By Ryan Nelson (@TheRyanNelson_)
It’s no surprise the Tide and Tigers are the last two teams standing at the doorstep of college football history as they prepare to do battle tonight in Tampa. Alabama and Clemson entered the 2016 season ranked first and second respectively in the preseason AP Top 25 and Coaches Polls.
Rebuilding to Championship Form
Returning to the national championship wasn’t easy for Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney. A combined 16 players from both rosters were selected in the 2016 NFL Draft.
The Tide also had major questions at quarterback, but found their answer in true freshman Jalen Hurts. A win would cement Hurts’ name in college football lore, as he would become only the second true freshman in college football history to lead his team to a national title. Jamelle Holieway was the first to do so for the Oklahoma Sooners in 1985.
Alabama's Offensive Identity
The Sooners were running the wishbone offense. Hurts is running the latest installment of Alabama’s pro-style attack under former offensive coordinator, now head coach of the FAU Owls, Lane Kiffin. Kiffin was relieved of play-calling duties in wake of becoming head coach at FAU. Alabama offense coordinator Steve Sarkisian will call plays for the first time since coaching at USC.
The freshman didn’t put up video game-like numbers under Kiffin’s tutelage (2,649 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 9 INTs), but he was a model of efficiency for a Tide team that ranked 13th in the nation in total offense. Hurts posted a passer rating of 143.6, which ranked 34th among FBS quarterbacks. Hurts set himself apart from Alabama quarterbacks of the past with his dynamic running ability. The freshman racked up 891 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns.
Hurts had the benefit of having two elite running backs to hand the ball of to in tight situations. Damien Harris ran for 1,016 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns on the season. Bo Scarbrough had 719 yards to go along with nine touchdowns. Scarbrough was the star of the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, rushing for 180 yards and two scores on the day.
Defending the Tigers Offensive Attack
The Tide’s biggest concern may not be their own quarterback, but the one they’ll face on Monday night. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson (4,173 yards, 38 touchdowns, and 17 INTs) is one of the most explosive players in all of college football and is arguably the best player in the nation.
The Tigers ranked fourth in total offense in 2016, and for good reason. Watson has his pick of offensive weapons. RB Wayne Gallman ran for over 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Tigers second leading rusher was Watson, their quarterback. Clemson’s signal caller ran for 586 yards and eight touchdowns.
WR Mike Williams caught 90 passes this season for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns. Williams was definitely Watson’s favorite target, but the Tigers quarterback was generous in spreading the ball around. Wide outs Jordan Leggett, Deon Cain, and Artavis Scott combined for over 1,800 yards receiving and 21 touchdowns.
The Tigers offense, no matter how dynamic, has the unenviable task of facing Alabama’s impenetrable defense. The Tide are allowing only 11.8 points per game, the best in the nation.
Alabama Wins If…
… the Tide stay true to themselves. ‘Bama has run to set up the pass all season long, and I expect a heavy dose of Alabama’s rushing attack in Tampa tonight. Since Sarkisian, and not Kiffin, is calling the plays, it only makes sense to stick to what got you here… running the football. Alabama will need to pressure Watson to keep him from getting into any type of rhythm. Remember, Watson torched this defense for 405 yards passing and four scores through the air in the 2015 edition of this game. While Alabama is having a statistically incredible season, the burden of proof is on Alabama’s defense to prove they can stop Deshaun Watson, not vice versa.
Clemson Wins If….
… the Tigers can go vertical on Alabama’s defense. Running the ball against Alabama is, according to the stats, not really an option. The Tide have allowed just 824 yards rushing on the season. That’s 63.4 rushing yards per game. Washington had some success passing the ball against Alabama, but were unable to sustain their production through the air for four quarters. Speaking of ‘’vertical,’’ the Tigers will need keep Watson on his feet. The Tide had the second most sacks of any defense this season with 50. No. 1 was FSU with 51.