This years National Championship Game in college football will feature the third time in four years that the Alabama Crimson Tide will take on the Clemson Tigers. In the two previous meeting between these two schools, they split the games with Alabama winning to cap off the 2015 season and Clemson winning to cap off the 2016 season. The two schools also met last season in the College Football Playoff Semifinals at the Sugar Bowl, and that was a game that was dominated by Alabama on its way to a 24-6 win.
It has felt like these two teams were clearly the two best teams in college football all season, and while they both had games where they got pushed (Clemson against Syracuse and Texas A&M, and Alabama against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game), both schools were able to go through the regular season and their conference championship games 13-0 and then they both won comfortably in their semifinal games, Clemson beating Notre Dame 30-3 and Alabama beating Oklahoma 45-34, but the Crimson Tide did lead that game 28-0 before Oklahoma was able to settle in.
Alabama offense vs Clemson defense
The Alabama offense has been pretty much unstoppable all season and they showed that again in the Orange Bowl, with a more healthy Tua Tagovailoa, after he had about a month to recover from an ankle injury that he’d been dealing with. He wasn’t really touched at all against Oklahoma, so it’s safe to assume that he will be even more healthy going into this one and that’s going to be tough to deal with because he has been so good at getting the ball to Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Jaylen Waddle and the other big-time players they have on that offense.
On top of that elite passing game, the Crimson Tide can run the ball like normal. It’s more by committee this season than it has been in the past, but overall, Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and Najee Harris have all shown the capability to be a go-to back this season. That offensive balance has been too much for anyone to handle this season.
Luckily for Clemson, they have as much talent on the defensive side of the ball as anyone in college football. Even without star defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, they still probably have the best defensive line in college football. Clelin Ferrell (11.5 sacks) and Austin Bryant (8.5 sacks) are more than capable of ruining an offensive gameplan on their own, and when you put them together it’s just very tough to give your quarterback time to throw, no matter how good your offensive line is.
For Clemson, I think the front seven is something you can rely on. I think they can do a good job against the run with the front four and then with the linebacking core of Tre’ Lamar, Isaiah Simmons and Kendall Joseph.
The key guy in this Clemson defense to me will be Isaiah Simmons. The converted safety is Clemson’s leading tackler, but on top of that he still has the athleticism of a safety and he shows that when he has to go into pass coverage. Against this Alabama passing attack, they will need all hands on deck, and I think Simmons gives them the type of player that can be versatile enough to have a big impact against both the run and the pass.
Clemson offense vs Alabama defense
Alabama is it’s normal self on defense. They are dominant up front, lead by Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs, and their linebackers are very good at playing the run, and while they are younger in the secondary and might be slightly more vulnerable than usual, they don’t give opposing quarterbacks enough time to throw to even try and pick apart that secondary.
Clemson has been taken to a new level offensively since Trevor Lawrence took over at quarterback, and conventional wisdom is that they went to Trevor Lawrence earlier in the season because it was clear you would need a guy at quarterback who could stretch the field with his arm to have a chance to beat Alabama this season with their passing attack.
Well, they have that kind of passing attack. Lawrence has thrown 27 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions, and he’s done it by really spreading the ball around. They have so many playmakers at receiver. Hunter Renfrow is the veteran who is able to convert third downs at a great rate, Amari Rodgers is steady, Tee Higgins is a touchdown machine and Justyn Ross is a big-play threat, as he showed in the Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame.
Clemson also has a more dynamic rushing attack this season than they’ve seemed to have since Andre Ellington was the running back at Clemson. Not to say they haven’t had good rushing attacks, but Travis Etienne has emerged as the bell cow in that offense, averaging 8.3 yards per carry this season, and running for 22 touchdowns.
This Alabama defense didn’t play very good against Oklahoma after the initial 28-0 dominance, and they really didn’t play that great in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia. I think Clemson will be able to move the ball in this one and I have no fear of them being lead by a true freshman quarterback, because no stage has been too big for Trevor Lawrence this season.
Neither one of these teams has been very good on special teams this season, but I’m going to give the edge to Alabama. Joseph Bulovas hasn’t been bad this season for Alabama, but I really don’t trust either kicker to make a big kick. The reason I give the edge to Alabama is because they’ve been better in the return game this season. They haven’t had to return too many kicks because they don’t give up very many scores, but when they have had kick returns, Joshua Jacobs has been good, but I look more at punt returns where Jaylen Waddle has been really good. It’ll be critical for Clemson to be able to keep the ball out of his hands when they have to punt.
I like Clemson’s chances in this game because they have the qualities to beat Alabama. Not just the talent, but the talent in the right places, which is huge. I also really like Trevor Lawrence and the poise that he’s played with. He hasn’t played like a freshman all season and I don’t think even the Alabama defense is going to intimidate him. I am going to go with Alabama though because I think the defensive line will be able to be disrusptive enough to get Trevor Lawrence off his spot enough to force some punts, and I think while Clemson will be able to do a good job against the run, Tua Tagovailoa and those receivers will be able to make enough plays to win a fairly high-scoring game.
Pick: Alabama wins 34-30