Alabama vs Clemson are set for the first national championship game rematch in college football history. The two teams have been near the top of the rankings all season with the Tide looking to go wire-to-wire at No. 1 in the three major rankings. With the College Football Playoff National Championship upon us, it’s only fitting we bring you our expert picks for the big game in Tampa on Monday, Jan. 9 Alabama vs Clemson .
Alabama vs Clemson: Game Info
No. 1 Alabama (14-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-1)
Monday, Jan. 9, 2017
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Alabama vs Clemson: How to Watch Online
Game time: 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Live stream: WatchESPN
Live updates: NCAA.com
Alabama vs Clemson Preview
Three Things to Watch
1. Steve Sarkisian and the Alabama Offense
Changing coordinators a week before the national championship is a risky move by Alabama coach Nick Saban. However, it was clear the Crimson Tide’s offense did not fire on all cylinders in the win over Washington, and it’s fair to say coordinator Lane Kiffin was certainly distracted trying to juggle two jobs. With Saban pushing Kiffin to FAU a week earlier than anticipated, Steve Sarkisian is set to call the plays in Monday night’s game. Sarkisian was already set to take over the play-calling duties in 2017 and essentially operates the same system that Kiffin utilized during his three years in Tuscaloosa. The transition from Kiffin to Sarkisian won’t be too noticeable in terms of how the Crimson Tide offense operates. But there will be differences in how the two coaches call a game, make adjustments or interact with the players on the sidelines.
Sarkisian’s new role is the biggest wild card storyline to watch on Monday night. Any other team that changed coordinators a week before the national championship probably couldn’t make it work. However, Saban and Alabama should have a seamless transition to Sarkisian for Monday’s game.
The biggest challenge for Sarkisian will be getting freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts comfortable in the passing game. In last week’s Peach Bowl win over Washington, Hurts completed only 7 of 14 throws for 57 yards. The freshman added 50 yards on the ground against the Huskies, which gave him 891 for the season. The emergence of Hurts and his dual-threat ability has provided another dimension for this Alabama offense. The Crimson Tide always have a strong ground attack, but the offense is even more dangerous with a mobile quarterback.
Hurts isn’t hurting for talented weapons on the outside. ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley form a standout tandem on the outside or in the slot, while tight end O.J. Howard (41 catches) torched Clemson’s defense in last year’s game. Clemson will counter with a secondary that ranked fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense and is led by standouts Jadar Johnson (safety) and Cordrea Tankersley (cornerback).
Alabama won’t need Hurts to throw for 300 yards on Monday night to win. However, the freshman has to play a mistake-free game, utilize his legs to get 60-80 yards on the ground and hit on a couple of big plays to keep the Clemson defense from crowding the box to stop the run. And of course – adapt to a new play-caller.
Related: 10 X-Factors for Clemson vs. Alabama
2. Clemson’s Offense Against Alabama’s Defense
This is the most anticipated one-on-one matchup for Monday night’s game. It’s a showdown of strength versus strength, as Clemson ranks 13th nationally by averaging 39.5 points per game, and Alabama’s defense ranks first by limiting opponents to 11.4 points per contest. The Crimson Tide create a lot of havoc at the line of scrimmage (50 sacks) and rank among the nation’s best in generating takeaways (27). In addition to its ability to create turnovers, Alabama’s defense also converts those takeaways directly into points. This unit has scored 11 times on defense this season, which is a concern for a Clemson offense that has lost 26 turnovers in 2016.
Finding a weakness for Alabama’s defense isn’t easy. However, mobile quarterbacks and spread attacks give Saban and the Crimson Tide the most trouble. Clemson checks off both of those boxes, with quarterback Deshaun Watson likely to give this defense a lot of trouble once again. Watson totaled 478 yards in last season’s 45-40 loss to Alabama and was able to extend several plays with his mobility. In 2016, Watson threw for 4,173 yards and added 586 yards on the ground. The junior did not run as much this season as he did in 2015, but with the national championship expected to be his final game in a Clemson uniform, the coaching staff isn’t going to hold back on letting Watson run as much as necessary. As mentioned above, interceptions have been a slight problem for the junior in 2016. After tossing 13 over 491 attempts in 2015, Watson has been intercepted 17 times on 523 pass attempts in 2016.
