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SQ College Football National Championship Roundtable

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In an epic rematch, Clemson looks to knock off a daunting Alabama team. Find out what our writers think heading into the game.

The College Football Playoff has culminated in a finals rematch between Alabama and Clemson. While most thought Alabama was a lock to make it back to the finals, Clemson was much less of a sure bet to get back to the title game. 

That said, both teams have been playing their best football leading up to this game, making this one of the most anticipated title rematches in recent memory. The college football staff here at SQ came together to spill their thoughts on this all-important matchup. Without further ado, here’s what they came up with:

Alright guys, so we’ve got a rematch on our hands for the national championship tilt. Tell me your initial thoughts heading into this game.

Sean Berger: Seeing Alabama here is definitely not a surprise. It’s become an expectation that Nick Saban gets to the Playoff every year. There aren’t many who can beat him, and the only one who has at this stage — Urban Meyer — was eliminated last week. 

As for Clemson, it’s not shocking to see them here in a rematch, but it was surprising to see how they completely dominated Ohio State. This Clemson team heading into the championship game is a very different one than the team that struggled early on this season. This is going to be one heck of a game.

Alex Koslow: My initial thought while watching the Clemson-Ohio State game was that Clemson definitely has the best chance to take down Alabama. After a slow start on the year, Clemson has really come along. Their defense is the main reason why. While Deshaun Watson is a good quarterback who needs to play well in order to win, the Tiger defense is what has brought them this far. Battle of the defenses for sure.

Frank Scicchitano: Once the top four became official, I was rooting for a rematch the whole way. Last year’s game was incredible, and, because of that, this year’s has so many unique storylines. Can Deshaun Watson come close to duplicating what he did in last year’s game against an even better Alabama defense? Is this the Crimson Tide’s most talented squad yet? Will Nick Saban win a sixth national title? There is a lot to be excited about with this game.

David Street: For the first time ever, we have a national championship rematch from the year before. Last year’s championship was one of the best ever and this year’s promises to be just as exciting. Alabama made its mark with a 52-6 drubbing of the USC Trojans and has not looked back since. Clemson, on the other hand, got off to a slow start, not beating an opponent by double digits until the third game. Lately, however, the Tigers have hit their stride and put the whole college football world on notice with its 31-0 demolition of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Alabama’s defense is historically good, but Deshaun Watson is one of the most electrifying players in the country and can certainly give that unit fits like he did last year.

Which under-the-radar player will have the most impact in this game?

Sean: For Deshaun Watson to have success in this game, Wayne Gallman is going to have to keep Alabama honest with his ground attack. Gallman had a good game against an otherwise dominant Ohio State rush defense, picking up 85 yards on 18 carries, while scoring one touchdown. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Gallman can help Clemson in two ways: A) Take pressure off of the passing game, keeping the back seven honest, and B) keeping the defensive line honest, giving Watson space to run on read-option plays. Gallman was able to make defenders miss a tackle 51 times out of the 214 times he carried the ball this season. Making Alabama defenders miss is no easy task, but if he can make a couple miss it will make things easier by clearing space for Watson.

Alex: Ben Boulware, the emotional leader of this Clemson defense. While I personally don’t like the way he plays (some, including myself, consider him a dirty player), but he comes to play every single day. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Boulware in a spy role keeping his eyes on Jalen Hurts all game long, making sure he doesn’t get loose. Boulware sets the tone and the more he’s into the game and running around the field, the more the others will feed off that energy and come to play.

Frank: Bo Scarbrough. Just in case Watson figures out the key to cracking ’Bama’s defense for the second year in a row, Nick Saban is going to turn to ball control to avoid getting in another shootout. The best way to do that is to hand the ball to the latest of the monstrous Alabama running backs. If Clemson’s offense looks potent early, ’Bama will keep it close by giving Scarbrough 25-30 carries.

