So, the day has finally arrived: Alabama against Clemson as the Crimson Tide take on the Tigers for the National Championship for the third time in four years. Saban against Swinney, Tua against Trevor, number one against number two in Santa Clara and it’s live on ESPN Player.
When ‘Bama Have the Ball:
Obviously, all the focus is on Tua Tagovailoa. The Heisman Trophy runner-up looked back to his brilliant best against Oklahoma in the semi-final after struggling with a knee injury for much of the season, followed by an ankle issue after he was stood on in the SEC Championship game.
His ability with the ball in his hands could be the deciding factor in this one. Just a sophomore, he’s been here and won it all before, so the stage won’t frighten him. His ability to manipulate the pocket and make accurate NFL throws with timing will be critical in the face of a strong Clemson defense. This will be his toughest test all season and he’ll need big performances from his receivers: Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith. They’ll be up against one of the best cover men in the country in Trayvon Mullen. The winner of this battle should go a long way to deciding the fate of the title.
Tua will also need a strong showing from his offensive line, led by LT Jonah Williams. Although Clemson will be without DT Dexter Williams, there’s still more than enough to be concerned about with Christian Wilkins and Albert Huggins inside and Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Xavier Thomas on the edge.
The passing game X-Factor for Alabama could be tight end Irv Smith and his ability to make plays at the second level. Remember the success that OJ Howard had against the Tigers in Tampa three years ago? Smith’s ability to work against Clemson’s linebackers could be key. Whether he draws Isaiah Simmons in coverage remains to be seen but, if he does, that should be a tremendous match-up as the 6’2, 228lb safety hybrid will be a very high pick in next year’s NFL Draft.
Expect OC Mike Locksley to call a lot of run plays early to try and slow down that Clemson pass rush. That means plenty of the Harris boys, Damien and Najeh, and semi-final star Josh Jacobs. If Locksley rides the hot hand, then Jacobs could be the beneficiary and he has the talent to run over or around the very best defences in college football – of which this is one. Clemson’s Butkus finalist linebacker Tre Lamar, along with Simmons, will have their hands full trying to bring the 216lb junior from Tulsa down.
When Clemson Have the Ball:
Will the stage be too big for true freshman Trevor Lawrence and his young offense? That’s been the concern for me as it’s looked increasingly likely that the Tigers would make this game and yet, every time, he’s stepped up and delivered bigger and better performances. Having spent time in his company, he’s a confident young man and he’ll be ready come game time. Unquestionably destined for greatness as a pro should he stay healthy, he has a cannon for an arm and the ability to make every throw in the book. This could be his coming out party to the world.
Lawrence won’t yet have seen a pass rush like the one he’ll see tonight from Tosh Lupoi’s defense, so how he deals with pressure from Raekwon Davis, Christian Miller (if he plays), Anfernee Jennings, Isaiah Buggs and Quinnen Williams will be key to the game. In last year’s semi-final, ‘Bama shut down Kelly Bryant with almost constant pressure and five sacks. There’s the motivation for the Tigers experienced offensive line, but whether motivation can match production remains to be seen.
Much like Alabama, Clemson have a tremendous running game that should keep Alabama honest. The battle between Travis Etienne and MLB Mack Wilson will be key. If Etienne can get to the second level consistently then it will be a long night for the Tide defense. If he can’t, then that piles the pressure onto Lawrence’s young shoulders. The Tiger run game goes deep, so expect to see decent doses of Adam Choice and Tavien Feaster as well.
Lawrence – like Tagovailoa – will have plenty of perimeter targets to choose from, notably a pair of 6’4 studs in freshman Justyn Ross and sophomore Tee Higgins. Inside, expect to see plenty of Amari Rodgers and notably Hunter Renfrow, who’s playing in his final game. Having already beaten Alabama to a National title – his catch from Deshaun Watson with one second left in 2015 was the game winner – he knows what it takes to get it done in the biggest games.
This is the area where Clemson should feel like it has some dominance. Alabama lacks the sort of cornerback talent they’ve continually sent to the NFL over the past few seasons. There’s no Dee Milliner, Marlon Humphrey or Minkah Fitzpatrick outside for the Tide, and although Patrick Surtain Jr. has first round potential, the true freshman is a work in progress. A lot of emphasis will be on the ability of Deionte Thompson at safety. He has sideline to sideline ability and tremendous range on the ball, but he can be manipulated by a confident QB who can use his eyes to re-position him.
It’s so hard to call. I flip-flop back and forth between the two. Alabama’s experience and that fearsome defensive line may just have the edge, coupled with the talent of Tua Tagovailoa. But then you look at that Clemson roster and the brilliance of Trevor Lawrence and it’s hard to argue against them. I think it will come down to whoever has the ball last and I’m going with a Greg Heugel game-winning field goal for Clemson at the gun to win 31-28.