Watson’s ability to extend plays and attack downfield will be a tough assignment for an Alabama defense that is not as deep in the secondary as in previous years. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and cornerback Marlon Humphrey are the headliners in the secondary for coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, but this unit allowed 18 plays of 30 yards or more in 2016. Clemson has a deep array of targets for Watson to utilize, starting with 6-foot-3 receiver Mike Williams (90 catches), tight end Jordan Leggett (39), Deon Cain (33), Artavis Scott (73) and sure-handed sophomore Hunter Renfrow (34).
How will Alabama counter Clemson’s offense and hope to slow down Watson? The Crimson Tide need to win on early downs and keep the Tigers in third-and-long situations. The battle in the trenches will be critical for both sides, as well as limiting the big plays. Considering the firepower on Clemson’s sideline, it’s likely this offense is going to churn out its share of yards. However, the Crimson Tide would trade yards for stops on third downs and in the red zone.
3. Rushing Attacks and Offensive Line Play
Much of the focus for Monday night’s game will be centered around the two quarterbacks – Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson – but the battle in the trenches and ground attack will be just as critical to the outcome.
Both teams have experienced their share of ups and downs in the trenches and will be matched against a standout line on the other side.
Alabama’s defensive front is anchored by first-team All-American Jonathan Allen at end, while tackle Da’Ron Payne is an underrated cog in the middle. Allen and Payne are a big reason why the rush defense is first in the nation and will be tasked with disrupting the timing of Clemson’s offense at the initial snap. Can the Tigers match the physicality of Alabama’s front and protect Watson? Additionally, can Swinney’s front five generate a push on the ground? Running back Wayne Gallman has posted back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns but managed only 45 yards in last year’s matchup. The Tigers don’t need 100 yards from Gallman to win. However, a little balance would keep Alabama’s standout line on its heels.
While Alabama proved it could win a shootout over Clemson last season, the Crimson Tide would prefer a lower-scoring game and to control the overall pace and tempo. To do so, the offense needs its line to step up. Tackles Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams are two of the best in the nation, and this duo will be matched against a standout line on the other side. The Tigers are loaded with athleticism, talent and depth in the trenches, with the front four headlined by tackles Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence, along with end Christian Wilkins.
In last week’s win over Washington, Alabama recorded 269 yards on the ground. Bo Scarbrough accounted for 180 yards on 19 carries and is likely to see around 20 carries on Monday night. The Tigers rank 19th nationally against the run and limit opponents to just 3.5 yards per carry. Can Clemson slow Scarbrough and prevent Alabama from controlling the tempo by grinding it out on the ground? Or will the Crimson Tide win the battle in the trenches and keep Watson and the high-powered offense on the sidelines? Generating a pass rush against Hurts will be critical for coordinator Brent Venables. If the Tigers can force Hurts to beat them from the pocket – instead of making plays with his legs or attacking the edges – there’s a good chance Clemson will hoist the national championship trophy.
Five Numbers to Know
Turnover Margin: Alabama +8, Clemson +1
Third-Down Offense: Clemson 5th nationally, Alabama 21st
Third-Down Defense: Clemson 6th nationally, Alabama 7th
Red Zone Offense: Alabama 24th nationally, Clemson 71st
Red Zone Defense: Clemson 22nd nationally, Alabama 45th nationally
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME EXPERT PICKS
Dennis Dodd — Clemson 27, Alabama 20: Clemson is playing too well and there is too much upheaval at Alabama at the moment. Look, it takes a lot to even pick against Bama, but the planets are aligning. Dabo already knows the Alabama gameplan, having faced it last year. For the second consecutive year, he has the best player on the field (Deshaun Watson). Nick Saban is asking an analyst — albeit with head coaching experience — to call plays in the national championship for the first time 11 years and for the first time at all in 15 months. As weird as Lane Kiffin might have been, Steve Sarkisian left the game because of substance abuse issues. Now, he inherits a quarterback in a winner take all game who — despite Jalen Hurts’ success — has been learning how to play QB in the context of chasing a championship. Even Saban can’t overcome all that. You know what looks like stability right now? I hate to say this but … Kiffin.
