A look at who will be the 2017 College Football Playoff champion
The College Football Playoff semifinal was as anti-climatic as anyone could have imagined. Washington played Alabama tough but still lost 24-7, and Ohio State forgot to show up and got slaughtered by Clemson 31-0 to give us a rematch of last year’s title game.
Even if this is a rematch of last year’s national championship, it’s hard to argue that these are not the two best teams in the nation this year. Alabama has never lost their top ranking and Clemson has stayed in the playoff picture all year, even after losing to Pittsburgh.
Last season, Alabama won their fourth championship under Nick Saban 45-40. Just like last season, not many people are giving Clemson a chance. Alabama is a seven-point favorite, as the Tide enter one game better than Clemson’s 13-1 record at 14-0.
Although, Dabo Swinney and Saban know each other well from last year, which will make coaching a big part of the game.
Alabama has won all five meetings between these two teams. Although, Clemson, with a sour taste from last year left in their mouth, will look to end that streak on Monday night.
The game is set to kickoff ay 7:00 p.m. CT on ESPN and is played in Tampa, Florida.
Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Clemson Offense vs Alabama Defense
Alabama owned the third best scoring defense in the nation last year, but this year’s defense is significantly better. They have scored 11 non-offensive touchdowns, including one against Washington in the semifinal at the end of the first half to give them a commanding 17-7 halftime lead.
Deshaun Watson turned it over once last year against Alabama and threw two interceptions in the first half against Ohio State in the semifinal, but he has to be careful on Monday. It’s why his 17 interceptions this season and 30 in the past two years is a concerning stat, especially since the Tide forced Jake Browning into two interceptions after he threw just seven in the regular season.
As good as Watson is, he is turnover prone at times and defensive touchdowns are how Alabama widens a lead or gives their offense momentum. It’s dangerous to give a dynamic quarterback like Jalen Hurts more chances.
That said, something Alabama did not see in the semifinal is a mobile quarterback. Browning scrambled a little at the start of the game, however Alabama’s defense quickly collapsed on him.
Watson’s ability to evade pressure and gain positive yards was a huge part of Clemson’s game last year. They held Wayne Gallman to just 14 carries for 45 yards and a touchdown, however Watson rushed for a team-high 73 yards on 20 carries.
Clemson might call a few designed runs for Watson, but they’ll likely try to establish a ground game with Gallman and lessen the hits Watson takes.
Establishing a ground game will help open opportunities for Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, who had four receptions for 33 yards last year against Alabama.
Williams and Scott are both dynamic receivers who can beat almost any secondary, however, Alabama’s ability to pressure the quarterback with just four pass rushers means they can drop seven back in coverage. If Clemson blocks well, it will force Alabama to rush more and leave more one-on-one opportunities for Williams and Scott.
Washington had the right offensive game plan last week, but their inability to establish a ground game hurt them. Watson’s mobility is also a huge plus for Clemson.
Outside of two Washington turnovers, one that resulted in a pick-six and another that set the Tide up for a field goal, and two other scoring drives by Alabama’s offense, the Tide did not look impressive on offense in the semifinal. They punted eight times, turned it over on downs once and now face a defense beaming with confidence after a shutout win over Ohio State.
Clemson’s defense isn’t as scary as Alabama’s, but they still rank seventh in scoring defense. However, Alabama’s offense last season led by Jake Coker put up 45 points against Clemson.
The Tide don’t have Derrick Henry anymore, but they do have a dynamic freshman quarterback in Jalen Hurts and running back Bo Scarbrough, who looked like Henry against Washington. Despite Scarbrough rushing for 180 yards and two touchdowns, which included a 68-yard touchdown scamper, on just 19 carries, Lane Kiffin continued to call designed runs for Hurts.
Kiffin is now with Florida Atlantic and Steve Sarkisian has taken over as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. A year after Henry ran for 158 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries, it will be interesting to see if Sarkisian utilizes a physical back in Scarbough the same way or goes with finesse in Hurts, who only rushed for 50 yards on 19 carries against Washington.
The biggest matchup will be how Clemson handles O.J. Howard. A year ago, Howard caught five passes for an insane 208 yards and two touchdowns. There’s no doubt Nick Saban will test Dabo Swinney early and see if he found a solution to stopping one of the best tight ends in the nation.
Howard led Alabama with four receptions and 44 yards against Washington, and he’ll likely be a popular target for a young quarterback looking to find a rhythm.
This game will come down to Jalen Hurts, though. He didn’t run well and only completed 7-of-14 passes for 57 yards against Washington. Hurts doesn’t need to be great in the championship game, but he can’t take sacks and has to show the stage isn’t too big for him.
Alabama has different players this year, but they have the same physical game plan. Clemson knows where they struggled last season against Alabama, now their better defense will have to step up.
Alabama looked beatable against a physical Washington team, although no team has figured out how to beat them yet. That said, Washington keeping it a 10 point game at half and holding them to seven points in the second half is a positive sign that this game should at least be close.
After playing last year, both teams know each other well. It will come down to quarterback play and whether Alabama’s defense or Clemson’s offense breaks through.
A non-offensive touchdown would seemingly be too much for even a Deshaun Watson led offense to handle. It gives Alabama momentum and would likely allow Jalen Hurts to play more freely with a lead.
Although, Alabama is entering new territory with Lane Kiffin no longer the offensive coordinator. It’s not to say Alabama’s offense will look even worse than they did against Washington, but it’s still an abrupt change right before the national championship.
When it comes down to it, Clemson has the talent, players and head coach to beat Alabama. It’s hard to bet against Deshaun Watson, especially when their defense is playing as well as it is.
Clemson’s defense should come in with a lot of confidence, although I can’t pick against a team who hasn’t lost yet. If there is a team in the nation equipped to take down Alabama, it’s Clemson.