College Football Playoff national championship
No. 2 Clemson (13-1) vs. No. 1 Alabama (14-0)
at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
TV: ESPN, 5 p.m.
Times staff writer David Wharton analyzes today’s matchup:
Most intriguing story line:
This is the title game everyone — well, almost everyone — wanted to see. It’s a rematch between the two powerhouses that slugged it out in last year’s final, when the Crimson Tide executed a gutsy onside kick in the fourth quarter and won, 45-40. This time around, most of the attention will focus on Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, versus an intimidating defense. As Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney put it: “They’re number one in the world in everything.” But don’t be surprised if the Tigers’ fearsome defensive line plays a crucial role against Alabama’s freshman quarterback, Jalen Hurts.
Clemson pass offense vs. Alabama pass defense:
If any quarterback is equipped to face the Crimson Tide, it’s Watson. His accuracy, mobility and experience have added up to 4,173 passing yards and 38 touchdowns this season. Also, he has a crucial target in Mike Williams, an NFL-caliber receiver who missed almost all of last season with a fractured neck. Alabama will answer with a unit that leads the nation in total defense and scoring defense, allowing 11.4 points a game. The loss of safety Eddie Jackson to a broken leg in October surely hurt, but the pass rush features All-American defensive lineman Jonathan Allen.
Clemson run offense vs. Alabama run defense:
Wayne Gellman is a competent running back who gained 1,087 yards this season, and Watson represents a constant threat to take off. “They’ve got quarterback runs when they want them and he’s very effective,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said. The Crimson Tide rank No. 1 in rushing defense, allowing 62 yards a game. They lost another key player, Shaun Dion Hamilton, to a knee injury in the Southeastern Conference championship, but the rest of the linebacking crew remains stout with Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson.
Alabama pass offense vs. Clemson pass defense:
Plenty of questions surround Hurts after his performance in the semifinals, when he completed seven of 14 passes for 57 yards against Washington. “It’s our job as coaches to do a good job with him to help him prepare so that he feels comfortable and confident,” Saban said. Folks at Clemson still have nightmares about tight end O.J. Howard catching five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s game. This season, the Tigers rank fourth in passing efficiency defense and average 3.5 sacks.
Alabama run offense vs. Clemson run defense:
Bo Scarbrough has emerged as a late-season star for the Crimson Tide — the 6-2, 230-pound sophomore pounded Washington for 180 yards and two touchdowns. “He looks like another Derrick Henry,” Swinney said. There are no doubts about Hurts in the run game; he is surprisingly powerful for a quarterback. The Clemson defense ranks 19th against the rush, allowing 123.1 yards a game, but hasn’t seen many offensive lines like this.
Clemson has worked hard to improve this facet of its game and blocked four kicks this season. Alabama ranks fifth nationally in punt returns with an average of 15.73 yards and four touchdowns. Both teams have fairly reliable kickers but the memory of last year’s onside surprise had better keep the Tigers on their toes.
David Wharton’s pick:
A final key to this game will be the Crimson Tide’s knack for scoring NOTs — they have returned 11 fumbles and interceptions for non-offensive touchdowns this season. Watson is prone to a bad throw or two each game, so the Tigers offense might need to make some tackles. If they can keep turnovers from turning into six points, they should be able to out-pace the Crimson Tide on the scoreboard. Clemson 38, Alabama 35.