Third time is the charm as Clemson and Alabama meet in the Playoff for the third straight season.
This year’s Sugar Bowl is part three of an epic trilogy between Clemson 12-1 (7-1) and Alabama 11-1 (7-1), with the two sides splitting a pair of meetings in the National Championship game the past two seasons. The 2018 Sugar Bowl will take place at the Superdome in New Orleans at 7:45pm EST on January 1st and can be seen on ESPN.
Storylines Heading Into The Game
1. Did Alabama Deserve Their Spot?
So much of the talk the week leading up to the College Football Playoff selection was surrounding the fourth and final spot, with Clemson, Oklahoma, and Georgia locked into the top three spots. The decision came down to a toss-up between two-loss conference champion, Ohio State, and one-loss Alabama, who did not even play in the SEC Championship game. Although in the past the committee has stressed the importance of winning your conference, perhaps they looked at the Big 10’s recent College Football Playoff failures, back-to-back 30+ point shutouts, and decided to give the nod to Alabama. Regardless, the decision will be heavily scrutinized, especially if Alabama is outplayed in the Sugar Bowl.
2. Dual-Threat Duel
Both Alabama and Clemson come into this game with Top-10 defenses, however, if history is anything to go by, you can expect a lot of scoring in this game. In their past two meetings, both teams came in with highly touted defenses, yet in 2016 both offenses combined for 85 points, and in 2017, they combined for 66 points. Hurts, just a Sophomore, comes in with big game experience having led the Crimson Tide to the National Championship game last season. Even though he has not put up the same volume stats he did in 2016, he has been a lot more careful with the ball, throwing only one interception all season. Under center on the other side, Kelly Bryant might be a year older than Hurts, but only became the starter this season after spending two years backing up Deshaun Watson. Although not nearly the prolific passer or runner that Watson was, Bryant has proved more than capable in both areas, throwing for 13 touchdowns and rushing for 11 more. Both Hurts and Bryant will face their toughest defensive tests of the year, but both are certainly up to the task.
3. Rubber Match
The short history of the College Football Playoff has already graced us with a new rivalry, one that has delivered on the hype both times before. Both previous title game meetings between Alabama and Clemson have come down to the wire, with last year’s game decided on the final play—a play that will no doubt be shown countless times in the lead-up to this year’s game.
With two of the great coaches in college football, Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, given a month to prepare to face one another for the third straight season, this game promises to be one of the best of the 2017-2018 bowl season.
.467 and .278
Clemson is one of the best third down teams in the nation, converting 46.7% of their third downs, while holding the opposition to only 27.8%. In last year’s victory, Clemson held Alabama to just 2-15 on third downs, while in the 2016 defeat, Clemson allowed Alabama to convert on 9-18 attempts. Pinning Alabama back and preventing them from extending drives is crucial for Clemson as recent history has shown.
Alabama is top in the nation, allowing just 5.50 yards per attempt through the air this season. Although Clemson is only 53rd in the country in passing yards per game, they are top 25 with 7.33 yards per attempt. With the dual-threat nature of Clemson’s offense and three players over 600 rushing yards on the season, Alabama will need to commit men to stop the run, and will need to rely on their staunch secondary to limit Quarterback Kelly Bryant through the air.
Clemson leads Division 1 with 44 sacks on the season, but did not manage a single sack in last season’s championship game against Alabama. Jalen Hurts’ ability to extend plays with his legs outside of the pocket makes him extremely difficult to track down. However, if Clemson can routinely get into the backfield and flush him outside, interrupting his rhythm, Hurts becomes a lot less dangerous than if he is allowed to stand in the pocket and pick out his receivers. Clemson likes to get after the quarterback from all three levels, so don’t be surprised if Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables dials up some exotic blitz packages right from the get-go.
Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
Possibly the only wide receiver that will go in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, Ridley has yet to prove that he is a big game player. In the last two National Championship games, Ridley has 11 total catches for only 50 total yards, a paltry 4.54 yards per reception.
To say that Ridley is the #1 receiver on this team is an understatement. His 896 receiving yards and 55 receptions on the season are more than the next four leading pass-catchers combined in both categories.
Simply put, if the Alabama offense is going to move the ball through the air, it is going to be by way of Ridley. He has his third chance to prove to all the NFL scouts watching that he is worthy of a first round selection, and the Crimson Tide will be relying on him to step up for the big occasion.
Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson
With a defense as stacked and balanced as Clemson’s, it’s difficult to single out one impact player, but Clelin Ferrell might just be that guy. A 6‘5” redshirt sophomore, Ferrell, the 2016 Defensive Rookie of the Year, has racked up 8.5 sacks and 17 total tackles for loss this season.
Routinely drawing double teams, teams are forced to leave Austin Bryant free on the other edge, and Bryant has taken advantage with 7.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss of his own. Alabama Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll and Head Coach Nick Saban will certainly have their hands full trying to gameplan for Ferrell’s disruptive presence.
Alex Spence, K, Clemson
A bit of an unorthodox choice, Spence is included here for what he maybe cannot do. The Clemson kicker to begin the year was Greg Huegel, a Lou Groza Award Semifinalist in 2016, but Huegel tore his ACL early in the season, leaving Spence with the job.
Although Spence has had no problems with extra points, converting 41/43, his field goal kicking prowess, or lack thereof, has left a lot to be desired. In 10 games on the season, Spence is just 2/7 on field goals from 30+ yards, which is one of the worst rates in all of college football, much less for title-contending teams. In a game that figures to be tight throughout, Dabo Swinney’s lack of confidence in Clemson’s kicking game might prove to be a huge factor if drives have to go inside the Alabama 15-yard line for Clemson to put any points on the board.
Why Alabama Wins
Against possibly any other team in the nation, Alabama would come into this game as the betting favorite to win, irregardless of what some would call a relatively soft schedule. Alabama’s only loss this season came away against Auburn, a place where only one away team managed to win this season.
Although the Alabama offense lacks some of the big name playmakers they have relied on in the past, Jalen Hurts’ experience and ability to handle the bright lights of College Football’s biggest stage could prove invaluable.
Alongside him in the backfield, Damien Harris and Bo Scarborough are more than capable of putting up points, combining for 19 rushing touchdowns on the season. If the Alabama offensive line is able to control the line of scrimmage like in the 2015 matchup, that will take the pressure off of Hurts to create and make plays on his own.
On the other side of the ball, few questions need to be asked about the Alabama defense, one of the consistencies of college football for the past decade or so, with this season being no different. Led by Bednarik Award winner Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Alabama defense ranks second in total defense and first in scoring defense.
With future NFL players at all three levels, the Crimson Tide defense has yet to allow more than 26 points in a game. They will certainly have their hands full with a Clemson offense that has only been held below 26 points twice all season. If anyone is up to the task however, it will be Nick Saban and Defensive Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Why Clemson Wins
Clemson is the #1 team in the country for a reason. They have looked impressive every step of the way this season, save for a minor misstep against Syracuse, with six wins over ranked opponents including a 38-3 shellacking of Miami in the ACC Championship Game. Clemson is definitely the superior offensive team in this matchup, with Kelly Bryant at the controls.
The receiving corps of Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow, and Ray-Ray McCloud provide plenty of experience and dependability for Bryant. Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster join Bryant in the backfield, sharing the load carrying the ball with 103 rushes each this season, combining for 20 touchdowns. Clemson is the definition of a balanced offense, with the ability to beat you through the air or on the ground, making them hard to stifle.
Defensively, Clemson has picked it up late in the season, allowing just 16 total points in their past three games combined, including games against ranked South Carolina and Miami. In addition to pressuring the quarterback with the best in the nation, Clemson also forces turnovers at a clip of over two per game.
Although Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts and the Alabama offense as a whole have not been mistake prone this year, Clemson provides a whole different challenge than any of the defenses they have faced this season. If the Tigers can prevent the Alabama offense from settling into a comfortable rhythm by getting pressure to Hurts early and closing up his first and second options, they should be able to handle the challenge the Crimson Tide present
Two of the best teams in America, led by two of the best coaches in the business square off in what promises to be an Playoff Semifinal for the ages. Giving both teams a month to prepare for this contest should only increase the quality. The key matchup here is the Alabama offense against the Clemson defense. On paper, the Clemson defense should have a big advantage, but in past meetings, the Alabama offense has had no problem moving the ball up and down the field.
If Hurts and co. can just find a little something that works for them and put up a few points early, they can rely on the vaunted Crimson Tide defense to carry them to victory.
However, more likely is that the depth and overall quality of Clemson on both sides of the ball is just too much for Saban and Alabama, as they are not used to being the less talented team in any game. This game will likely remain close all the way through, but Clemson just has that little bit extra to vault them into the National Championship Game.
Clemson 31 - 25 Alabama
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