On Monday, Alabama will play Clemson in a much-anticipated College Football Playoff championship game. This is the fourth straight year that these two teams will meet in a College Football Playoff game, and the third time in four tries that they will meet in the title game. By many measures, Clemson and Alabama have the two most successful college football programs in recent years, but important players from both teams were suspended recently, adding uncertainty to what should still be a thrilling game. This time, when these two incredibly talented teams face off again, who will emerge victorious?
THE CASE FOR CLEMSON
Clemson has been an amazingly consistent program of late, with eight straight double-digit winning seasons. In 2016, the Tigers defeated the Crimson Tide to claim the national title. Clemson's quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, is a freshman, but he plays like an upperclassman. He has thrown 27 touchdowns and just four interceptions this season. However, Clemson does not have a backup quarterback with much experience. Therefore, Lawrence is and will be essential to their success.
Lawrence is surrounded by plenty of talented receivers. Four Tigers have at least 500 receiving yards this season. Travis Etienne,Clemson’s starting running back, ran for 1,573 yards and 22 touchdowns. He was nominated for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back. But Etienne is not the only solid back on the roster. Three other Clemson players ran for at least 400 yards this season, including Tavien Feaster, who has scored six touchdowns on the ground.
Big plays are a big part of Clemson’s game plan. Receiver Justyn Ross has averaged an astounding 21.2 yards per reception this season. Against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, Ross caught touchdowns of 42 and 52 yards, showcasing his big-play ability. Etienne had a 62 yard touchdown run to seal the game. Clemson’s success with the big play bodes well for the matchup against Alabama. Against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, the Crimson Tide’s defense allowed plenty of big plays.
Clemson also has one of the best defenses in the country. The Tigers have allowed 12.9 points per game, which is the second-fewest in the country. The defense took a big blow when star defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence was suspended by the NCAA. He may be back for the title game, but even without him, Clemson’s defense is formidable. Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, and Christian Wilkins have combined for 25 sacks and 45.5 tackles for loss. Alabama’s offensive line will have their work cut out for them.
THE CASE FOR ALABAMA
Alabama, the reigning National Champion, has won it all in two of the last three years. The Tide defeated Clemson for the title in the 2015 season and won again in the Sugar Bowl in the 2017 season. The past aside, Alabama has one of the most talented teams in recent memory. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa finished second in the voting for the Heisman trophy. He has thrown 41 touchdowns this season, while only playing for three quarters in most games. Tagovailoa replaced Jalen Hurts as the starting quarterback this season. Alabama reached the championship with Hurts as starting quarterback in 2016 and '17. But Tagovailoa stepped in as Hurts struggled in the 2017 title game, and after he emerged as the hero, Hurts was moved to the backup position. Replacing a talented player like Hurts should give some indication of Tagovailoa’s phenomenal talent. Even if Tagovailoa were to be injured in the Championship game, Alabama would be in good hands with Hurts at the helm.
Last week, Nick Saban suspended three players indefinitely for NCAA rules violations, including offensive guard Deonte Brown. Even with the suspensions, Alabama has a extremely versatile group of offensive weapons. The team boasts three running backs with at least 700 yards from scrimmage—Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs, and Najee Harris—and they are deeper at the position than any other team in the country. Together, these three players have scored 27 touchdowns from scrimmage this season, and they should be able to provide solid production on the ground despite Clemson’s fantastic defensive front. Alabama also has five players with at least 600 receiving yards. The talented group of pass catchers includes Jerry Jeudy, who won the Biletnikoff Award as the best receiver in college football this year. It would be very difficult for any team to contain all of these players.
Another advantage for Alabama is their short passing game. In the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, Alabama used a variety of short passes to pick apart Oklahoma’s defense, scoring 45 points. With so many playmakers, short passes often turn into long yardage gains, and Alabama does not have to force long throws. This will come in handy against Clemson, which has a talented defense.
As for Alabama’s defense, the Crimson Tide are perennially one of the best in the country. This year, they have players such as defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, who just won the Outland Trophy for best interior lineman, and linebacker Dylan Moses, who was nominated for best linebacker. Oklahoma managed to score 34 points against them in the semifinal game, but Oklahoma’s quarterback is the Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray. Although the Tigers’ Trevor Lawrence is very talented, he isn’t Kyler Murray.
Alabama’s defense will need to perform better against Clemson than they did in the Orange Bowl. However, Saban is one of the best in the game, and he will likely find ways to solidify the defense before the championship.
So back to that initial question: who will win? In many ways, these two teams are very similar. Both possess top-10 scoring defenses and amazing quarterbacks. Both have great running games and strong receiving cores. Clemson’s defensive line will cause problems for Alabama, and they will come up with big plays. Nonetheless, Alabama will prevail. Tagovailoa is having one of the best seasons by a quarterback in college football history, and he has fantastic weapons around him. Alabama has a great defense, and it will be difficult for Clemson to consistently move the ball. And finally, Alabama has one of the best coaches ever in Nick Saban. This game should be a thriller, but given Alabama’s depth and overall talent, they’re poised to take a third national championship in four years.