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College football’s 2018-19 season is down to its final game, as Alabama and Clemson square off on Monday night in Santa Clara for the national championship. The biggest stage in college football is nothing new for both teams. The Crimson Tide are the only team to earn a trip to the CFB Playoff in all five years since its inception prior to the 2014 season. Additionally, coach Nick Saban’s team has won two out of the last three national championships and five over the last nine years. The Tigers have earned four consecutive trips to the CFB Playoff and will make their third appearance in the national title game on Monday night.
Matchups between Alabama and Clemson in the CFB Playoff have become the norm in recent years, and considering the returning talent for the 2019 season, it may not change much next fall. Counting the matchup in Santa Clara, the Crimson Tide and Tigers have met in four consecutive postseason games. Alabama won the title for the 2015 season by defeating Clemson in a 45-40 thriller in Glendale. The Tigers got revenge the following year thanks to quarterback Deshaun Watson, knocking off the Crimson Tide 35-31 in Tampa. These two teams met last season in a semifinal game, with Alabama winning 24-6 in dominant fashion in New Orleans.
Alabama has largely cruised to a 14-0 record behind a high-powered offense and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Of the Crimson Tide’s 14 victories, just three were decided by less than 22 points. Alabama opened the year with a 51-14 win against Louisville in Orlando and picked up victories along the way against Texas A&M (45-23), Missouri (39-10), LSU (29-0) and Mississippi State (24-0). After Tagovailoa was sidelined due to injury, the Crimson Tide needed some second-half heroics from Jalen Hurts to defeat Georgia 35-28 in the SEC Championship. Tagovailoa’s status was a major concern leading into the Orange Bowl showdown against Oklahoma. However, the sophomore was sharp throughout all four quarters, and Alabama’s defense propelled the team to a 28-0 margin that was too much for the Sooners to overcome in a 45-34 victory for the Crimson Tide.
Clemson’s season has mirrored Alabama’s in some ways. The Tigers were dominant throughout 2018, with only two games decided by less than 20 points. Clemson survived an early trip to College Station to beat Texas A&M (28-26) and rallied to beat Syracuse (27-23) after quarterback Trevor Lawrence was sidelined due to injury. The Tigers capped the year by blowing out Pitt 42-10 in the ACC Championship. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team was nearly a two-touchdown favorite for its semifinal against Notre Dame. As expected, Clemson didn’t have much trouble with the Fighting Irish, as Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns to guide the team to a 30-3 victory.
The 2018 version of Alabama’s offense has shifted from a run-first/power football approach to more of a spread team. That’s largely due to Tagovailoa’s emergence as the No. 1 quarterback, along with a receiving corps that might be the deepest in college football. The Crimson Tide are averaging over 300 passing yards a game, with Tagovailoa completing 69.5 percent of his throws for 3,671 yards and 41 touchdowns to just four picks.
Tagovailoa’s No. 1 target is sophomore Jerry Jeudy, but Alabama has five players with at least 36 receptions this season. Jeudy enters Monday night’s game with 63 receptions for 1,176 yards and 13 touchdowns and claimed the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s top receiver in December. Freshman Jaylen Waddle ranks second on the team with 823 receiving yards, while Henry Ruggs (45 catches for 738 yards and 11 TDs) and DeVonta Smith (36 catches for 628 yards) round out the top options at receiver. Tight end Irv Smith (40 receptions for 667 yards) is another big-play threat for Tagovailoa to target over the middle of the field.
While this offense is more prolific through the air than Saban’s previous teams, Alabama certainly doesn’t abandon the running game. The workload on Monday night is likely to be split between three options. Senior Damien Harris paces the team with 819 yards and nine touchdowns, with Najee Harris (724 yards) and Josh Jacobs (593 yards) slated to see opportunities. Jacobs is also the best pass catcher of the trio, as he’s posted 19 receptions for 231 yards and three scores this season.
With Alabama’s versatile and deep collection of playmakers in place, along with one of college football’s top quarterbacks, Clemson’s defense is going to have its hands full on Monday night. However, the Tigers certainly have the pieces to slow down this offense.
The strength of Clemson’s defense rests in the trenches. All-American Christian Wilkins leads the way for a run defense that is only giving up 2.4 yards a carry and 92.6 rushing yards a game. Ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant anchor a pass rush that ranks first nationally with 52 sacks. Dexter Lawrence’s suspension is a big loss on the interior, but Albert Huggins played well against Notre Dame and will prevent a major drop in the production of this unit. Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar anchor a standout group of linebackers, with cornerbacks Trayvon Mullen and A.J. Terrell leading the way in the secondary.
