Editor’s note: Throughout the season, Stewart Mandel and Bruce Feldman have presented their weekly picks.
Now, there’s only one game left: The national title between top-ranked, undefeated Clemson and No. 2 Alabama.
QB Deshaun Watson leads the ACC champions into Glendale, where he’ll look to use his legs and his arm to lead his team to college football’s first 15-0 season. Will his dual-threat skills prove too much for Alabama’s D? It just might take an epic performance for the Tigers to prevail in this one.
Meanwhile, Clemson will have to contend with Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, whom — get this! — the Tide used mostly as a decoy vs. Michigan State in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Turns out the Tide are more than a one-trick pony, and that might be bad news for Clemson.
Will Nick Saban further cement his Alabama legacy with his fourth title in Tuscaloosa or will Clemson’s Dabo Swinney win his first as a head coach?
To get us set for the game, here are our experts with their picks. Enjoy!
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: NO. 1 CLEMSON TIGERS VS. NO. 2 ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE (MONDAY, 8:30 P.M. ET., ESPN)
Mandel: Alabama has defeated its last six opponents by no less than two touchdowns, including a 38-0 semifinal rout of Michigan State. Clemson is too talented on both sides of the ball to allow that to happen, and quarterback Deshaun Watson’s running and scrambling ability present a challenge the Tide’s dominant defense has not yet faced.
Early on, both teams may struggle to move the ball as they feel out their counterparts’ stout defenses. Alabama QB Jake Coker and WR Calvin Ridley won’t likely deliver an encore of their big nights against Michigan State due to a combination of the Tigers’ formidable pass rush and All-American cover corner Mackensie Alexander. If anything, Watson may have the upper hand in the first half, particularly if Clemson goes full throttle on its up-tempo attack.
But Alabama will adjust soon enough. Its defensive line is as dominant as any college football has seen in the past several years and could potentially overrun Clemson’s offensive line. The pressure on Watson will increase, and he’s unlikely to get much help from normally productive RB Wayne Gallman.
And if it’s a close game going into the fourth quarter, Alabama will have Clemson right where it wants it. A relentless onslaught of Derrick Henry rushing attempts will wear down a Tigers’ defensive front that’s not as deep as Alabama’s. He’ll do the bulk of his work in the second half, carrying 30-plus times for 120 to 150 yards as the Tide eventually put the game away.
Prediction: Alabama 27, Clemson 20
Feldman: The Crimson Tide has the deepest and most dominant defensive front I’ve seen in 20-plus years of covering the sport. I think Clemson’s O-line is going to struggle holding up against that group. And, for as terrific as QB Deshaun Watson is — and I know Nick Saban’s defenses have struggled against mobile QBs — this is a faster Tide defense than Bama’s had in recent years.
Remember, the Tide crushed Mississippi State and their talented, experienced QB Dak Prescott. I don’t expected ’Bama to dominate Clemson the same way Saban’s squad did MSU, but I do buy that they’re just too big and too good to lose this game.
Clemson’s talented on its defense too, and the Tigers should do a pretty good job containing RB Derrick Henry, but ’Bama OC Lane Kiffin has QB Jacob Coker playing with a lot more confidence and control. I suspect a few big plays will be there again for Coker and the improving Tide receiving corps as they were against Michigan State.
Prediction: Alabama 27, Clemson 17
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter@slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.