National Championship Preview: #1 Clemson vs. #2 Alabama

2015 National Championship Game

January 11th, 8:30 p.m. on ESPN

No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide 13-1 (8-1)

Alabama

The Crimson Tide have won national titles under Nick Saban in 2009, 2011, and 2012. They hope to add the fourth against high-flying Clemson. Alabama relies largely on its defense and the unit has been more than capable of carrying the burden this season.

Alabama finished with the nation’s top rushing defense allowing opponents just 70.8 yards per game. They also finished 18th against the pass and 22nd in turnover margin, which is ruthlessly efficient in the way that Nick Saban teams usually are. They only allowed Michigan State to enter the red zone once last week and sacked quarterback Connor Shaw four times in a truly dominant performance.

Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy and leads the nation in rushing yards with 2,061 and touchdowns with 25. That’s a pretty wonderful weapon in the backfield. Despite his presence, the Crimson Tide sit just 29th in the nation in rushing offense. Other than Henry, the only significant contributor on the ground is Kenyan Drake who has 407 yards (5.4 yards per carry).

They may not have as much sizzle on offense as Clemson, but Florida State transfer Jake Coker has been solid at quarterback passing for 2,775 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His favorite target has been speedy freshman Calvin Ridley who has pulled in 83 catches for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns. Ridley has gone for 240 yards and two scores in the last two games combined.

No one else on the offensive roster really produces points however. Oregon State transfer receiver Richard Mullaney is third on the team in total touchdowns with five, but he only has 361 receiving yards on the year.

Rumors swirling around their head coach and the NFL (as usual), plus a national title on the line aren’t new distractions to this bunch. Nick Saban and Pop Warner are the only two coaches to win national titles at two FBS schools. Sadly, we’ll never know if Pop Warner could handle the surrounding media hordes of a modern-day title chase by giving unrelenting answers about ‘the process’.

No. 1 Clemson Tigers 14-0 (9-0)

Clemson

Clemson lived up to some of my thoughts and ultimately took it to Oklahoma. That was an impressive performance, but the stakes are much higher now. Dabo Swinney seems ready and his team should be locked in at this point. The two coaching styles were evident in their joint press conference Sunday. Saban was quiet, measured and businesslike as always. Dabo was brash, energetic, and filled with a kind of childlike goofiness surprisingly absent from those are the highest level of his profession.

The approaches on the field will share similar differences.

The Tigers rank 13th in 3rd down conversion percentage and 26th in total passing. The aerial stats are particularly interesting when you consider that Alabama hasn’t faced many strong passing teams, and the 10th rated Ole Miss passing game gave the Crimson Tide its only loss on the season. The offensive line for Clemson has been a strength too, allowing just 16 sacks this season — tied for 13th best in the country. The Tiger line will have its hands full with the top defense in terms of sacks (50), though the Tide did have an extra game or two on some of the top competition in the category.

Plus, Clemson isn’t a finesse offense and will gladly run the ball if the pass isn’t there. Deshaun Watson has been a force, gaining over 100 yards in five of his last six games including 145 against the Sooners. Wayne Gallman is a terrific back as well who is a strange kind of footnote behind Watson and the talent at receiver.

All-everything defensive end Shaq Lawson is expected to play, though his status is still a bit unclear. He missed most of the Orange Bowl after he sprained his MCL early in the win over Oklahoma.

Prediction

I like to see the ACC do well obviously, and I’ve grown to really enjoy watching Clemson play. Watching Alabama can be a lot of fun too, though I prefer the streamlined Tiger offense to the ground and pound of classic SEC football. Generally speaking, it feels like the defenses loosen up a bit in the postseason. Some of it is freer play-calling and plenty is just having a few weeks off. I think that gives a slight advantage to Clemson because of their strong offensive balance, but these are two great teams so they do nearly everything with grace and aplomb.

Those different approaches will see Alabama try to control the clock with a strong ground game, but just because Clemson runs a faster tempo doesn’t mean they don’t also value time. The Tigers rank 26th in time of possession to 6th rated Alabama. Clemson just prefers to line up quickly to prevent substitutions and then grind another 30-40 seconds off the clock for the next go.

This game will come down to a couple of possessions, and I think Clemson has just enough talent on offense to make the difference. Both defenses are terrifying up front, but folks don’t perceive both sides in the same way. Clemson is a sneaky team in the physical sense. The Tiger lines’ will punish you in the trenches, and it’s a big reason for their potent rushing attack. The Clemson defense played well without Shaq Lawson, so they’ve proven it’s not a disaster to lose his skills, but he’s a huge boost if healthy. It’s slightly contrarian I suppose to roll with “underdog” Dabo again, but I’ll stick with the conference that brought us this far for the championship win.

#2 Alabama 31

#1 Clemson 34

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