CFP National Championship Game Preview

Barring injury and turnovers this season's CFP title game should be greatness. Photo Courtesy: Alabama Crimson Tide Football Fans Facebook Page
Barring injury and turnovers Monday’s CFP title game should be greatness and really close.
Photo Courtesy: Alabama Crimson Tide Football Fans Facebook Page

By Jeff Cantrell

Game Info
#2 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. #1 Clemson Tigers
Monday – January 11 – 7:30 PM CT
University of Phoenix Stadium – Glendale, Arizona

Records Before the Game
Alabama Crimson Tide (13-1, 7-1 SEC)
Clemson Tigers (14-0, 8-0 ACC)

How did Clemson get here?
Clemson started the season winning glorified scrimmages against Wofford and Appalachian State, by a combined score of 90-20. After their warm-up games, the Tigers squeaked out close wins against Louisville, 20-17 and Notre Dame, 24-22. Two more lopsided wins over Georgia Tech and Boston College had Clemson at 6-0 halfway through of the season. In their next game, the Tigers crushed the Miami Hurricanes by a score of 58-0. Then they came out on top of a high scoring affair against North Carolina State, 56-41, and a week later won a relatively low scoring, defensive matchup, against Florida State, 23-13. Three more games saw three more wins as the Tigers downed Syracuse, Wake Forest and South Carolina to close out the regular season.

In the ACC championship game, Clemson traded the lead back and forth with North Carolina throughout the first half. Holding on to a 5 point lead at half, the Tigers pulled away in the 3rd quarter and held off a 4th quarter rally by the Tar Heels to win the conference title and a seed in the College Football Playoff. Standing between the #1 ranked Tigers and a chance for the National Championship stood #4 Oklahoma, and at the half the Sooners held on to a 1 point lead, 17-16. However, a dominating defensive performance in the second half kept Oklahoma scoreless as the Tigers racked up three more touchdowns for a comfortable, 37-17, victory, a slot in the championship game, and a chance for an undefeated season.

How did Alabama get here?
Alabama began their season with a matchup against the Wisconsin Badgers in the posh confines of AT&T Stadium in Arlington. It was a game the Crimson Tide would win comfortably with a score of 35-17. The Tide rolled again the following week, knocking off Middle Tennessee by an equally cozy score of 37-10. In their conference opener, disaster struck the Crimson Tide as they were defeated at home by Ole Miss. The Rebels would never trail in the game and a late Alabama rally would fall short as the Tide lost a close one, 43-37. Rebounding, the Tide would cruise to victories in their next four games. Alabama pulled out a defensive victory in a close game against Tennessee by a final score of 19-14. The Crimson Tide closed out the season with victories over LSU, Mississippi State, Charleston Southern and Auburn, by a combined score of 146-41.

In the SEC Championship game, Alabama took on Florida and with tough defense and grinding offense, the Tide defeated the Gators, 29-15. In their playoff matchup, #2 Alabama faced #3 Michigan State in a game didn’t live up to the hype as Crimson Tide dominated the Spartans throughout, winning 38-0.

The Match Up
This is an intriguing match up because for a team to reach the championship game it needs to be generally well rounded and without anything resembling a fatal flaw. Both teams meet those criteria with effective two dimensional offenses, tough defenses and solid special teams. The Sagarin ratings have Alabama in first place with the toughest strength of schedule. Clemson comes into the game with a respectable 30th ranking in SOS. A factor in these rating is that, in the Sagarin rankings, Alabama is 9-1 against teams ranked amongst the top 30 teams and Clemson is only 4-0 against top 30 rated teams. This would seem to give Alabama the edge in this game. However, if you look at how both teams performed against teams that were ranked in the pre-bowl game AP poll you get a somewhat different picture. Clemson defeated #4 Oklahoma, #8 Notre Dame, #9 Florida State and #10 North Carolina. Alabama knocked of #3 Michigan State, #22 LSU, and #23 Wisconsin, but lost to #16 ranked Ole Miss. Looking at poll comparison, it appears to give Clemson the edge by virtue of having played an equal number of top 25 finishing teams, who generally finished higher in the rankings and did so without a loss.

