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It's all (or mostly) about Deshaun Watson as Clemson faces Alabama for CFP national title

It's all (or mostly) about Deshaun Watson as Clemson faces Alabama for CFP national title
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson throws a pass against Oklahoma in the first quarter of the 2015 Capital One Orange Bowl. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson helped defeat 14 opponents this season with his arm.

The fleet-footed Heisman Trophy finalist also utilized his legs to lead the undefeated and top-ranked Tigers to the College Football Playoff championship game.

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Asked to identify the biggest challenge in controlling Watson, Alabama Coach Nick Saban offered no specifics other than preventing the multitalented dual-threat sophomore from getting on a roll.

"I don't know that anybody stops Deshaun Watson," Saban said.

How effectively Watson is able to operate against Alabama's vaunted defense, and how effective the Crimson Tide is in neutralizing him, could be the deciding factor in Monday night's title game at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The matchup pits blueblood Alabama, which claims 15 national titles, against Clemson, winner of one.

It's the powerful Southeastern Conference against the still-fighting-for-respect Atlantic Coast Conference.

It's Saban, going for his fourth national title at Alabama in seven years, against Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, the former Crimson Tide walk-on receiver and onetime Clemson interim coach who has led the Tigers to the brink of their first championship in 34 years.

"This is the first one I've sniffed as a coach," Swinney said when asked about Saban, who also won a title at LSU, "and he's going for his fifth."

Clemson (14-0) is aiming to become the first Football Bowl Subdivision team to win 15 games in a season.

Despite Clemson's potential date with history, Alabama opened as a seven-point favorite.

Clemson players noticed.

"A lot of people don't respect us," Watson said. "Nothing that we've earned has been given to us."

Said running back Wayne Gallman: "We've been doubted all season and it's something that we've lived with at Clemson. "

Swinney downplayed the perceived snub.

"We may not be the favorite," he said, "but we don't see ourselves as an underdog."

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Watson is a potential equalizer in the mold of dual-threat quarterbacks who have given Alabama — and, it should be noted, most everyone else — fits during Saban's tenure.

Auburn's Cam Newton, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and others such as Ohio State's Cardale Jones and Mississippi's Chad Kelly led their teams past the Crimson Tide as passers and runners.

Watson leads a spread offense that averages 38.4 points and 512 yards per game.

He passed for 187 yards and a touchdown and ran for 145 yards and a touchdown in the Tigers' 37-17 Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma in the CFP semifinals Dec. 31. Gallman ran for 150 yards and two touchdowns.

Has Alabama seen a team like Clemson?

"I don't think so," Gallman said matter-of-factly. "I think we're a great offense."

Alabama's defense has been the best in major college football.

The Crimson Tide features All-America linebacker Reggie Ragland, All-America lineman A'Shawn Robinson and seemingly never-ending depth in the front seven. Alabama gives up the fewest points (13.4) and yards rushing (70.8) per game in major college football. It also leads the nation with 50 sacks.

Mississippi defeated Alabama in September, a loss Saban described as a turning point. The Crimson Tide has won 11 consecutive games, including a 38-0 playoff semifinal rout of Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl.

"We want to be the next great team," said running back Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner. "Keep the tradition going."

The 6-foot-3, 242-pound Henry has rushed for 2,061 yards and 25 touchdowns, leading FBS in both categories.

"You've got to stop him before he gets going," Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. "Even if you tackle him at the line of scrimmage, and you tackle him low, he's still so tall and so big he's going to fall for two more yards.

"We're definitely going to have to put our big-boy pants on."

Alabama (13-1) trounced Michigan State with a stellar defensive effort and by utilizing Henry mainly as a decoy.

The ploy enabled quarterback Jake Coker and the receiving corps to enjoy some of their best performances of the season.

"I've been saying it all season: They're going to worry about Derrick so much, they're going to forget about us," sophomore receiver ArDarius Stewart said. "I guess it showed last game they have to respect us more."

Coker passed for two touchdowns and demonstrated he could throw deep.

"I felt really good, it was really solid," he said. "But unless we win this one, then that doesn't mean as much. We've got to go out here and do our thing."

Clemson's defense has been anchored by All-American end Shaq Lawson. But a knee injury suffered during the Orange Bowl put his status in doubt for the championship game.

Lawson has said he expects to play.

"Hopefully he'll be able to perform and play to the level that we all know he can," Swinney said, "but you know, if not, I don't think Coach Saban is going to cancel the game."

Twitter: @latimesklein

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