The College Football season comes to a close Monday with the national championship game in Santa Clara, CA, between familiar foes in Alabama and Clemson. This is the fourth-straight year the teams will meet in the playoff. However, they both look a lot different this season.
How They Got Here
Nick Saban has produced one of his strongest offenses ever in his 12th season as the Tide’s head coach, winning every regular-season game by at least 22 points. A lot of the credit goes to arguably the best quarterback Saban has had at Alabama in Tua Tagovailoa.
In his first eight games, Tagovailoa got off to a fast start, throwing for over 2,000 yards, 25 touchdowns, and zero interceptions. It looked like the sophomore was on his way to a Heisman trophy. But Tagovailoa has been dealing with injuries since October. At the end of the season the injuries caught up to him.
Coming off a historic Iron Bowl performance, the Hawaiian native had his worst performance of the year. He threw for 164 yards and two interceptions on 10-25 passing. He injured both ankles and sat on the sidelines as Jalen Hurts took over.
In the CFP semifinal against Oklahoma, Tagovailoa bounced back and threw for 318 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
On the flip side, Clemson started off the season with Kelly Bryant at quarterback. They won their first four games, including a nail-biter at Texas A&M. After the Georgia Tech game, head coach Dabo Swinney decided to make a change. In came the freshman phenom in Trevor Lawrence.
The quarterback change didn’t go without a hiccup. Against Syracuse, Lawrence went down with an injury, leaving Chase Brice to lead the way. The Tigers narrowly escaped the Orange, but ever since that game the team hasn’t looked back.
Lawrence repaid Swinney on his investment as he bolstered the offense. Since Week 6 Clemson has averaged 48 points per game while only allowing about 11 points per game. The Tigers have used a balance of strong offense and defense that no other team in the country has besides… Alabama.
Battles To Watch
Alabama O-Line vs. Clemson’s D-Line
Strength versus strength will be a common theme in this matchup. One of the most significant battles will be at the line of scrimmage.
Clemson boasts one of the best defensive lines in all of college football. But it will likely be without Dexter Lawrence, one of the best interior linemen in college football. They’ll face Alabama’s offensive line led by offensive tackle Jonah Williams. He is poised to be a high selection in the NFL Draft and senior center Ross Pierschbacher is a force.
In the regular season, the Alabama front was among the nation’s best at protecting the quarterback, allowing just 13 sacks. Clemson’s defense is one of the best at getting to the quarterback with 46 sacks for the season. Alabama neutralized this same Clemson defensive line a season ago.
With Tagovailoa not at 100 percent, keeping the pocket protected will be paramount for the Tide.
Tagovailoa vs. Clemson Defense
Last Saturday, Alabama faced Oklahoma, who ranked dead last in the FBS in pass defense. Clemson ranks 111 spots better at 18th, but they are still vulnerable. If there’s a weakness to Clemson’s defense, it’s the secondary.
Against Texas A&M, the Tigers gave up over 400 yards passing to Kellen Mond. And late in the season, they gave up over 500 yards and five touchdowns to South Carolina’s Jake Bentley. While Mond and Bentley are good quarterbacks, they’re not on the same level as Tagovailoa. Not only is Tua a Heisman runner-up, but he’s accompanied by one of the best wide receiving cores.
Jerry Jeudy leads the way with 1,176 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. Henry Ruggs III, Jaylen Waddle, Irv Smith Jr., and Devonta Smith all have at least 600 receiving yards and combine for 31 touchdowns.
Yet, Clemson’s secondary showed much improvement against Notre Dame. They limited quarterback Ian Book to 160 yards, zero touchdowns, and forced him to throw an interception too.
Trevor Lawrence vs. Alabama Defense
Before the Cotton Bowl, there were questions about Lawrence’s youth and his ability to rise to the occasion. After the game, there was little doubt.
Lawrence threw for 327 yards, three touchdowns, and zero picks against the Irish. Mind you the Irish had the second-best pass defense and best overall defense of opponents the Tigers. The freshman All-American needs to elevate his game once more to beat the defending champs.
In the past, Alabama’s defense has struggled most with dual-threat quarterbacks. Last Saturday, Kyler Murray threw for 308 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 109 against the Alabama defense. That wasn’t enough by the Heisman trophy winner.
Lawrence does not hang his hat on his ability to run with just 157 rushing yards this season. But he can extend plays, which will be key against an Alabama defense that has 42 sacks on the season. How Lawrence fares against the best defense he’s seen in his short career will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.
These two teams are similar on paper. Dominant defenses that are led by elite front sevens. Young star quarterbacks with great arms and are complemented by efficient running games. The difference in this game will likely come down to the battle in the trenches and getting a key turnover.
Last season, Alabama squashed Clemson in a semifinal game after a month to prepare. Now, both teams only get a little over a week. Vegas has Alabama around a six-point favorite with a 59 over/under.
All season, Alabama has been the favorite to win it all. Clemson is the rare team that can keep up. But Alabama’s offense is historically great and has elite players at nearly every position. That’s too much for a freshman quarterback (and Clemson) to deal with.
Prediction: Alabama 34, Clemson 24.