Once more into the breach.
Clemson comes off of the most eye-opening win of the year: a 31-0 demolition of Ohio State that could have been worse. Clemson absolutely throttled the Buckeye offense, and Watson & co. did their usual thing.
Meanwhile, Alabama looked vulnerable on offense against Washington. Despite a 24-7 win, the defense accounted for one of the touchdowns, and the offense couldn’t take advantage of several short fields. Some of that had to do with the Huskies’ defense; some of it had to do with Lane Kiffin’s seeming inability to multitask. Now everyone’s worried that Jalen Hurts can’t throw and Alabama is limited to a playbook consisting of “give it to Bo Scarborough and hope”.
The win against Ohio State was very good, but let’s not go overboard. This is the same Clemson team that lost to Pittsburgh at home and came within a 33-yard kick of losing to NC State at home as well. Those two games were played after wins in which the aggregate score was Clemson 110, opponents 10 – in other words, supposedly when they were flying high. Clemson didn’t become invincible all of a sudden. No disrespect to either of these teams, but If the Tigers play on Monday night at the level they did against either Pitt or NC State, Alabama will win the title by three scores.
That being said, if Alabama plays on offense the way that they did against Washington, they might need the defense to score more than once to have a chance. Clemson will dare Alabama to throw the ball, especially downfield. Despite Tide fans’ fond memories of deep shots to Ridley, Stewart, and heck, even OJ Howard in last year’s title game, Alabama just hasn’t done that this year. Instead, they’ve been content to stretch the edges in hopes of catching a corner for a big gain in the short term and setting up to grind opponents into dust in the fourth quarter. I’m not sure if that will work against Clemson. I do know that if Bama gets down a couple of scores, they might be treated to a dose of their own medicine as Clemson pins their ears back and rushes Hurts without impunity – and as Clemson has exactly one fewer sack than Alabama this year, that’s not a good sign. One thing in Alabama’s favor is that Clemson can’t really exploit tendencies due to Sark taking over as OC, but that’s obviously countered by the lack of on-field chemistry between he and the players, particularly Hurts.
On the other side of the ball, it’s a fascinating matchup. Clemson torched the Bama D for 40 last year, and that was without a full complement of skill players. Now they’ve got ’em all: Gallman, Williams, Cain, Leggett, Renfrow – and scariest of all, Watson. Any one of them can be a nightmare for Alabama. However, the Tide D has proven to be the stuff of nightmares for many a team this year, especially as they’ve seen crimson-clad defenders celebrating a touchdown. The front seven for Alabama will again be called upon to neutralize the ability of Watson to get the ball to his playmakers. Thus far, they’ve proven to be up to the challenge, but this will be their biggest test of the year.
Ultimately, I think the Tigers are the more complete team, and they have the better quarterback as well. Usually that’s enough to make the choice obvious. But Alabama has a defense that, when on its game, is one of the best of all time. I think that they also have a advantage in special teams, especially at punter. The question is whether one historically elite defense and one statistically good but struggling offense is enough to beat very good to excellent Clemson units.
I don’t think this will be a runaway for either side. I think that the game will be tight mostly throughout, and it may come down to one play. And this is where two big year-long trends come into focus: Deshaun Watson’s penchant for throwing interceptions, and Alabama’s uncanny ability to score touchdowns on the defensive side of the ball. I’ll go so far as to say that if Bama gets one, they win, and if they don’t, Clemson does. At the beginning of the year, I said that I am generally realistic-to-pessimistic regarding Alabama football. The pessimist in me says, “why should Alabama score a defensive touchdown in this game?” The realist looks at the games this year and says, “why wouldn’t they?” So in the battle between head and heart, I’m going to go with the realist. Alabama 23-20. 15-0.