The college football season comes to a close Monday night with the rematch we’ve all been waiting for, as the Clemson Tigers take on the Alabama Crimson Tide for the College Football Playoff National Championship for the second straight year.
Sportsbooks are currently dealing the Crimson Tide as 6.5-point favorites following their win over Washington in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve, but the Tigers’ 31-0 dismantling of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl was maybe even more impressive.
If you’re still on the fence about which side to bet Monday night, we’ve enlisted the help of those who know these two programs better than most. Alabama blogger SaxonRBR of Roll Bama Roll goes head-to-head with Clemson blogger Mark Gordon of Shakin The Southland, as they debate why their favorite team will cover the spread in the national title game.
WHY CLEMSON WILL COVER
Mark Gordon writes for Clemson blog Shakin The Southland. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter @STSouthland and @MarkGordonSTS.
Clemson has the answer to the Alabama rush defense
It is no secret that the Crimson Tide have the best run defense in the country. They are the only team to allow fewer than 1,000 rushing yards on the year and opposing runners average only 2.0 Yards per Attempt and have scored only 3 TD’s against Alabama all year. Not to mention the fact that Alabama has held teams leading rushers under 50 yards 10 times this season. Will Clemson have success rushing Wayne Gallman up the middle on Monday night? Probably not. But the Clemson offense has the answer, as they frequently substitute the run game on early downs with the short pass. Clemson will use wide receiver screens to Artavis Scott and Ray Ray McCloud as well as quick slants to Mike Williams and Hunter Renfrow to stay ahead of the sticks on first down. Clemson will set themselves up in 2nd/3rd and manageable which will keep Alabama from pinning their ears back and going after Watson. It will also open up deep shots down the field to Deon Cain when the Tide defense cheats on the short pass.
Alabama will struggle to exploit Clemson’s weakness
No team is without its weakness’ and Clemson’s comes from their secondary. It is not for lack of talent, it is more by design as Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is notorious for sending 6+ defenders on the blitz, which can leave the cornerbacks on an island. As a result, Cordea Tankersley and Ryan Carter are left in man coverage, where they struggle to get their heads around and locate the ball which has led to several pass interference penalties. Alabama will not be able to take advantage of this weakness because of the struggles Jalen Hurts has throwing the ball down the field. Hurts is ranked outside of the top 50 in yards per pass attempt and against the top 6 defenses he has faced this year has completed less than 43% of his pass attempts and has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. Hurts has greatly improved his deep ball as his freshman season has progressed, but in a game where you may only have one chance to strike the big play, I don’t necessarily trust Hurts to put the deep ball on the numbers. After all, we saw what happened last week in the Fiesta Bowl to a quarterback who struggled throwing the ball down the field against this Tiger defense.
After last year’s National Championship game, several Alabama players were noted to say that they never wanted to step on the field with Deshaun Watson ever again. After all, Watson threw for 405 yards and 4 TD’s as well as rushing for 73 yards in a spectacular performance. Wishes don’t always come true, and Watson will face off against the vaunted Alabama defense in the National Championship game for the second year in a row, but with an extra chip on his shoulder. Say what you want about the Heisman Trophy and the winner Lamar Jackson (I personally agreed 100% with Jackson winning the award) but Deshaun Watson wanted that award, and wanted it bad. After what he considered to be a snub, Watson turned his attention to the trophy that mattered more to him, the National Championship trophy. I have a feeling that the disappointment of losing the Heisman Trophy will be completely washed away by a National Championship, and Deshaun Watson knows this as well as you and I do. If you though that Watson was a pain last season, wait until you see a pissed off No. 4.
WHY ALABAMA WILL COVER
SaxonRBR is the senior staff writer for Alabama blog Roll Bama Roll. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter @rollbamaroll and @SaxonRBR.
The element of surprise
Coverage of this game has been dominated by the Tide’s last minute switch at offensive coordinator. Conventional wisdom would suggest such a huge change this close to a major game would be disastrous, but this is not the typical coaching move. Steve Sarkisian has been involved in game planning all season, and is fully familiar with the offense and the way the Tide operates. The only real question is how he would interact with the players, Jalen Hurts in particular, and all signs this week indicate the transition has been smooth on that front. What is still unknown is how Sarkisian will use the offense — what calls will he make in certain down and distance situations, what are his tendencies? That’s likely sent the Clemson defensive staff scrambling for old USC and Washington tape this week, as this year’s Alabama film will not answer those questions. That’s only a benefit for the Tide.
Elite rushing attack
With Bo Scarbrough’s explosion against Washington’s well-regarded run defense, the Tide is now considered the No. 2 rushing offense in the country according to the S&P+ metric. Clemson’s defense is nowhere near as stingy as Washington’s — they are No. 26 in the same metric, vs. the Huskies’ No. 10 mark — and unlike a year ago the Tigers cannot center their defensive game plan on stopping one player. Derrick Henry was still able to grind out a good performance in that game, but in addition to a Henry clone in Scarbrough, this year the Tigers have to deal with a Mark Ingram clone in Damien Harris as well as the running threat from Hurts. They’ve not faced such a variety of weapons from the backfield combined with a quality line this year, and not knowing how Sarkisian will distribute those carries — remember, he’s stated he prefers balance instead of riding the hot hand — makes that challenge even greater.
The best defense of the modern era
What will remain unaffected by the offensive upheaval is the Tide’s defense, which is the best we’ve seen in a long, long time. Washington’s offense was more highly regarded by the advanced metrics heading into the playoffs than Clemson’s, and the Tide absolutely smothered them. A nastier pass rush than a year ago and a penchant for turning takeaways into touchdowns were front and center in the Peach Bowl, and this year the man at the controls for that defense is not thinking about recruiting and hiring coaches for another school. In other words, this unit is better from top-to-bottom than they were a year ago; Clemson’s offense, on the other hand, has slipped a bit in 2016. They’re among the country’s most turnover-prone teams as well — surprisingly, at the quarterback position in particular — and as a result we may end up seeing yet another defensive touchdown in this game. What we will not see is a repeat of last year’s shootout, and a lower scoring contest only favors the Tide.
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