David: I’m going to go with receiver Deon Cain. Cain has been an excellent second option for quarterback Deshaun Watson this year. His 19.1 yards per reception leads all Clemson receivers, and his nine receiving touchdowns are second on the team. It should be noted, however, that Cain has not caught a touchdown pass in four games, and he’s going up against an Alabama defense that’s snatched six interceptions in its last three games. Cain is going to have to figure out a way to exploit the Crimson Tide’s vaunted defense in order for Clemson to be in the game.

Was it a mistake for Nick Saban to let Lane Kiffin go this late?

Sean: The common logic here would be to say that it’s a mistake to let someone of such importance on the offensive side of the ball go right before the biggest game of the season. After all, when you look at how Houston’s offense performed in its bowl game after Tom Herman left, it was like watching a completely different team. However, Nick Saban doesn’t do things just to do them; every move he makes is calculated and controlled.

There’s a reason he’s already won five national championships. With that being said, Kiffin played a key role in the development of true freshman QB Jalen Hurts. Without Kiffin on the sideline and new OC Steve Sarkisian taking over in his stead, it’s going to be interesting to see how it affects Hurts.

Alex: Kiffin was probably a distraction for this ‘Bama team. Ever since he took the FAU job his mind hasn’t been 100% on the playoffs, so having Steve Sarkisian come in early to take over the offensive playcalling duties isn’t so bad. Having him here will also help ease the transition heading into next season. With Saban as head coach, I don’t care who the coordinator is — the team will come ready to play.

Frank: If the score stays low and Alabama controls the game with defense and possession, it won’t make a difference who is calling the plays. It won’t take a complex offensive game plan to manage that type of game. But if another shootout occurs, there may be a crucial series late in the game that will require an important play call by Sarkisian. That may be difficult to prepare for on just one week’s notice.

David: I think it depends. His play-calling against Washington was pretty awful. Running back Bo Scarbrough rushes for 9.5 yards per carry, and you only give him the ball 19 times? That kind of performance deserves at least 25 carries. Alabama didn’t really dominate the Huskies on the scoreboard like most people expected. Credit Washington for keeping the game close for the most part, but Kiffin’s play-calling certainly didn’t help. Saban, being the no-nonsense guy he is, doesn’t want that kind of performance in a championship game.

On the other hand, Kiffin is still one of the best offensive coaches in the nation even with some of the boneheaded decisions he makes. He did lead Alabama’s offense to score 45 points against Clemson’s defense in last year’s championship game. Saban is throwing new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian into the fire with very little time to prepare a game plan, and if Alabama loses, Saban will get a lot of heat for letting Kiffin go.

Who has the edge this time: Deshaun Watson or the Alabama defense?

Sean: Let’s face it — you could argue either one of these and have a pretty good case for both. However, I’m going to side with Watson on this one. Historically, the Kryptonite for the Alabama defense has been dynamic quarterbacks who can do damage with their legs as well as their arms. Alabama has a strong defensive front that is going to pressure Watson all game, but it’s his ability to escape pressure that makes him better than most quarterbacks.

According to Pro Football Focus, Watson has actually gotten better under pressure, with his adjusted completion percentage under pressure (adjusts for drops, throwaways, batted passes, and times when he was hit as he threw) rising 14% from 2015 and 2016. Seeing as how he can still make quality passes under duress, Watson deserves the edge here.

Alex: I’m a big believer, and always will be, in defense wins championships. We all thought Alabama’s defense last season was the best we’d ever seen, and this one might be even better. The front seven is fierce, but the secondary is incredible as well. With NFL talent at every level, you can’t count against this defense. Watson is one of the best college quarterbacks, but he’ll be dodging defenders all night.

Frank: I have to give the edge to Alabama’s defense. Watson’s inconsistencies in 2016 are enough to worry me against a Tide squad that is allowing 11.4 points per game. And Alabama has at least three first-round picks on that side of the ball. Clemson has a lot of playmakers, but it is nearly impossible to bet against a ’Bama defense at this point.

