❚ Clemson vs. Alabama: Who wins the national title?
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.
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 prolific 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.
Both backfields 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.
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 backfields. 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.
The top-notch athletes both teams can put on the field 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.
Nick Saban has led the Crimson Tide to the College Football Playoff in all five years of its existence and has reached the title game for the last four. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has been in the last four playoffs. He’s 1-2 vs. Saban in the playoff, including a split in the championship game.
These teams have been on a collision course the entire season. The eventual champion Crimson Tide won 24-6 in last year’s semifinal, 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
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa makes the Alabama offense all but unstoppable.