In a deeper examination, some statistics stand out about the two teams. Clemson is the offensive powerhouse of the two. The Tigers come into the game ranked 11th in total offense, 16th in rushing, averaging 228.6 yards a game, and 26th in passing with 283.4 yards per game. Alabama, on the other hand, comes in ranked 51st in total offense, 29th in rushing with 204.4 yards, and 68th in passing at 219.4 yards a game. The difference might not look like much, but it’s a different of 88 yards which is the length of the field and presumably a touchdown, which could be the difference in a game like this. Where it really gets interesting is on defense, Clemson’s #6 ranked defense and Alabama’s #2 ranked defense should, hopefully, keep this game from being a lopsided blowout by either team. The Tide rank #1 in the country in run defense and allow an average of 70.8 yards per game. In passing defense, they are ranked 18th, giving up around 186 yards a game. Alabama is also #1 in scoring defense, giving up just 13.4 points per game. Clemson’s comes in at 18th in run defense with 124.4 yards on average, and 9th in passing defense giving up 177.2 yards per game through the air. The Tigers rank 16th in the nation for scoring defense, giving up 20 points a game. An area for concern for Clemson fans is the turnover margin where the Tigers rank 74th while the Crimson Tide are 22nd meaning that Clemson gives the ball away significantly more than Alabama. Turnovers in this game, by either team, will be costly and could end up deciding the winner of this contest.

Crimson Tide Offense
Alabama will be led in this game by their QB, Jake Coker. Coker has completed 247 passes on 368 attempts for a completion percentage of 67.1% and 2,775 yards. He has thrown for 19 TDs on the season with just eight interceptions. On the receiving end, and getting the lion’s share of Coker’s passes, is WR Calvin Ridley, who has 83 catches for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns so far. On the ground, RB Derrick Henry is driving force behind the Tide’s run game with 2,061 yards on 359 carries and 25 TDs. He is a potent offense weapon that is hard to stop behind a dominate Bama O-line.

Tigers Offense
Leading Clemson is QB Deshaun Watson who has 303 completions on 444 attempts for 3,699 yards with a completion percentage of 68.2%. Watson has thrown 31 TDs with 12 INTs on the season, and is heavily involved in the run game with 1,032 yards on 187 carries and 12 TDs. This puts Watson in second on the team in rushing yards behind only RB Wayne Gallman who has carried the ball 269 times for 1,482 yards and 12 TDs. The Tigers top receiver is Artavis Scott, who has caught 89 passes, for 868 yards and five touchdowns. Watson is definitely the show for Clemson as he combines an accurate and effective passing threat with the quickness and elusiveness to run the ball. This is rare combination in a duel-threat QB as they tend to be more runners who can pass just well enough to make a defense hesitate.

The dual threat ability of Watson gives the Tigers an edge on offense. Alabama’s offense simply put is boring, methodical and efficient but very straight forward. The Crimson Tide enter this game with the mentality of “we’re going to run straight at you, try to stop us”. Clemson should be far more interesting on offense, as Clemson offensive coordinator, Tony Elliott, tries to come up with a plan to move the ball and score points against a stingy Bama defense and with Watson under center, should be fun to watch.

The question is, will this be enough to carry Clemson past Alabama? Alabama is looking to finish the job after falling to Ohio State, 42-35 in last season’s champion game. It is interesting to note that Clemson has similar statistical numbers to what Ohio State posted last season, which is just another reason everyone on the Alabama roster needs to take Clemson seriously. Both teams will, no question, be up for this game but the question will be which team can sustain and control that emotion throughout the game, and do it without the mistakes that playing with emotion can bring.

Neither team can afford turnovers, but Alabama has to be especially careful, as their slow methodical offense style makes coming back from behind more problematic than for the more offensively dynamic Tigers. Clemson needs to get Alabama’s offense off the field because Alabama’s best defense is its grinding running game. You can’t score if you don’t have the ball and Alabama likes keeping the ball for long stretches of the game. As always, barring mistakes by either team, this should be a close game but one that Alabama should win by virtue of the well-worn mantra “defense wins championships”…

Prediction: Alabama 28 – Clemson 24