David: Oh man, this is absolutely tough. On one hand, Alabama’s defense might be the best we’ve ever seen. On the other hand, Watson is a magician with the football and is certainly capable of picking apart even the best defenses. I’m going to have to give the slightest edge to Alabama’s defense simply because it has championship-winning experience.

Is Alabama’s run game too powerful for Clemson’s front seven?

Sean: Too powerful? Probably not. While Saban’s rushing attack offers great diversity with the three-headed monster in the backfield and a dual-threat quarterback, Clemson has a great defensive front that took advantage of a weak Ohio State offensive line for 11 tackles for loss. Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence are bullies up front, pushing linemen out of the way en route to stopping the run. And in the case that the opposing running back happens to get past the line of scrimmage, linebackers Ben Boulware and Kendall Joseph do a great job of halting the run. Both linebackers have combined to make 92 tackles resulting in defensive stops. 

Alex: Seeing Bo Scarbrough run against Washington was a welcome sight for Saban. He provides another running weapon for the Tide on top of Hurts and Damien Harris. Scarbrough is the Derrick Henry equivalent this year for ‘Bama and that could be interesting for Clemson. The Tigers give up an average of 125.8 rushing yards a game, but the Tide rush for 246.7 per game. The bigger question is ‘can Alabama’s offensive line create enough push into the second level to create holes and space for the running game?’ My bet is still on Clemson, based on how they contained JT Barrett on New Year’s Eve.Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Frank: Clemson has some very good players on its defense. Freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is a force in the middle, along with fellow defensive lineman Carlos Watkins and linebacker Ben Boulware. The Tide will definitely find some yards on the ground, but Clemson should hold them under 200 yards.

David: Alabama has rushed against four top-30 rushing defenses. Against Western Kentucky, the Crimson Tide struggled with only 3.2 yards per carry. However, against the other defenses (USC, LSU, Auburn, and Washington), Alabama averaged a respectable 4.9 yards per carry. Clemson’s defense is 22nd against the run and has faced five top-30 rushing offenses, holding three of those offenses to under four yards per carry (Auburn, Georgia Tech, and Ohio State). I think Alabama’s run game should get the edge here, but I don’t think it’s too powerful for Clemson’s front seven.

What is the x-factor for each team?

Sean: For Alabama, the x-factor in this game is going to be Jalen Hurts and how he responds to a coordinator change. Hurts was largely a non-factor throwing the ball in the semifinal game against Washington (7-for-14, 57 yards), and that’s something that has to change in order for the Tide to add to their title count. Clemson is going to stack the box in order to take away the run, forcing Hurts to beat them with his arm. Hurts has not done well when put under pressure, completing just 31.2% of his passes in that area. For him to be successful, he has to be able to identify the correct read early and know when to use his legs. If he can do that, it should allow Alabama to operate normally on offense.

Conversely, the x-factor for Clemson is the play of the defensive line. Getting into the backfield has been a strong suit for the Tigers all season, racking up 49 sacks and 123 tackles for loss. As noted above, Hurts struggles when facing pressure from the defense, but his line has done a good job of protecting him when he does face a blitz, allowing just six sacks. While getting pressure on Hurts is a key to halting the Tide offense, it’s equally important to finish plays and wrap him up in the backfield. 

Alex: For Alabama, my x-factor is defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. Only a sophomore, Fitzpatrick is already one of the best corners in college football. He has six interceptions this season, including three against Arkansas. On top of those interceptions, he returned two for touchdowns. The reason he’s an x-factor is how well he’s transitioned to safety. Senior Eddie Jackson went down mid-season with a broken leg, and Fitzpatrick has stepped in nicely. To slow down receiver Mike Williams for Clemson, they’ll need Fitzpatrick to play well.

For Clemson, Wayne Gallman needs to produce. Everyone knows about the Watson-Williams connection, but Gallman needs to take pressure off of them. He ran for 1,087 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, so obviously he’s a big cog in this offense. You have to make Alabama respect the running game outside of Watson. Saban already has a game plan to contain Watson, but if Clemson wants to win, they have to stretch the field and be a threat in every facet of the offense.

