams. In three areas — kickoff returns, kickoff return defense and punt return defense — the Tigers are stronger than Alabama, but the Tide have been positively electric on their own punt returns, with four brought back for touchdowns. As seen last January, these sort of No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups often come down to one or two individual plays.
Nick Saban has led Alabama to four national championships and he has five titles overall, including one at LSU in 2003. That sort of big-game experience — and success — cannot be overlooked. At the same time, Dabo Swinney and the Clemson coaching staff have now been through three Playoff games and are entering their second title game. Given the turnover on Alabama’s staff, it’s not as if the Tide hold a huge edge in preparation or in-game execution.
For all of the talk of Alabama’s juggernaut-like rampage through its first 14 games, there is ample reason to view the Crimson Tide as underdogs in the rematch against Clemson. The Tigers are better offensively, have the far stronger quarterback, are as good as any team in college football along the defensive line and, in total, are equipped to give Alabama fits on both sides of the ball. Nearly 12 months to the day after failing to knock off the Tide, this is Clemson’s year.
Clemson 31, Alabama 27