As recently as a few weeks ago, had you asked the casual fan to pick a national champion, the overwhelming answer would have been “Duh, Alabama.” Along with death, taxes, the Harlem Globetrotters and Jim Harbaugh doing something weird to get everyone’s attention, it was one of the safest bets you could possibly make.
But now, just a week later, things have changed. With Clemson’s annihilation of Ohio State in the national semifinal and the weird, Lane Kiffin melodrama surrounding the Crimson Tide program, there is a small, growing contingent that believes that the Tigers have what it takes to upset Alabama.
Jalen Hurts will be facing the toughest challenge of his college career
While Hurts might be a freshman, he didn’t play like it all year, leading the Tide to 14 straight wins in some of college football’s toughest road environments. At the same time, Alabama has definitely put him much more in position to “not lose” games than to win them. Remember, he attempted just 14 total passes against Washington for a total of 57 yards.
It’s hard to imagine Alabama having the same one-dimensional success against Clemson, which will feature the best defensive line the Tide have seen all season. In the Tigers’ semifinal win over Ohio State, they absolutely dominated up front, finishing with 11 tackles for loss and three sacks.
To beat Clemson, Alabama has to be more than just a running team. But given that Hurts has never really needed to use his arm to beat anyone this season, are we sure he can do that?
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The Lane Kiffin departure does matter
Hurts will also head into the biggest game of his career without the man who largely crafted this offense for an entire season around him. That man is Lane Kiffin, who left Alabama earlier this week to begin his duties as Florida Atlantic’s head coach.
And while the immediate reaction was to crack jokes, the gravity of Kiffin's departure feels like it’s been understated. It's a monumental thing to lose your offensive coordinator a week before the national championship game.
Yes, Steve Sarkisian is a phenomenal replacement, but he hasn’t been a coordinator since the 2008 season and was completely out of football four months ago. This isn’t a long-time assistant taking over play-calling duties; this is a guy who is new to Hurts and this offense. And he’s being asked — again, in a national championship game — to lead this offense for the first time? That’s a lot of pressure that we are not paying nearly enough attention to.
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Clemson isn’t afraid of Alabama
Part of what makes Alabama, well, Alabama is that the Tide win half their games before they even take the field. That shouldn't happen with Clemson. Remember, this team went toe-to-toe with Alabama last year, and actually took a 24-21 lead into the fourth quarter before Alabama rallied late for a 45-40 win.
That Tigers defense that let them down is simply better than the one that took the field last year in Glendale. They are giving up fewer points and fewer yards per game than they did in 2016. It’s hard to imagine this group giving up another 45 points to a Tide team led by a freshman QB and a brand new offensive coordinator.
Oh, and there’s the other side of the ball ...
Deshaun Watson is better than a season ago
This is another thing that is being lost in the pregame conversation: Clemson put up 40 points on this Alabama defense a year ago. It was also the game where Deshaun Watson emerged as a bona-fide star, passing for over 400 yards. Nick Saban said he was the best quarterback Alabama had faced since Cam Newton in 2010.
That’s obviously high praise, and here’s the scary thing: Watson was even better this year than last. He finished with more passing yards and more touchdowns than a season ago, while also getting significantly less from his running game. The Tigers averaged just 175 yards on the ground in 2016. That’s down from 225 last year.
And this time, Watson also has the services of the most talented wide receiver in the sport. That would be Mike Williams, who was lost to injury last year, but came back this year and tallied 90 catches for the Tigers.
It’s Clemson’s time
Following Clemson’s demolition of Ohio State, Dabo Swinney was asked about the growth of his program. He gave a detailed and eloquent answer that started with this quote:
We've been on a journey since '09. You've gotta do something once. And it seems like once you kind of knock the lid off whatever barrier it is that you think is in place, then you can do it again. And I know in '09 we were just trying to win the division. Golly, if we could just win the division. And we did. Now we've got five division titles. And then it was, like, OK, can we just win 10 games. Boy, wouldn't that be great? Now we've got six 10-plus win seasons. Then it was can we win the conference? Then we got three conference titles.
He went on from there, but you get the point. There really hasn’t been a program that has grown organically quite like Clemson over the past few seasons. It started with division titles, then conference titles, and a playoff appearance last year. Now the Tigers are in the midst of their sixth straight 10-plus win season and second straight title game appearance. At this point, the only “lid” to knock off is winning the whole flippin’ thing.