#1 Clemson v. #2 Alabama
University of Phoenix Stadium — Glendale, AZ
January 11, 2016 — 8:30 pm Eastern (ESPN)
How They Got Here
By the time November rolled around, it felt like Alabama and Clemson were on a crash course to play one another at the end of the season. Had the BCS still been in operation, these two teams would have been matched up against one another anyway as the top duo in the combination of human polls and computer rankings, so it isn’t like we’re getting a revolutionary pairing like we received last year in Ohio State and the Ducks.
The Tigers were the only undefeated team left standing at the end of the regular season, running rampant through the ACC to amass a 13-0 record. Alabama rebounded from a close mid-September loss at home against Ole Miss to win the SEC with a 12-1 mark. The Tide were forced to roll through a much tougher schedule, though Clemson’s calendar included contests against foes like Notre Dame, Florida State, and North Carolina. It wasn’t as consistently difficult, but it also wasn’t as though Dabo Swinney’s squad had never been tested entering their Orange Bowl showdown against Oklahoma.
Both teams got off to slow starts in their semifinal matchups on New Year’s Eve before pulling away in the second half of blowouts. Clemson was actually down by a point at halftime to the Sooners, before outscoring Bob Stoops’ revamped offense 21-0 in Miami to advance to the championship game. Alabama had already covered the 9.5-point spread by halftime, and kept their foot on the gas as they eviscerated Michigan State in a 38-0 shootout at the Cotton Bowl.
Clemson has the opportunity to become the second undefeated national champion to come out of the ACC in the past three years. Alabama could further cement its status as a 21st-century dynasty, with the possibility of a fourth national championship over the past seven seasons in its sights. With that in mind, let’s look at the matchup between these two squads. You can review the regular-season breakdowns by clicking here for Clemson and here for Alabama; as you will find, I picked both winners outright but undervalued the Crimson Tide’s ability to completely shut down a strong Michigan State squad.
Deshaun Watson only bolstered his standing as one of the three Heisman finalists this season, as he finished the Orange Bowl as the offensive MVP of the game. Watson hurt the Sooners as much with his legs as his arm, teaming with tailback Wayne Gallman to terrorize Oklahoma as the game wore on. Gallman rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns, Watson added 332 combined yards (187 passing, 145 rushing) and two touchdowns, and they factored into all but 48 of the team’s 530 yards in Miami. It allowed Clemson to control the game clock, as they held the ball for more than 35 minutes with three second-half drives of more than four minutes apiece.
The Tiger defense really turned the game around against Oklahoma. In the first half, the Sooners seemed to have cracked a Clemson defense that had entered the contest as a top-10 unit nationally. In 44 first-half plays, Oklahoma scored 17 points and amassed 257 yards at an average of 5.8 yards per play — over a full yard more than Clemson allowed on average over the course of the season. Then the Tigers adjusted at halftime, forcing two Baker Mayfield interceptions and holding the Sooners to just 3.8 yards per play. The turnaround locked up one of the most prolific offenses in the country, one that ranked first nationally in adjusted margin of victory.
The amazing part is that they left points on the table, settling for field goals where touchdowns were ostensibly in reach. Greg Huegel kicked two field goals after Clemson had reached the red zone, and he also missed a 47-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter. The star on special teams, though, was undoubtedly punter Andy Teasdall. In the second quarter, as Clemson looked as though they were bogging down against the Sooner defense, the punter rolled right before throwing across his body to Christian Wilkins for a 31-yard gain. Two plays later, the Tigers were scoring their only touchdown of the first half, and they were within one at the half thanks to the spectacular play.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama was able to exorcise the demons of losing to Ohio State as heavy favorites in last year’s Sugar Bowl by pummeling this year’s Big Ten champion in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry had a relatively pedestrian day, rushing for just 75 yards on 20 carries, but he did punch in two touchdowns. Jake Coker had his best game as a starter, going 25-of-30 for 286 yards and two touchdown passes to freshman receiving standout Calvin Ridley. An offense that had been relatively pedestrian by the numbers looked as explosive as the top units in the country, scoring seemingly at will against a Michigan State team that finished the regular season in the top 25 nationally.
Alabama showed exactly why they were among the top defenses in the country, holding the Spartans scoreless in the Cotton Bowl. They gave up 210 passing yards to Connor Cook in the semifinal encounter — but it took the senior slinger 39 attempts to compile that yardage, as his completion percentage dipped below 50 percent and he threw two interceptions in the process. Damion Terry, ostensibly a backup quarterback, led Michigan State in rushing… gaining 14 yards on his only carry of the night. They controlled the line of scrimmage, and there was nothing Jim Bollman and the offensive coaching staff could do to crack the Tide’s defenses.
Cyrus Jones lived up to his billing as a strong punt returner, taking the football 57 yards for a touchdown on a third-quarter punt. Meanwhile, placekicker Adam Griffith couldn’t have been better, connecting on all five of his extra points and knocking through a 47-yarder in the waning minutes of the first half that put Alabama up by 10 at the intermission. Where they continued to be less than championship caliber was in the realm of punting; JK Scott continues to alternate between hot and cold for the Tide, able to pin teams inside their own five on one punt and then inexplicably leaving low-hanging fruit for opponents to have a chance to return.
What is Likely to Happen in Glendale
The oddsmakers in Vegas like Alabama as a touchdown favorite against undefeated Clemson, which says all you need to know about how most of the country feels about the relative quality of the ACC when compared to the SEC. The Crimson Tide were able to obliterate an even bigger line against a Michigan State team perceived to be surging into the Playoff field, but they also haven’t encountered a team like Clemson. Of the other three teams besides Bama, the Tigers are best suited to challenge the Tide. They have an offense that rivaled Oklahoma’s numbers through the season, their defense was the equal of Michigan State’s recent vintages (and better than the Spartans in 2015), and no other team was able to put together the complete package.
That said, it is dangerous to bet against Nick Saban. Lane Kiffin’s offense should be able to find some space against Clemson, though the Tigers have the personnel and the talent to keep up in a shootout — which was the blueprint Ole Miss used to upset Alabama in Tuscaloosa. This is looking like it will be a close affair, with Jake Coker capable of trading punches with Deshaun Watson in the air and Derrick Henry unlikely to rush for only 75 yards this time around. (It merits notice, however, that Clemson’s run defense is even better than Michigan State’s this year.)
Ultimately, while smart money usually sides with Alabama in championship games (4-2 in SEC championship games, 3-0 in BCS championship games), something seems fated about this Clemson team in 2015. Deshaun Watson’s continued run of excellence is likely to continue, while a defense that put Baker Mayfield on his backside five times is likely going to get Coker to the ground at least a few times on the day while pressuring him throughout the contest. Look for the Tigers not only to beat the spread, but to party like it’s 1981 in Arizona next Monday, as Watson and crew pull away from an Alabama team that isn’t quite as invincible as the Cotton Bowl would have one believe. A back-and-forth struggle will likely see several lead changes before Swinney’s crew runs away with the late victory.