Frank: For Alabama, the x-factor is quarterback Jalen Hurts. He is a freshman, and although he has 14 games of experience under his belt, he is preparing for his toughest test on the biggest stage. And he is going to be affected by the transition from Kiffin to Sarkisian. One of the most impressive things about Kiffin is how well he grooms inexperienced quarterbacks into winners (i.e. Blake Sims, Jake Coker, and now Hurts). How is Hurts going to handle this Kiffin-to-Sarkisian switch?

For Clemson, the x-factor could be one of three players: tight end Jordan Leggett, wide receiver Artavis Scott, or wide receiver/punt returner Ray-Ray McCloud. The point here is that we know about Clemson’s trio of Watson, running back Wayne Gallman, and wide receiver Mike Williams. And Alabama knows, too. So, if Clemson’s offense wants the same amount of success as it did last year, Watson is going to need a big game from someone outside of Gallman and Williams. Last year it was wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. This year I’m feeling good about Leggett. And maybe a big punt return from McCloud.

David: Alabama’s x-factor is linebacker Reuben Foster. He has 103 tackles and nine sacks on the season. He also has a run-stop percentage of 16.1, which is the best in the nation among linebackers as per Pro Football Focus. It’s darn near impossible to run against a heat-seeking missile like Foster. He’s constantly quick and never lets up.

Clemson’s x-factor is defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence. Lawrence, a freshman, was a beast this year and won Pro Football Focus’ Rookie of the Year Award. He had 43 defensive stops this season and nine batted passes, which led the nation. He also had seven sacks and a freshman record 47 combined pressures, demolishing the previous freshman record of 26 combined pressures. Quite simply, Lawrence didn’t play like a freshman at all. The fact that this was only his first year should terrify the rest of the college football world.

What is your final prediction for this game?

Sean: This game has the potential to be something great. It pits a daunting Alabama defense against the nation’s top quarterback, and an offense that has plenty of firepower. Both teams are going to rely on the strength of their defenses for much of the game, trying to win the field position battle. In the end, it’s going to come down to who can take care of the ball the most and capitalize on their opponent’s mistakes. Although Alabama has the tougher defense of the two, its inability to produce in the passing game on offense will limit its success. Clemson takes advantage of a Jalen Hurts turnover, and wins the game 27-24.

Alex: You all already saw my prediction in my preview, but I’ll say it again. Alabama wins this one 31-27. This may go against what I said earlier about a defensive battle, but hear me out. Both defenses will have the ability to put their offenses in short field situations by forcing turnovers. With a few big plays on both sides of the ball, the score can rise quickly. I predict at least one ‘Bama touchdown on defense, like they’ve been doing all year.

Frank: Alabama scores a late touchdown and converts a two-point conversion to tie the game at 28. Watson and Clemson get the ball with 1:15 remaining and one timeout. Despite committing two turnovers in the third quarter, the Tigers remain composed and quickly drive to the Tide 25-yard line after a Watson run and kick a game-winning field goal. Final score: Clemson 31, Alabama 28.

David: This is going to be a great game. After last year’s epic championship, I can’t wait to see what this one holds. Alabama is the best team in the nation, hands down, but the Clemson Tigers are no slouches themselves. In fact, I’m going to go with the Tigers in a 35-28 upset. Shutting out Ohio State the way they did was a pretty big deal. Sure, Ohio State’s offense has been inconsistent all year. But did anybody expect them to lose like that? I certainly didn’t. After coming up just short last year, the Tigers are hungry for more. The game will be 28-28 for most of the fourth until Watson throws a touchdown pass to receiver Mike Williams late in the fourth quarter to seal the deal.

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, David Kaptzan.

Who are the only two FBS coaches to win national championships at two different schools?
Created 1/8/17
  1. Jjm Harbaugh and Nick Saban
  2. Nick Saban and Urban Meyer
  3. Les Miles and Urban Meyer
  4. Pete Carroll and Mack Brown

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