❚ Clem­son vs. Alabama: Who wins the na­tional ti­tle?

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Ed­die Ti­manus

No. 1 Alabama (14-0) faces No. 2 Clem­son (14-0) Jan. 7 at 8 p.m. ET in the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off Na­tional Cham­pi­onship in Santa Clara, Calif. The game is tele­vised on ESPN. Break­ing down the matchup.

Pass­ing

When he’s healthy, Tua Tago­v­ailoa makes the Alabama of­fense all but un­stop­pable. He has a 69.5% com­ple­tion rate, 41 touch­down passes and just four in­ter­cep­tions. He an­swered any lin­ger­ing ques­tions about the health of his sur­gi­cally re­paired an­kle by throw­ing for four scores with only three in­com­ple­tions in the Or­ange Bowl win against Ok­la­homa. It doesn’t hurt, how­ever, hav­ing Jalen Hurts back­ing him up. Hurts isn’t as ac­cu­rate on deep balls, but he’s a more dy­namic run­ner as he showed when he res­cued the Crim­son Tide in the SEC ti­tle game against Ge­or­gia. Jerry Jeudy leads the re­ceiv­ing corps with 1,176 yards, but there are plenty of long- and -short-range op­tions.

Clem­son got an up­grade when fresh­man Trevor Lawrence was el­e­vated to the start­ing job in Septem­ber. He isn’t quite as pro­lific as Tago­v­ailoa with 27 scor­ing throws, but he’s av­er­ag­ing 209.5 yards a game while com­plet­ing 65.3% of his at­tempts. His pro­mo­tion prompted in­cum­bent Kelly Bryant to trans­fer. That nearly proved dis­as­trous when Lawrence was in­jured against Syra­cuse, but Chase Brice di­rected the come­back win that kept Clem­son un­beaten. Sopho­more Tee Hig­gins and fresh­man Justyn Ross are the pri­mary tar­gets, but un­der­sized se­nior Hunter Ren­frow al­ways seems to play big­ger when the stakes are high­est.

Edge: Alabama.

Rush­ing

Both backfields are stocked with depth and tal­ent. But the most dy­namic of the lot is Clem­son sopho­more Travis Eti­enne. The con­stant home-run threat has 1,573 yards and 22 rush­ing TDs while av­er­ag­ing more than 8 yards per carry. The Tigers have a trio of other re­li­able rush­ers in the ro­ta­tion, so some­one is al­ways fresh.

The Crim­son Tide’s tail­back group is led by se­nior Damien Har­ris (819 yards, nine TDs). But the most com­plete back might be ju­nior Josh Ja­cobs, a su­perb pass catcher and blocker with 824 to­tal yards from scrimmage.

Edge: Clem­son.

De­fense

Even with Dex­ter Lawrence sit­ting out af­ter test­ing pos­i­tive for a banned sub­stance, the Tigers dom­i­nated the Cot­ton Bowl tri­umph against Notre Dame. Clem­son gives up an av­er­age of 12.9 points and 274.6 yards a game. The front line is still the main­stay de­spite Lawrence’s ab­sence. Ends Clelin Fer­rell and Austin Bryant as well as nose tackle Chris­tian Wilkins can all cause havoc in op­pos­ing backfields. Any­body who gets by them will usu­ally have to deal with line­backer Ken­dall Joseph or safety Isa­iah Sim­mons.

Alabama’s de­fen­sive num­bers aren’t as im­pres­sive by the pro­gram’s lofty stan­dards, 16.2 points and 307.9 yards al­lowed per game, al­though to be fair, many of those statis­tics have oc­curred with games al­ready well in hand. There’s still plenty of fu­ture NFL tal­ent, no­tably nose tackle Quin­nen Wil­liams and line­backer Chris­tian Miller.

Edge: Clem­son.

Spe­cial teams

The top-notch ath­letes both teams can put on the field on of­fense oc­ca­sion­ally pro­duce big re­turns as well. Alabama fresh­man Jaylen Wad­dle has brought back one punt for a score, while Ja­cobs has a coast-to-coast kick­off re­turn. Amari Rodgers, the Tigers’ pri­mary punt han­dler, also has a TD re­turn. Place kick­ing has been some­what prob­lem­atic for Alabama, which has eight failed PATs this sea­son. Vet­eran Greg Huegel could tip the bal­ance for the Tigers should the game get to over­time.

Edge: Clem­son.

Coach­ing

Nick Sa­ban has led the Crim­son Tide to the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off in all five years of its ex­is­tence and has reached the ti­tle game for the last four. Clem­son’s Dabo Swin­ney has been in the last four play­offs. He’s 1-2 vs. Sa­ban in the play­off, in­clud­ing a split in the cham­pi­onship game.

Edge: Alabama.

Pre­dic­tion

These teams have been on a col­li­sion course the en­tire sea­son. The even­tual cham­pion Crim­son Tide won 24-6 in last year’s semifinal, but this game looks like it will pro­vide the same high level of in­trigue as their two pre­vi­ous ti­tle-game en­coun­ters did. Here’s hop­ing it de­liv­ers.

Pick: Alabama, 38-35

BRETT DAVIS/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Quar­ter­back Tua Tago­v­ailoa makes the Alabama of­fense all but un­stop­pable.

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