Jon Solomon — Clemson 20, Alabama 17: Watson and Clemson are highly motivated to redeem themselves after last year. The Tigers are the rare team with the players and style to seriously challenge Alabama’s incredible defense for 60 minutes. If anyone can pull off changing offensive coordinators one week before the national championship, it’s Saban. I actually like Alabama’s chances better without Kiffin. That tells you what a mess it became with Kiffin. Look at the confidence right now in Watson and Hurts. That’s the difference as Clemson wins its second national title.
Jerry Palm — Alabama 27, Clemson 20: As much as the talk has been about how Clemson wants another shot at Alabama, I think Alabama’s defense in particular wants another shot at Clemson. The Tide gave up 40 points to the Tigers last year, and that’s not something that will sit well in the defensive meeting rooms this week. Not only does Alabama have the best defense in the country, but it will be one that comes into this game with a chip on its shoulder. The Tigers have too many weapons to shut down completely, so they’ll have better success than Washington, but not enough. Clemson’s defense will be hard pressed to duplicate the game they had against Ohio State. They played at a level they hadn’t shown all year against good teams. It’ll take that kind of effort again to have a chance to win.
Tom Fornelli — Alabama 31, Clemson 23: If there’s one team in the country that I would seriously consider capable of beating Alabama, it’s Clemson. That being said, I’m still picking Alabama. I get that aside from Clemson being incredibly talented, and having Watson. There’s a lot of concern over the upheaval at Alabama, but while I don’t think it’s an ideal situation, I also think it’s being overblown.
Sarkisian has been a coach for 17 years, including six as a head coach. I don’t think a few months away from calling plays will lead to him forgetting how football works.
Also, even if the Alabama offense struggles, Clemson still needs to solve the Alabama defense. As amazing as Watson has been this year, he’s still turned the ball over a lot. As we have all seen on a weekly basis, if there’s a defense you don’t want to turn the ball over against, it’s Alabama’s. And they can force them. I expect this to be a close game, and possibly even a classic, but at the end of it, the team holding up the trophy will be the one that’s done it before. Roll Tide and whatnot.
Robby Kalland — Alabama 27 Clemson 24: I expect this to be a lower-scoring version of last year’s game where we get tremendous performances from both teams in a narrow Alabama win. For the most part, Watson has been able to outplay his turnovers this season, but I think against this Alabama defense, his propensity for giving the ball to the opposition will finally be too much to overcome.
I expect the Tide’s defense to come in with a game plan that makes him sit in the pocket and throw the ball, rather than trying to heat him up and move him after he was so dominant as a runner and scrambler last year and has shown he’ll throw interceptions this season. Clemson’s a great team with the better quarterback, but it’s impossible for me to pick against this Alabama defense this season.
Ben Kercheval — Clemson 30, Alabama 26: The temptation to ride with Alabama, who has unquestionably been the best team from start to finish this season, was high. Besides, the Crimson Tide have been outrageously good against the spread, even as heavy favorites. Also, I’m of the belief the change at offensive coordinator from Kiffin to Sarkisian is overblown.
There may be some philosophical differences from Kiffin to Sark, but Alabama isn’t about to go reinvent their wheel with just a handful of practices left before the biggest game of the year. But I look at these two teams, and with Alabama’s defense being so dominant, it feels like the Tide’s offensive inconsistencies have been masked. And Clemson has been playing its best football since losing to Pitt. Yeah, there’s the whole revenge factor from last year, but it just seems like Clemson is playing its best football now.
Chip Patterson — Alabama 31, Clemson 27: Watson is the best quarterback Alabama has faced since, well, Watson, and he’ll have two stud receivers in Mike Williams (injury) and Deon Cain (suspension) that both missed last year’s title game. The Tigers versatile and athletic run-stopping front is perfect to slow down Alabama and I think the Tide will find themselves tested in a way they haven’t been all season, maybe even trail for most of the game. But all season, the creeping inevitability of another Saban Alabama championship has been right around the corner and now it’s here. My heart says Clemson, my cynical brain says nothing can or will stop the Alabama death machine. Roll Tide.