Debating Alabama vs Clemson: Who wins tonight's national championship ... and why?
Alabama has won 26 consecutive games.
It’s favored to win its 27th tonight when it faces Clemson in a rematch for the national championship.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson seems built for the moment. He nearly toppled the Tide last season, and tonight he’ll have more help.
Alabama’s Jalen Hurts is trying to become the first true freshman quarterback since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985 to win a national title.
Nick Saban is trying to join Bear Bryant as the only college football coaches to win six national championships.
Can Alabama do it? Can the Tide contain Watson and Co. and topple the Tigers for the second consecutive year? That’s something we’ve been debating for the past week.
Answer: Two weeks ago, my pick was different, but I have to ride the hot hand heading into the national championship. Clemson will beat Alabama 34-31.
While I don’t think the Lane Kiffin-Steve Sarkisian transition will hurt too much, the fact remains that Jalen Hurts is the weakest throwing the football. And he’ll have to make big plays through the air in order to win. Can he do that? Alabama’s offense has started slow the past several games. Florida couldn’t take advantage of it, and Washington wasn’t explosive enough to take advantage of it, either. But Clemson has all the tools to strike and keep striking, applying pressure to Alabama the entire game.
With that being said, Alabama rolling in and winning by two touchdowns wouldn’t surprise me, either. The Tide haven’t had to be great on offense because the defense is just so dominant, but this game will test Alabama on all fronts.
I’m a dynasty guy (not an Alabama guy), and in no way am I proclaiming Alabama’s dynasty over with a loss. It’s unbelievable what Nick Saban and the Tide have done, and that will continue well into the future.
— Jon Cooper, director of operations
Answer: I think Alabama comes away victorious. Picking the Crimson Tide to win is usually the way to go in this business.
Simplistically, I see ‘Bama as a little better than last season and Clemson as a little worse. The Tide are equally suffocating on D — if not more so — plus the running element that Jalen Hurts brings is huge.
As for the Tigers, while Deshaun Watson is arguably the premier playmaker in the country, he’s made a lot of mistakes this year throwing the ball. Of the 17 interceptions he’s thrown, many have come when the opponent mixes it up in coverage. We know Alabama can do that in the secondary.
I don’t know how he does it, but coach Nick Saban always finds a way to keep the Crimson Tide motivated despite everything they’ve accomplished. They’re not defending anything. This is a new team.
Making picks has never really been my thing, but 31-20 feels about right to me.
— John Crist, senior writer
Answer: I’ve been thinking Clemson since the matchup was decided, especially when the news of Lane Kiffin broke, but I’m taking Alabama.
The Tigers have everything you could ask for to beat the Crimson Tide: An experienced, dual-threat QB who can just as easily win a game with his arm as his legs, weapons at every skill position, three of the five first-team All-ACC offensive linemen and a solid, playmaking defense that’s among the best in the land in sacks (49) and INTs (20).
And yet it won’t be enough.
Clemson hasn’t been nearly as dominant as Alabama, and curiously enough, Deshaun Watson showed some of his worst decision-making of the season against the 2nd-worst pass defense in the country (3 INTs, including a pair in the end zone) in the team’s only loss to Pitt. We all know what Alabama has done with turnovers.
I think Alabama’s versatility in its pass rush (only team in the country with three players with 8+ sacks), and the timely emergence of Bo Scarbrough will be the difference in a 24-17 Tide win.
— Talal Elmasry, managing editor
Answer: Despite the upheaval at the offensive coordinator position, I’m not picking against Alabama. If anything, I believe the removal of Lane Kiffin will drive not only Nick Saban but the entire organization to prove the Crimson Tide machine will continue to roll on without the assistant that often found himself at the center of attention far too often for Saban’s liking.
It took a masterful performance from Deshaun Watson last season to keep Clemson in the game and not even that was enough. This year will be different, as the Tigers won’t even keep it close. Watson has been too careless with the ball this year, only failing to throw an interception in four of 14 games and throwing multiple interceptions five times. Clemson will need a turnover-free contest to upset the Tide in Tampa.
The matchup of Clemson’s offensive line against Alabama’s front seven also is troublesome heading into the game. Without an effective run game, Clemson will be forced to take some chances, which leads me to believe a critical error or two will be made during the game. Alabama wins it again.
Alabama 31 Clemson 13
— Michael Wayne Bratton, news editor
Answer: This sets up so beautifully for Nick Saban and Alabama. When was the last time he could honestly — no cliche, forced coach-speak necessary — tell his defense it got worked?
Almost never. But he could this week. Deshaun Watson owned Alabama last year. He was Jordan for a night, an unstoppable offensive freak of nature.
Watson might not ever encounter an angrier, more motivated bunch than the talented Alabama defense he’ll see tonight at Raymond James Stadium.
Forty points? Four touchdown passes? More than 470 total yards?
Nobody does that to Nick Saban’s defense twice.
Yet this feels like Watson’s moment. He’s been the best player in college football for the past two seasons. He should have at least one Heisman Trophy. Truth be told, he probably should have one national championship trophy, too.
Alabama beat Clemson last year because of two extraordinary special teams plays. Only Alabama can genuinely expect to get such non-offensive contributions. But we saw against LSU what happens when it doesn’t.
This Clemson team? Not only are the Tigers on scholarship too, many are heading to the NFL. They’re built SEC strong, with SEC parts. They’re not Alabama Lite. They’re Alabama-like.
I questioned this Tide team in July because of its raw backfield. Though I should be convinced otherwise by now, I still don’t fully trust the run game if a defense can neutralize Jalen Hurts. And Calvin Ridley remains a mystery as a go-to wideout, here sometimes, then gone. As record-setting offenses go, this one seems to have questions, and that was before they changed coordinators.
At some point, this game will become Hurts vs. Watson. That’s the Tigers’ most obvious advantage.
Will Watson try to do too much? It’s possible. He’s made mistakes this year, but he’s also thrown 38 touchdown passes and has an uncoverable tag-team partner in Mike Williams.
It’s foolish to bet against Alabama. The Tide have 5-star talent on special teams and former Power 5 head coaches walking the halls waiting for their next opportunity. This, after all, might be the best team Saban has had during his decade of dominance in Tuscaloosa.
But if Watson is as good as I think he is, he’ll find a way: Clemson 27, Alabama 24.
— Chris Wright, executive editor
Chris Wright is Executive Editor at SaturdayDownSouth.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @FilmRoomEditor.