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College football’s 2018-19 season is down to its final game, as Alabama and Clemson square off on Monday night in Santa Clara for the national championship. The biggest stage in college football is nothing new for both teams. The Crimson Tide are the only team to earn a trip to the CFB Playoff in all five years since its inception prior to the 2014 season. Additionally, coach Nick Saban’s team has won two out of the last three national championships and five over the last nine years. The Tigers have earned four consecutive trips to the CFB Playoff and will make their third appearance in the national title game on Monday night.
Matchups between Alabama and Clemson in the CFB Playoff have become the norm in recent years, and considering the returning talent for the 2019 season, it may not change much next fall. Counting the matchup in Santa Clara, the Crimson Tide and Tigers have met in four consecutive postseason games. Alabama won the title for the 2015 season by defeating Clemson in a 45-40 thriller in Glendale. The Tigers got revenge the following year thanks to quarterback Deshaun Watson, knocking off the Crimson Tide 35-31 in Tampa. These two teams met last season in a semifinal game, with Alabama winning 24-6 in dominant fashion in New Orleans.
Alabama has largely cruised to a 14-0 record behind a high-powered offense and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Of the Crimson Tide’s 14 victories, just three were decided by less than 22 points. Alabama opened the year with a 51-14 win against Louisville in Orlando and picked up victories along the way against Texas A&M (45-23), Missouri (39-10), LSU (29-0) and Mississippi State (24-0). After Tagovailoa was sidelined due to injury, the Crimson Tide needed some second-half heroics from Jalen Hurts to defeat Georgia 35-28 in the SEC Championship. Tagovailoa’s status was a major concern leading into the Orange Bowl showdown against Oklahoma. However, the sophomore was sharp throughout all four quarters, and Alabama’s defense propelled the team to a 28-0 margin that was too much for the Sooners to overcome in a 45-34 victory for the Crimson Tide.
Clemson’s season has mirrored Alabama’s in some ways. The Tigers were dominant throughout 2018, with only two games decided by less than 20 points. Clemson survived an early trip to College Station to beat Texas A&M (28-26) and rallied to beat Syracuse (27-23) after quarterback Trevor Lawrence was sidelined due to injury. The Tigers capped the year by blowing out Pitt 42-10 in the ACC Championship. Coach Dabo Swinney’s team was nearly a two-touchdown favorite for its semifinal against Notre Dame. As expected, Clemson didn’t have much trouble with the Fighting Irish, as Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns to guide the team to a 30-3 victory.
With Alabama’s versatile and deep collection of playmakers in place, along with one of college football’s top quarterbacks, Clemson’s defense is going to have its hands full on Monday night. However, the Tigers certainly have the pieces to slow down this offense.
It’s hard to find a flaw on Alabama’s offense, but the line has been susceptible (at times) to opposing pass rushers. Can Clemson’s front generate pressure on passing downs to prevent Tagovailoa and his receivers from making big plays downfield? While the Tigers have allowed only 11 passing scores all year, Texas A&M (430 yards) and South Carolina (510) showed this unit can give up some yardage if the quarterback has time to throw downfield.
Clemson’s front isn’t likely to give up much in the way of yardage, but Alabama still needs to have the threat of the run. With three talented backs in place, small yardage may turn into longer gains with fresh legs in the fourth quarter. Additionally, considering Alabama’s issues on field goals this season, Clemson shouldn’t be afraid to bend a little but hold in the red zone.
Expect the battle in the trenches to decide this game. If the Crimson Tide protect Tagovailoa, he’s going to hit open receivers and keep the offense performing where it left off in the Orange Bowl. But if the Tigers get to the quarterback with their front four and no additional pressure, this defense can slow down Alabama’s offense.
Monday night’s matchup is exactly why Clemson needed Trevor Lawrence to emerge as the team’s starting quarterback this season. After losing to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last year, it was evident the Tigers would have to throw downfield more to open up the entire offense. As expected, Kelly Bryant opened the season as Clemson’s No. 1 quarterback, but it wasn’t long before Lawrence was clearly the right pick to direct the offense. The freshman is only getting more and more comfortable with every snap, as he finished the year with 2,933 yards and 27 touchdowns to just four picks. Additionally, Lawrence is connecting on 65.5 percent of his throws and has not tossed a pick in four straight contests.
Just like Alabama, Clemson is loaded with talent at receiver. Tee Higgins leads the offense in receptions (56), yardage (855) and touchdown catches (11) and has the size (6-foot-4) to be a nightmare matchup. Justyn Ross has been one of the top freshman playmakers in the nation this fall. He enters Monday night’s game with 40 catches for 847 yards and eight touchdowns and led the team with 148 receiving yards in the win against the Fighting Irish. Amari Rodgers (53 catches) and Hunter Renfrow (47) round out the top targets for Lawrence on the outside.
Alabama’s secondary isn’t as deep or effective as the unit Saban brought to the national championship last season but still ranks 15th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Only two teams – Georgia and Oklahoma – have managed more than 300 passing yards against this secondary in 2018.
As mentioned above, this matchup is why Clemson needed Lawrence in the starting lineup. Alabama’s front seven dominated in last year’s Sugar Bowl and another performance like the one in New Orleans spell trouble for the Tigers. But with Lawrence at the controls, Clemson’s offense can stretch the field and can attack Alabama’s secondary with its speed and athleticism on the outside.
Similar to when Alabama has the ball, can Clemson’s offensive line hold up at the point of attack? The Tigers have allowed only 17 sacks this year but three came against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Can Williams, Davis, Buggs and the Crimson Tide’s standout group of linebackers get constant pressure throughout the game on passing downs? If Alabama stuffs Etienne and gets Lawrence into third-and-longs, even though the receivers will make a handful of plays downfield, that could be a tough recipe for Swinney’s team to overcome all night.