PREDICTION: Tigers roll Tide, 34-31



Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) runs for a touchdown in the Tigers’ 31-0 national semifinal victory against Ohio State. Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/TNS

By Ryan Zimba | Staff Writer

After a long season filled with upsets and close calls, this year’s college football playoff has given many viewers exactly what they wanted — a rematch of last year’s championship game between the No. 2 Clemson Tigers and the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide.

The matchup became an instant classic last season that saw Alabama overcome a historic performance by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson to win its record 13th national championship, 45-40.

It was a back-and-forth affair in which neither defense had much success. The teams’ 85 combined points made for the highest-scoring national championship game since the creation of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998.

The records have flipped, but there are still many similarities between the teams. Last year, the one-loss Crimson Tide knocked off the undefeated Tigers to claim their fourth national title in seven seasons. This year, Clemson enters the matchup with a 13-1 record while Alabama searches for its second perfect season under head coach Nick Saban.

Clemson is looking to avoid a repeat of last year and claim its first title since 1981. To do so, it will have to stop a dynasty, as Saban attempts to win his sixth title as a head coach and fifth in 10 years at Alabama.

The key to Alabama’s success over the years has mostly been a suffocating defense stacked with mammoth defensive linemen and heat-seeking linebackers and safeties. This year, the Tide’s top-ranked defense is backed by a high-powered offense averaging 40 points per game, the 11th-best in the nation.

The Tigers’ offense ranks just below the Tide’s, coming in at No. 16 in points per game. But Alabama’s defense is once again the best in the country, giving up an average of only 12.1 points per game.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said his team is looking forward to the difficult task ahead.

“Obviously, I’ve got a lot of respect for Alabama. They are who they are because they’ve been the best — they’ve been the standard,” Swinney said Tuesday during the national championship teleconference. “We all know the challenge that we have. We’re excited. Eventually if you’re ever going to be the best, you have to beat them.”

Alabama may be grabbing most of the headlines for its defensive play, but Clemson has proven itself capable of shutting down some of the most potent offenses in college football. Although Ohio State came into New Year’s Eve averaging over 42 points per game, the Tigers were able to hand the Buckeyes their first shutout loss of the season in a 31-0 Clemson victory.

“They have really good guys up front,” Saban said during the teleconference. “Their linebackers are athletic and very instinctive and can run, and they play really well in the back end.”

Defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence and linebacker Ben Boulware combined with running back Wayne Gallman and wide receiver Mike Williams, mean the Tigers are stacked on offense and defense.

But none of those players have shined as bright as Watson, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist who has accounted for 4,759 total yards of offense and 46 touchdowns.

Watson’s dual-threat ability as a quarterback has caused problems for nearly every defense he has faced. Currently, he is the Tigers’ second leading rusher — behind Gallman — with 586 yards on the year.

He had one of the best games of his career in last year’s title game, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns and running for 73 more. The Tide still pulled out the win, but if they want to repeat they will have to do a better job of slowing Watson down.

Watson has had one big problem this season — turnovers. He’s thrown 17 interceptions this season, and if Alabama can pressure him into making mistakes, it could be a long game for the Tigers’ offense.

Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) hurdles a defender in the Crimson Tide's 24-7 national semifinal victory against Washington. Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) hurdles a defender in the Crimson Tide’s 24-7 national semifinal victory against Washington. Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

For Alabama, true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts will need to be at his best to knock off Clemson. The signal caller has been a sensation, throwing for 2,649 yards and 22 touchdowns along with nine interceptions.

He too is a dual-threat quarterback, having rushed for 891 yards and 12 touchdowns on the year. Swinney said Hurts would provide a big challenge for his defense, adding that the Tigers wouldn’t be going up against a typical freshman quarterback.

“He’s not a freshman anymore,” Swinney said during the teleconference. “He’s got a ton of experience. He’s been there, done that. He’s played. He’s handled adversities.”

The two best teams in the country will square-off in New Orleans Monday night for the toughest challenge of the season. While it remains unclear whether this game will be an offensive shootout or a defensive battle, the contest is poised to be a memorable one as two teams of tremendous talent will fight for the right to call themselves undisputed national champions.

PREDICTION: Clemson has been on a tear since its 43-42 loss vs. Pitt Nov. 12. The Tigers have played their best football of the season since then, outscoring their last four opponents by a combined 164-55. Meanwhile, Hurts and the Alabama offense have been mired in a slump, including an uninspired performance against Washington in which Hurts went 7-for-14 for only 57 yards. Hurts should bounce back in this contest, but it won’t be enough as the Tigers escape and win a close, hotly contested game.

Clemson 34, Alabama 31