As hard as it is to believe, there’s only one game left in the college football season. But boy, is it a good one. For the second straight year, Alabama faces Clemson for the national championship.
Last year, the Crimson Tide won 45-40, but if we learned anything from last Saturday’s semifinal against Washington, it’s that the Crimson Tide aren’t invincible. They’re by no means “bad,” but maybe not quite the juggernaut we thought they might be a week or two ago.
So what can Clemson learn from Alabama’s win over the Huskies? Here are three things.
Jalen Hurts is still very much a freshman
To the credit of Alabama’s offensive coaching staff (including the recently-departed Lane Kiffin), Hurts was never asked to do too much throughout his freshman season. And in his “don’t worry about winning the game, just don’t lose it for us” role, Hurts thrived -- completing 65 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns and just nine interceptions.
But while Hurts had a freshman season to remember, he had a relatively forgettable semifinal against Washington. He threw the ball just 14 times, completing seven passes for 57 yards. Considering that Hurts tallied 32 two of those yards on two passes to O.J. Howard, more than half of his passing yardage came on two plays.
Can Alabama win Monday if Hurts isn’t more dynamic? Remember that Clemson’s offense went toe-to-toe with ‘Bama last year, and the Crimson Tide needed 45 points to pull out the win. While the Tigers probably won’t score quite that much in this rematch, it’s also unrealistic to expect Alabama's defense to hold Clemson to one touchdown like it did against Washington. And asking Hurts to engineer drives against the best defense he’ll face all season is a tall task.
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If there is a “weakness” on Alabama’s defense, it’s the secondary
And, yes, we use the term “weakness” loosely, since trying to find holes on Alabama’s defense is like trying to critique the Mona Lisa. It can be done, but you’ve got to work hard at it.
Still, let’s not forget that the Alabama secondary is banged up coming into this game. Marlon Humphrey has been nursing a hamstring injury for weeks, Minkah Fitzpatrick briefly left the Washington game with a head injury (although he did return) and Eddie Jackson – last year’s championship game Defensive MVP – is out for the season.
Let’s also not forget that the banged-up Crimson Tide secondary is going up against a quarterback that Nick Saban called “the toughest to prepare for” since Cam Newton last year. Yup, that’d be Deshaun Watson, who threw for 405 yards and rushed for another 73 in last year’s title game against Alabama. Now he’s a year older and has a dangerous weapon ‘Bama didn’t see last year: wide receiver Mike Williams, who was out with an injury.
It seems like if there’s any team that could expose Bama’s secondary, it’s Clemson.
There is some degree of chaos in the Alabama coaches’ offices
We can debate whether the decision to remove Kiffin before the title game was “mutual” or a “firing,” but what is undeniable is that there was clearly contention on the Alabama coaching staff last week. And even if Saban made the right decision to let Kiffin go, it’s an incredibly risky one, which could cost Alabama a national championship.
While Steve Sarkisian is a more-than-capable replacement, this is still a wildly risky move for the Crimson Tide. Remember, Sarkisian was completely out of football as recently as August, and now – even if he has gotten to know his personnel since arriving at Alabama – is being asked to make split-second decisions in a title game on a week’s notice. It’s not like Sark has been in Tuscaloosa for years and is taking over for Kiffin in a pinch. Nor does he have much time to get acclimated to the new role.
Add in a freshman quarterback, and it feels like if Clemson can get pressure on Hurts early, it could throw Alabama all out of sorts on offense. Will it be enough to win Clemson the game? We'll find out. But it is just one more thing the Tigers learned about Alabama from its College Football Playoff semifinal.
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