It’s hard to find a flaw on Alabama’s offense, but the line has been susceptible (at times) to opposing pass rushers. Can Clemson’s front generate pressure on passing downs to prevent Tagovailoa and his receivers from making big plays downfield? While the Tigers have allowed only 11 passing scores all year, Texas A&M (430 yards) and South Carolina (510) showed this unit can give up some yardage if the quarterback has time to throw downfield.
Clemson’s front isn’t likely to give up much in the way of yardage, but Alabama still needs to have the threat of the run. With three talented backs in place, small yardage may turn into longer gains with fresh legs in the fourth quarter. Additionally, considering Alabama’s issues on field goals this season, Clemson shouldn’t be afraid to bend a little but hold in the red zone.
Expect the battle in the trenches to decide this game. If the Crimson Tide protect Tagovailoa, he’s going to hit open receivers and keep the offense performing where it left off in the Orange Bowl. But if the Tigers get to the quarterback with their front four and no additional pressure, this defense can slow down Alabama’s offense.
Monday night’s matchup is exactly why Clemson needed Trevor Lawrence to emerge as the team’s starting quarterback this season. After losing to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last year, it was evident the Tigers would have to throw downfield more to open up the entire offense. As expected, Kelly Bryant opened the season as Clemson’s No. 1 quarterback, but it wasn’t long before Lawrence was clearly the right pick to direct the offense. The freshman is only getting more and more comfortable with every snap, as he finished the year with 2,933 yards and 27 touchdowns to just four picks. Additionally, Lawrence is connecting on 65.5 percent of his throws and has not tossed a pick in four straight contests.
Just how big of an impact has Lawrence made on the offense? After connecting on just 18 throws of 30 yards or more in 2017, the Tigers have 32 such plays in ’18. The offense also has 11 completions of 50-plus yards, including a 52-yard touchdown toss in the Cotton Bowl victory over Notre Dame.
Just like Alabama, Clemson is loaded with talent at receiver. Tee Higgins leads the offense in receptions (56), yardage (855) and touchdown catches (11) and has the size (6-foot-4) to be a nightmare matchup. Justyn Ross has been one of the top freshman playmakers in the nation this fall. He enters Monday night’s game with 40 catches for 847 yards and eight touchdowns and led the team with 148 receiving yards in the win against the Fighting Irish. Amari Rodgers (53 catches) and Hunter Renfrow (47) round out the top targets for Lawrence on the outside.
Travis Etienne has only 190 carries this season, but the sophomore certainly makes the most of his touches. Etienne has 1,572 yards and 22 touchdowns, averaging a healthy 8.3 yards per carry. He’s also tied for fourth nationally with seven runs of 40-plus yards this season.
As expected from Nick Saban’s program, Alabama’s defense once again ranks among the best in college football. The strength of this group is up front. The Crimson Tide are holding opponents to 3.5 yards per rush and 120.3 yards a game on the ground. Nose guard Quinnen Williams has been unblockable for most of the season, recording 18 tackles for a loss and eight sacks through 14 games. Ends Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis have combined for 19 tackles for a loss this fall, while linebackers Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller have posted 21. Miller suffered a hamstring injury in the win over Oklahoma and is questionable for Monday night’s game.
Alabama’s secondary isn’t as deep or effective as the unit Saban brought to the national championship last season but still ranks 15th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Only two teams – Georgia and Oklahoma – have managed more than 300 passing yards against this secondary in 2018.
As mentioned above, this matchup is why Clemson needed Lawrence in the starting lineup. Alabama’s front seven dominated in last year’s Sugar Bowl and another performance like the one in New Orleans spell trouble for the Tigers. But with Lawrence at the controls, Clemson’s offense can stretch the field and can attack Alabama’s secondary with its speed and athleticism on the outside. Etienne isn’t going to find a ton of running room, but the sophomore will have better luck if the Crimson Tide have to devote more attention to preventing big plays downfield.
Similar to when Alabama has the ball, can Clemson’s offensive line hold up at the point of attack? The Tigers have allowed only 17 sacks this year but three came against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Can Williams, Davis, Buggs and the Crimson Tide’s standout group of linebackers get constant pressure throughout the game on passing downs? If Alabama stuffs Etienne and gets Lawrence into third-and-longs, even though the receivers will make a handful of plays downfield, that could be a tough recipe for Swinney’s team to overcome all night.