This feels familiar. On Monday night, the Clemson Tigers will take on the Alabama Crimson Tide for the College Football National Championship. It is a rematch of last year’s title game, when the Tide took down Clemson in a thriller. While it often feels as though the same few teams dominate the landscape of college football every season, this is actually the first time we have ever had a rematch in a title game.
This year, it feels deserving. Clemson and Alabama were the top two teams in the country at the end of last year; they were one and two in the preseason, and now they will finish this season first and second yet again.
The championship matchup is more than one unit versus another, but it really feels like this will be an epic battle between the Alabama defense and the Clemson offense, perhaps the two best units in the country.
The Crimson Tide defense is certainly the best in the country at what it does. It finished the year ranked first nationally in total defense, scoring defense, and rushing defense. It was also a top-five team against the pass, and a top-25 team in the red zone, on third downs and in turnovers. There was no shortcoming to this group.
The only hole to be found came after safety Eddie Jackson got hurt and was lost for the year. He now helps from the sidelines as his teammates shut down and stifle all-comers. Three Crimson Tide players were named first-team All-SEC members. Of those three, Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster are arguably the very best players in the country at their respective positions.
Set to face this group is the Clemson offense, led by two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson. Watson led one of the most prolific passing attacks in the country this season thanks to a slew of elite receiving weapons. Mike Williams is probably the best wide receiver in college football. Artavis Scott pairs with Williams to form the best duo Alabama will have faced this season. That doesn’t even include the likes of Hunter Renfrow or tight end Jordan Leggett.
The rushing attack, led by Wayne Gallman, is nothing to be ignored either, especially when Watson himself starts to move around. If Alabama does have a weakness to exploit, it reveals itself when the opposing quarterback runs around and makes himself a threat on the ground. The whole group is buoyed by one of the best offensive lines in football. The Clemson line is the only one in the nation that ranked in the top five in both adjusted line yards and sack rate according to Football Outsiders.
This battle could decide the winner of the championship, but there are so many more elite players that will have a say as well.
In the reverse matchup, the Alabama offense faces the Clemson defense; two premiere units in their own right. Alabama was very good on offense when freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts had time to throw and felt comfortable in the pocket. Like many QBs, even the most veteran of passers, Hurts disintegrated against pressure. If he has time, he is able to survey the field, as well as lead a fearsome running game.
Both Hurts and tailback Damien Harris topped 1,000 yards on the ground this year. Bo Scarbrough topped 700 yards himself and was the star of the Tide’s national semifinal win over Washington. The weapons keep coming on the outside if Hurts is able to find them. It will be up to the Tigers’ front seven to make sure he doesn’t.
While Alabama had the very best defensive line this year by adjusted line yards, Clemson ranked a highly impressive 12th. It also ranked seventh in sack rate, which was an even better showing than Alabama. The group is led by Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins. Watkins, along with linebacker Ben Boulware, and defensive backs Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson, was named to the All-ACC first-team defense.
On the sidelines is where another advantage may be found. Nick Saban leads the best coaching staff in the country for Alabama. There is a reason Saban has won five national championships in his career, going for number six here. He is the best in the business. The departure of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator is certainly not ideal at this juncture of the season, but Saban’s culture and the existence of Steve Sarkisian to step in help cover up that hole. Dabo Swinney and his staff at Clemson are great at their jobs; they just aren’t on Alabama’s level.
Expect Alabama to win another title over the Tigers because of Saban, the defense, and a never-ending slew of skill players.