No. 1 Alabama (14-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (14-0)
Monday, 5 p.m., Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara. TV: ESPN.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence vs. Alabama quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. It was early in the season when Clemson coach Dabo Swinney switched gears and installed Lawrence, a freshman, as the starter. After a rocky debut against Syracuse, Lawrence soon grew comfortable, ranking 15th nationally in quarterback efficiency with 2,933 yards and 27 touchdowns. In Tuscaloosa, coach Nick Saban made a similar move, picking Tagovailoa over established starter Hurts, who had gone 26-2 the previous seasons. Tagovailoa ranks No. 1 in efficiency with 3,671 passing yards and 41 touchdowns, lifting the Crimson Tide offense to a new level. Hurts has remained with the program and stayed involved, leading Alabama to a comeback victory over Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game after Tagovailoa was injured. Look for Saban to rotate quarterbacks occasionally and even play them both at the same time, making use of Hurts’ speed. “It’s really fun,” Tagovailoa said. “No one knows who is going to get the ball.”
Alabama (527.6 ypg/47.7 ppg): The semifinal victory over Oklahoma offered further proof that the Crimson Tide like to spread the ball around. Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris and Najee Harris lead a ground attack that averages 202 yards. Receivers Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith get most of the work in the passing game. Directing it all from quarterback, Tagovailoa has moved well on an ankle that was surgically repaired early last month. “We’re just trying to get better, trying to prepare for Clemson,” he said.
Clemson (530.4 ypg/44.3 ppg): The Tigers defeated Alabama in the 2017 championship game by pushing the tempo, snapping the ball 99 times on offense. They hold an advantage on the ground, averaging 256.3 yards with Travis Etienne ranking fifth in the nation at 1,572 yards and 22 touchdowns. When Lawrence throws, he completes 65% of his passes to a variety of receivers, including Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, Amari Rodgers and Hunter Renfrow. “I feel a lot more comfortable, just getting a grasp of the offense,” the quarterback said. “And I feel like I’m recognizing defenses better.”
Alabama (307.9 ypg/16.2 ppg): The Crimson Tide looked a bit shaky in the second half against Oklahoma’s high-powered offense. Clemson isn’t quite as explosive, but Saban acknowledges that his defense is “a work in progress” this season. The pass rush, ranked eighth in the nation, could prove crucial against Lawrence, who will have to find opportunities against a unit that ranks No. 5 in scoring defense.
Clemson (274.6 ypg/12.9 ppg): The Tigers are tops in the nation when it comes to keeping the other team off the scoreboard and getting to the quarterback, with 3.71 sacks a game. They have been stingy against both the run (92.6 yards) and the pass (182.1 yards) this season, but will be without star defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, who remains suspended after testing positive for trace amounts of a banned substance. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell said: “We’ve still got the same standard that we play to, the same defense that’s going to be a relentless attack.”
Here’s a statistic that might concern any coach: Alabama’s Joseph Bulovas and Clemson’s Greg Huegel are tied for 51st and 86th, respectively, in field goal percentage. That could make for some interesting fourth-down decisions if the game is close in the final minutes.
Word circulated last week that Hawaii native Tagovailoa would have 400 family and friends at the game. “You can’t ask me. I don’t even know if that is true or not,” he said. “I understand there are a lot of family members that we have in California but 400? I don’t know how you can get that many tickets.”