Clemson is ready for its chance at revenge against Alabama
GLENDALE, Ariz. — This time, they really want ‘Bama.
Clemson wanted another national championship date with the mighty Crimson Tide so badly that it refused to allow mighty Ohio State to score a single point Saturday. The Tigers handed Urban Meyer the worst loss and first shutout of his 194-game head coaching career with a 31-0 Fiesta Bowl beatdown.
Afterward, the Tigers celebrated for a bit on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium. Then they turned their attention to a certain opponent that beat them 45-40 roughly 51 weeks ago.
“This is the game we’ve been wanting to play for the last year,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said. “We want our revenge. We want our redemption.”
Next Monday in Tampa, Alabama and Clemson will meet in college football’s first national championship game rematch. The schools ended last season 1-2, they started this season 1-2 and now they’re about to end another one 1-2.
It was clear in Clemson’s postgame locker room that this is exactly how they’d always hoped this season would end.
“We knew ‘Bama was going to be back in the national championship,” cornerback Cordrea Tankersley said. “They’ve been No. 1 all year, they deserve it. So now it’s time for us to go knock them off. It’s time for a new sheriff in town.”
Jut like last year, Alabama is the favorite.
Just like last year, Clemson should not be overlooked.
Not after the clinic the Tigers put on here against one of the sport’s premier programs and coaches. Not after they held the 11-1 Buckeyes’ ninth-ranked rushing offense to one 64-yard gain and a combined 21 yards on their other 22 attempts. Not after defensive linemen Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins spent most of the evening in Ohio State’s backfield.
Not after Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson racked up 316 total yards and three TDs.
“We will be coming with fire for the big game,” Boulware said. “The talent level is always going to be there. This year’s team is stronger than last year.”
Earlier Saturday, undefeated Alabama did its usual Alabama thing in a workmanlike 24-7 Peach Bowl win over Washington. The Tide’s defense suffocated Huskies quarterback Jake Browning and got a pick-six. Their offense gained 269 yards on the ground, including 180 by Bo Scarbrough.
But also — Alabama QB Jalen Hurts completed seven passes for 57 yards.
The main reason Clemson is capable of knocking off 14-0 Alabama is that the Tide share a lot in common with the Ohio State team the Tigers just bludgeoned.
Both have fast, swarming defenses that create turnovers, like the two interceptions Watson threw here. But neither offense has demonstrated the ability to stretch an elite opponent vertically.
Buckeyes QB J.T. Barrett played right into the hands of his critics (including Clemson safety Jadar Johnson) Saturday by completing 19 of 33 throws for just 127 yards and two picks. As was the case much of the season, Barrett got little help from his blockers or his receivers; Clemson was too good an opponent for the Buckeyes to get away with it.
Alabama certainly has a better offensive line than Ohio State. Clemson’s terrifying defensive linemen are unlikely to render the Tide’s rushing attack invisible like it did Ohio State’s.
But nor will the Tide likely hoist another trophy if Hurts only completes seven passes.
As dominant as Alabama’s defense has been all season, Clemson’s offense is too potent to completely shut down. And as Nick Saban knows well, the Tigers’ quarterback is too dynamic to contain for 60 minutes.
Watson served numerous reminders of the talent that earned him tickets to New York the past two seasons. (Note: If the Heisman would put off its vote for a month he’d now have at least one trophy.) He spread the ball around to eight different receivers, threw a picturesque 30-yard touchdown to C.J. Fuller and weaved his way across seemingly half the field on a 33-yard first half run.
Watson came in with an unusually high 15 interceptions and threw two more within Clemson’s first five drives. Neither he nor the Tigers flinched. They know they’ve got big-play receivers across the field, and they’re going to win their matchups more often than they don’t.
Star Mike Williams fell down on Watson’s first pick. A couple of series later he was catching a dart from Watson across the middle and turning it into a 37-yard gain.
“I’m a quarterback,” Watson said. “So if I throw a pick or make a mistake I’m not going to shy away and not just going to throw it. I’m going to take my chances, take my shots.”
A year ago against Alabama, Watson put on the most dazzling individual postseason performance since Vince Young against USC. He’s unlikely to rack up 478 total yards again this year against Alabama’s relentlessly punishing front seven, but he won’t need to if Clemson’s defense even remotely approaches the level it played at here.
“We’re a better team than we were this time last year because we have more competitive depth,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Last year we were very top-heavy. We had a very good first group but we were a lot of freshmen behind them. And now we’re just more experienced, more guys can go play and play good, functional, winning football.”
Alabama is less experienced but more explosive than it was a year ago. Hurts leads a much more versatile offense than any previous Saban team. And the Tide have so many playmakers on the other side of the ball that seemingly every week they score a defensive touchdown.
After 14 games, they’ve yet to be seriously threatened in the fourth quarter.
Clemson’s players know that. They all exude glowing respect for Saban’s program and mention often how the Tide’s prestige and respect is well-earned.
Which is exactly why Swinney’s upstart programs want to play them so badly.
“To be talked about among the elite programs in the college football world, we’ve got to win a [national] championship first,” said receiver Hunter Renfrow. “There’s no better way to slay the dragon than against Alabama.”
On Jan. 9, they get their chance. Again.