What to watch for in the College Football Playoff National Championship
- Updated: January 6, 2017
TAMPA, Fla. -- We are finally here, and we have the two teams that should have been here all along.
So much tradition, talent and hardware between these two programs. We saw these two on this same stage -- different field -- a year ago, and both teams might be even better than the two that pummeled each other during that thrilling 45-40 Alabama win.
Both teams are tired of talking about the game, and we're tired of talking about the game. Let's just get these two behemoths on a field and let them fight.
College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T
Alabama vs. Clemson
Time: 8 p.m. ET (ESPN/ESPN App)
Location: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
Here we go again ... it's a championship rematch
People will always complain about how the CFP selection committee picks its four teams, but there's no debating these are the two best teams in the country. Both Alabama and Clemson have top-10 defenses. Both offenses averaged more than 460 yards per game and 39 points per game. A win for Alabama would give Nick Saban his fifth title at Alabama and sixth in total. That would tie him for most all-time with legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant in the poll era. A win for Clemson would give the Tigers their first national title since 1981. Clemson is the nearly-a-touchdown underdog, but Alabama has had to deal with a handful of distractions leading up to tonight's game. Does a guy named Lane Kiffin ring a bell?
How Alabama beats you
Just look at that mean, lean front seven. Led by Jonathan Allen, who has 9.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss, the Tide's Crimson curtain has been almost impossible to penetrate. Alabama's front seven has totaled 48.5 sacks and 93.5 tackles for loss on the season and has helped Alabama's defense lead the nation in yards per play, opposing quarterback QBR, three-and-out percentage, scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense. Teams are averaging a measly two yards per carry against Alabama. And when this defense isn't terrorizing running backs, it's making quarterbacks' days living nightmares. Alabama is second in the FBS in sacks (50) and according to ESPN Stats & Information, Alabama is second nationally in pressure rate at 42 percent. Oh, and this defense has a knack for scoring. Alabama has given up 15 touchdowns in 14 games, while scoring 11 touchdowns of its own.
How Clemson beats you
Deshaun Watson. He's the best chance Clemson has of beating the nation's best team and the nation's best defense. Last year, he was near perfect, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns, while running for another 73 yards. Many have talked about Clemson needing to run the ball with Wayne Gallman, but when you consider that Alabama's defense limited the 10 1,000-yard rushers it faced to just 30.6 yards per game, Watson's arm is so crucial. And he frustrated Alabama's defense all day last year. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Watson scrambled seven times for 49 yards and four first downs against Alabama last year. He also completed 6 of 9 passes outside the pocket for 140 yards. What's also key is his ability to throw downfield, as 47 percent of the plays that have gone 15-plus yards on Alabama this season have come through the air -- the second most in the Power 5. It just so happens that Watson leads the Power 5 with 63 completions through the air of 15-plus yards.
What a win would mean for the Crimson Tide
We'd start wondering if this was Nick Saban's best team. And then, some would ponder if it might be the best team to ever play college football. Maybe that's hyperbole, maybe it isn't, but the debate would rage. A win would also tie Saban with Bear Bryant with six national championships. So, guess what? We'd start to argue if Nick Saban is in fact the greatest head coach in college football history. With a win, Alabama would become just the third team to go wire-to-wire as the AP No. 1 team since the AP preseason poll began in 1950. Oh, and from an SEC standpoint, this would be the 10th national title for the conference since 2003. No other conference has more than two during that span.
What a win would mean for the Tigers
First and foremost, it would exorcise those demons from Glendale, Arizona, from last year's loss to the Tide. Many players continue to believe the Tigers were in fact the better team last January, which made losing to Alabama that much more gut-wrenching. It would end Alabama's current reign of college football. That would mean a glorious offseason in Clemson -- and in ACC country in general -- and a terrible time in SEC land. It would also end Clemson's massive national title drought. A 34-season drought between titles would be the longest by any school since Auburn had a poll era-record 52-season drought between titles in 1957 and 2010.
Matchup Alabama can exploit
TE O.J. Howard vs. Clemson defense. Hunter Renfrow had his way with Alabama's secondary last year, but Howard just couldn't be stopped. He caught five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns -- both for more than 50 yards. For some reason, Clemson's defense kept forgetting he was out there. What really flustered Clemson was when Howard went in motion because the Tigers didn't have someone who could consistently stay with his speed and size. Clemson's front seven has been outstanding, but when Howard goes in motion, that could bring a top guy out of the box and leave Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts with more room to work.
Matchup Clemson can exploit
Clemson WRs vs. Alabama DBs. For as improved as Alabama's secondary has looked since giving up 400 yards to Arkansas back in early October, this is the Tide's toughest test of all. And if you're Watson, you're zeroing in on cornerback Tony Brown, who has struggled in one-on-one coverage more than others in this secondary. Receivers Mike Williams (neck injury) and Deon Cain (suspension) missed last year's game, and between them, they combined for 1,897 receiving yards and 19 touchdown receptions this season. Alabama has also struggled stopping receivers in the slot, and that's how Renfrow picked Alabama apart for seven catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns last year.
Alabama's X factor
Believe it or not, it's wide receiver Calvin Ridley. The former All-SEC member has been almost a forgotten man in Alabama's offense this season. He has 67 catches on the season, but has just two 100-yard efforts after registering four last season. He also caught four or more passes in 14 games last season, compared to just nine this season. Clemson's pass defense is excellent, and if Hurts is going to make some bigger plays against it to move this offense, Ridley could be a sneaky-good option.
Clemson's X factor
For some reason, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins hasn't received a ton of attention this season. The 300-pound monster in the middle has been Clemson's most consistent defensive player the past two years and leads the team with 10.5 sacks and is second with 12.5 tackles for loss. And he's incredibly important in this game. Alabama's weakness along the offensive line is in the interior. That's perfect for Watkins. He could really wreak havoc on that line and make Hurts' day miserable. Hurts was off against Washington, and if Watkins can put some heat on him and get him out of rhythm, it could be long day for Steve Sarkisian's new offense.
The final word ... Alabama
"It's kind of a slap in the face when you do something well all year and then your parents give the gift to your little brother and he just got an F on his test." -- Alabama TE O.J. Howard on people picking Clemson to win
The final word ... Clemson
"Being in that locker room crying, walking off the field with the confetti falling on you for all the wrong reasons. So really those two things. And as a defense, just felt like crap because we felt like it was on our shoulders when we lost that game, giving up 45 points. So, obviously, want to change that this year." -- Clemson LB Ben Boulware on losing last year's title game
How to watch
In addition to being able to watch this year's game on ESPN, the ESPN App and WatchESPN, you can enjoy the CFP Megacast, which features the following options, all starting at 8:15 p.m. ET: