The Ultimate National Championship Preview: Ignore the haters. Another Bama-Clemson showdown is as good as it gets
Alabama and Clemson were indisputably the best teams in college football throughout 2018, from start to finish, opening up 1-2 in the initial AP poll, finishing 1-2, and occupying the same positions in virtually every poll in between. They’re two of only four teams in the Playoff era to arrive at the championship game undefeated – following Clemson in 2015 and Alabama in ’16 – and the first two to go head-to-head for the title.
The winner will go down as the first undefeated Playoff champ and the first major college team to finish 15-0 in more than a century. Between them, they’ve played in a grand total of three games decided by single digits and dispatched opponents by identical margins of victory. (Bama wins by an average of 31.5 points, best in the nation; Clemson wins by 31.4.) They’re the only teams that finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring offense and defense. They crushed their semifinal opponents in blowouts that were over by halftime. They boast hall-of-fame head coaches, an abundance of blue-chip, first-round talent, and a couple of precocious 5-star quarterbacks poised to dominate the sport at this level and the next for the foreseeable future.
Virtually the entire season has been building to Bama-Clemson IV for all the marbles, an inevitable collision between teams whose first two meetings in the championship round produced a split decision in a pair of wildly entertaining, instant-classic games that went down to the wire. An unusually predictable season has delivered, finally, the best possible championship matchup on almost every level. And the overriding narrative in the week leading up to it is … fatigue?
It might be true that familiarity breeds contempt, but the malaise with which much of the country is approaching the latest iteration of Bama-Clemson seems to be about anything and everything but the game itself. As spectacle, let’s face it, the semifinal round was a bore; Bama and Clemson both arrived as double-digit favorites and wasted no time outracing the point spreads. It didn’t help that they were also relegated to a random Saturday rather than the traditionally prized time slots on New Year’s Day, adding to the sense of anticlimax. (An unremarkable Rose Bowl matchup between Ohio State and Washington drew roughly the same number of viewers on Jan. 1 as Clemson’s Cotton Bowl romp over Notre Dame.)
Before they even kicked off, the buildup to the sport’s showcase event was mostly about how the sport is still getting it all wrong: The nonstop speculation over when, whether, and how the Playoff should expand, or shouldn’t, or maybe ought to be scrapped altogether, sucked up so much oxygen the actual games felt more like debate points. And the meaningless second halves left plenty of time for the arguments to flare.
The location is a problem, too. Santa Clara, Calif., might be the single worst place in America to stage a big college football game, even if it wasn’t a cross-continent slog for the respective fan bases. Santa Clara is a nondescript Silicon Valley suburb that, by virtue of its location, is expensive to get to, more expensive to stay in, and elicits no feelings of tradition, nostalgia, or grandeur for fans of college football or anything else. As a major venue, Levi’s Stadium (yeah) has all the gravitas of an outlet mall. It was half-full at best for last month’s Pac-12 Championship Game, and ticket prices for Monday’s main event are plummeting at an alarming rate. Empty seats and flat TV ratings loom.
If the setting isn’t quite worthy of the stage, though, there is no doubt that the teams sharing it are. And if it feels like we’ve seen this show before, remember that the past two championship episodes were all-time thrillers. The teams this time around are arguably better and more evenly matched than in either of those games, and certainly more so than in last year’s snoozefest of a Sugar Bowl semifinal.
Once the ball is kicked and the narratives begin to fade into the night, what’s left will be exactly what the flawed, beaguered system exists to give us: The two best two teams in the nation, beyond any shadow of a doubt, settling the season’s only real, lasting debate once and for all on the field. Winner takes all, including its place among the best championship teams since the turn of the century. The rest? In the end, just noise.
When Clemson has the ball
Trevor Lawrence is the real thing. It was obvious to recruitniks, who hailed Lawrence as one of the most polished quarterback prospects in years before he even set foot on a college campus, and very quickly became obvious to everyone else. He arrived fully formed: By the end of spring practice, he’d sent another 5-star QB recruit, sophomore Hunter Johnson, packing for the Big Ten; by the end of September, he’d relegated the 2017 Playoff starter, Kelly Bryant, to the bench — and subsequently to the transfer market himself — entrenching Lawrence as the Tigers’ undisputed franchise QB for the next three years. By mid-October, he was carrying the offense in its biggest conference game of the season, a lopsided win over N.C. State that signaled just how fully the 19-year-old had won his coaches’ trust.
Last weekend’s 327-yard, 3-touchdown barrage against Notre Dame was Lawrence’s best game yet on the biggest stage yet, erasing whatever doubts still existed that he’s going to be a no-brainer Heisman candidate in 2019-20 and one of the most coveted NFL prospects in recent memory when his time comes in 2021. (In fact, if he were eligible for this year’s draft he’d have a realistic shot at going No. 1 overall just a few months from now.) But his coming-out party for the rest of the country only confirmed what Clemson fans and the rest of the ACC already knew: With this kid, take all the usual assumptions about the limitations of a true freshman quarterback and throw them out the window. Lawrence might be the most advanced passer at this stage of his career that we’ve ever seen.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot against Alabama, which will be without a doubt the most advanced defense Lawrence has ever seen by a good margin. He hasn’t faced a situation where he’s faced with picking himself up off the turf after a momentum-turning pick — all 4 of his interceptions this season have come with Clemson already leading by at least two touchdowns — or rallying the Tigers from a late deficit, which leaves open the question of how their young leader will respond when the chips are down in a close game. His production, though, is beyond dispute. Compare Lawrence’s efficiency this season with Deshaun Watson’s in 2015 and 2016, the seasons that the latter finished in the top three in Heisman voting and pushed Bama to the brink in two championship games, winning the second:
Watson has an obvious edge in the quantity stats by virtue of a) Starting and finishing every game, whereas Lawrence came off the bench in the first four games this season and was knocked out of another in the first half; and b) Contributing a full-time workload as a runner, where Lawrence is largely an afterthought. In the quality stats, though, Lawrence is essentially on pace with Watson’s output in almost every category, including overall pass efficiency, while generating more big plays and far fewer interceptions. This, again, as a true freshman who’s still just scratching the surface of the quarterback he’s going to be.
It helps his cause that Lawrence is supported by easily the best ground game of Dabo Swinney’s tenure. Unlike Watson, who — like Tajh Boyd before him, and Bryant after — was often asked to serve as a de facto tailback, Lawrence has the luxury of a deep, explosive backfield that led the nation in yards per carry (6.7, nearly two full yards better than in 2017) and ranked second in runs of 20 yards or more behind a long-in-the-tooth offensive line. About half of those long gains came on the legs of sophomore Travis Etienne (pictured), a hyper-efficient back who managed to set school records for rushing yards (1,572) and touchdowns (22) on fewer than 14 carries per game.
Against Alabama, expect that number to be much higher: Etienne, a Louisiana native who spurned LSU, checks in at a sturdy 5-10, 200 pounds, and has handled full-time workloads this season against Syracuse (27 carries for 203 yards) and South Carolina (28 for 150 yards). Some combination of backups Adam Choice, Tavien Feaster, and Lyn-J Dixon will get their touches — that trio combined for more than 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns in their own right — but you can bet on Etienne emerging as the bell cow when it matters.
On the flip side of its big-play prowess, the running game has occasionally struggled in short-yardage: Nearly 40 percent of the Tigers’ rushing attempts on 3rd-and-3 or less have failed to gain a first down, and they rank 89th in Power Success Rate, one of exceedingly few categories on either side of the ball (possibly the only one) in which they come in below the FBS average. It’s also worth noting that Notre Dame, the only defense Clemson has faced that finished the regular season in the Top 25 in Defensive S&P+, held Etienne and Co. firmly in check for nearly three quarters before the dam finally broke in garbage time. Alabama has fared even better: Subtract Watson’s scramble yardage in the 2015 game, and Clemson has barely made a dent in Bama’s run defense in any of the past three meetings. In last year’s Sugar Bowl romp, especially, the Tide whipped the Tigers in the trenches in vintage fashion, smothering the run from start to finish and sacking Bryant 4 times.
There’s a direct line from that debacle to the decision to elevate Lawrence into the starting lineup after just four games, which was frankly an easier call than it was made out to be. On paper, yes, Bryant was a proven commodity, a senior who’d already led the Tigers within sight of another title and looked perfectly capable of leading them back against a middling ACC schedule. But the semifinal flop made his limitations against an elite, Playoff-level defense painfully clear; without a viable ground game to lean on, Bryant wilted under pressure, serving up a pair of second-half interceptions that turned a competitive slugfest into a one-sided wipeout in a matter of minutes. His arm, like Jalen Hurts’ on the other side, posed no downfield threat to Alabama’s secondary at any point.
Once it was clear that Lawrence was as good as advertised, his promotion was a foregone conclusion with this game and this matchup specifically in mind. His arm strength and accuracy add a downfield element that was sorely lacking under Bryant, and give Clemson a chance to keep pace on the scoreboard even if Tua Tagovailoa is at his fire-breathing best. But those odds get infinitely longer if Bama’s pass rush is able to apply the kind of pressure that took Bryant out of his game last year, or that left Kyler Murray looking uncharacteristically rattled in the early going Saturday as the Tide raced to an insurmountable lead in the Orange Bowl.
And holding the line against Quinnen Williams, Isaiah Buggs, and the rest of Bama’s sack-happy front gets infinitely harder if they’re able to tee off on obvious passing downs against a rookie quarterback with (to put it kindly) only marginal escapability. Establishing at least some semblance of ground game will be crucial to keeping Lawrence in his comfort zone.
KEY MATCHUP: Clemson WR Justyn Ross vs. Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II
There’s never a shortage of productive targets on Swinney’s watch and this year’s rotation has lived up to Clemson’s reputation as “Wide Receiver U”: The starting trio of Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, and the ageless Hunter Renfrow combined for just shy of 2,000 yards on 196 evenly distributed catches. The most promising of the group, though, might be Ross, a 6-4, 210-pound specimen from Phenix City, Ala., who told both Bama and Auburn thanks but no thanks and quickly emerged this season as Lawrence’s favorite deep threat: Eight of Ross’ 40 receptions went for at least 40 yards, including both of his first-half touchdown grabs in a breakout performance in the Cotton Bowl.
NOTRE DAME: TACKLE HIM!
Justyn Ross: nah, I'm good pic.twitter.com/cLiPoIRvSP
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 29, 2018
Surtain had a much rougher go of it Saturday against Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, who finished the night with 109 yards and a touchdown at the freshman’s expense — the first scoring play Surtain, another future first-rounder, has allowed in coverage this season in more than 800 snaps. The Sooners deliberately targeted Surtain during their futile second-half rally, which likely will not be sustainable over the course of an entire game.
But Alabama as a whole has been unusually vulnerable to big plays this season, yielding 43 receptions of 20 yards or more (that tied for 73rd nationally) and coming in 82nd in IsoPPP, a metric designed to measure explosiveness. To avoid a repeat of last year Clemson will need as many of those types of plays as it can get, and Ross’ combination of size on the outside and speed down the seam makes him the most likely candidate to supply them.
When Alabama has the ball
Bama is used to having the edge in the trenches against just about everyone it plays, on both sides of the line of scrimmage, as a matter of course. This game is the first in a good long while that the Tide offensive line will enter as the underdog: Even with its massive, All-American anchor in the middle, Dexter Lawrence, ruled out for the second consecutive week, Clemson’s starting front of Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, and Austin Bryant ranks among the most decorated and productive d-lines ever assembled on the same campus. That was already the case last year, before all three decided to come back to school after earning individual All-America notices as juniors; as seniors, they’ve lived up to the hype and then some.
As a whole, the Clemson D came in at or near the top of the national rankings in pretty much any relevant category you can come up with, including scoring defense (1st), total defense (2nd), and yards per play allowed (1st). In the advanced metrics, it ranks No. 1 according to both S&P+ and FPI. Against the run, specifically, the Tigers lead the nation in both overall yards per carry and Line Yards per Carry; against the pass, they lead the nation in sacks for the second year in a row. They held fully half of their opponents this season to seven points or less and just kept the best offense they’ve faced out of the end zone entirely.
That said: Alabama’s offense can claim its own swath of statistical superlatives this season, and there’s an order of magnitude in difference between shutting down Notre Dame — or any other offense on Clemson’s schedule to date — and putting the clamps on Alabama’s versatile, explosive passing game, which still has a chance to go out as the most efficient attack in D-I history. Tagovailoa betrayed no hint of his assorted knee and ankle injuries in the course of shredding Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl; the next defense to hold a healthy Tua in check will be the first.
For what it’s worth, Clemson’s rare lapses on defense have been significantly more egregious than Tagovailoa’s mediocre, injury-plagued outings against Mississippi State and Georgia. The Tigers’ secondary has suffered two straight-up collapses this season, both against SEC opponents on opposite ends of the schedule.
The first came in their Week 2 trip to Texas A&M, when A&M’s Kellen Mond exploded after halftime to finish 16-of-23 for 333 yards and 3 touchdowns in the second half alone; the Aggies pushed Clemson to the brink in a 28-26 barn burner that very easily could have gone the other way in the final minutes. (The 2-point margin in College Station is the Tigers’ closest shave at any point in their ongoing, 19-game regular-season win streak. Mond hasn’t come close to replicating his outburst in that game before or since.) The second crash came in the Tigers’ annual rivalry date with South Carolina, in which Carolina’s Jake Bentley set career highs for passing yards (510) and touchdowns (5) on the losing end of a 56-35 shootout. Four of Bentley’s TD passes covered at least 20 yards, including a 67-yarder and a 72-yarder on consecutive plays in the first half, both the result of apparent coverage busts; afterward, defensive coordinator Brent Venables told reporters “I’m embarrassed to put that product on the field.”
Those two games are extreme outliers in a season that otherwise reflects wall-to-wall dominance, especially in the subsequent beatdowns of Pitt and Notre Dame. But they point to potential cracks in the secondary that Bama’s electric young receiving corps is ideally suited to exploit. Tagovailoa’s regular targets — Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, and TE Irv Smith Jr. — all average north of 16 yards per catch and 10 yards per target, an incredible rate of return for an entire position group. (For comparison, Clemson has just one high-volume receiver who averages at least 10 yards per target: Ross. No other SEC team has more than two. Bama has five — four of whom are considerably above that mark.) Like Deebo Samuel, any one of them in a one-on-one situation with oversized safeties K’Von Wallace, Tanner Muse or Isaiah Simmons is a big play waiting to happen.
The variable in that equation is how consistently Alabama will be able to establish the run and keep Tagovailoa upright, areas in which the Tide have been fine as usual this season, but Clemson’s loaded front seven has been outstanding week in and week out. No opposing offense yet has cracked 4 yards per carry, and only two have escaped with fewer than 3 sacks. If Bama fails to break those trends Tua could be in a for a long night that puts his rehab to the test.
9/8/18—Texas A&M QB Nick Starkel pressured by Clemson's Clelin Ferrell, intercepted by Justin Foster. pic.twitter.com/blddAwuzme
— College Football Clips (@CFB_Clips) September 9, 2018
KEY MATCHUP: Alabama OT Jonah Williams vs. Clemson DE Clelin Ferrell
Every front-line matchup in this game is critical, but none will be scrutinized more closely over the next few months. Williams and Ferrell both are highly decorated, 3-year starters who project as first- or second-day draft picks after earning consensus All-America nods this season; if they’re not strictly the most talented players in the nation at their respective positions, they are the most reliable and the most experienced in high-stakes environments.
Sacks by Ferrell this season: 12, best in the ACC and tied for second nationally among Power 5 players to go with his 52 total pressures. Sacks allowed by Williams: Zero. Irresistible force, immovable object, etc. Something’s gotta give.
Special teams, injuries and other vagaries
Does Alabama actually have a kicker? The position has been a running punchline throughout the season, picking up steam with every shanked field goal and clanged extra point. (Between Austin Jones and Joseph Bulovas the Tide have missed a stunning 8 PATs on the year. Eight!) But there is hope: After a shaky start, Bulovas, a true freshman, has slowly settled into the job, connecting on 9 of his past 10 field-goal attempts since the calendar turned to October; the only miss in that span came from 52 yards out against Missouri. He’s 3-for-3 on the season on attempts between 40 and 50 yards, and — praise be — 25-for-25 on PATs over the past three games following a bizarre string of misses in November. He might still be hit-or-miss from anywhere on the field, but lately the result has been increasingly hit.
At any rate, Clemson’s Greg Huegel hasn’t fared any better, connecting on just 10-of-15 field-goal attempts on the year with 2 misses in his past 3 tries; he also had an extra point blocked against Notre Dame, the 10th failed PAT of his career. (To be fair, half of those misses came as a freshman in 2015, and the block by ND was Huegel’s first miss of the season.) Before it went to overtime, last year’s national championship game between Alabama and Georgia came down to a game-winning attempt by Bama’s Andy Pappanastos that sailed hopelessly off the mark, a moment that would have gone down in infamy alongside Punt Bama Punt, the 2011 LSU game, and the Kick-6 if Tagovailoa’s heroics hadn’t bailed out Pappanastos in OT. If it comes to that again both sides should be equally on edge regardless of who’s kicking it.
Both teams have a punt return touchdown this season courtesy of Jaylen Waddle and Amari Rodgers (pictured celebrating his against Boston College), respectively. Otherwise the punting and return units are unremarkable barring a botched snap, muffed fair catch, or other random disaster.
For all the hand-wringing about the physical toll of longer seasons, both lineups are also surprisingly healthy for this point on the calendar: The only one-time starter slated to miss the game due to injury (Alabama CB Trevon Diggs) hasn’t played since suffering a broken foot in October. The biggest absence — literally and figuratively — will be Dexter Lawrence, who remains suspended along with two other Clemson players who tested positive for a banned substance.
On one hand, sure, Lawrence (above) is a three-time All-ACC pick and an immovable, 350-pound mass of humanity likely bound for the first round in April. On the other, the Tigers plugged senior Albert Huggins into Lawrence’s spot against Notre Dame without missing a beat, and have every reason to believe that Huggins — a former 4-star, Top 100 recruit with an NFL future in his own right — will continue to hold his own. The fact that Huggins has served as a career back-up to this point says nothing about him and everything about the Tigers’ absurd depth on the defensive line.
Bama is also down a starter due to suspension, with left guard Deonte Brown set to miss his second straight game due to an unspecified violation of team rules. His replacement: Fifth-year senior Lester Cotton, who’d logged 20 consecutive starts on the interior o-line before giving way to Brown at midseason. He’ll be fine.
One way or another the winner of this game is making a bid for history as one of the worthiest champions of its era. In the win column the distinction is explicit: Fifteen wins in a single season will match a mark that’s stood for 121 years, if you consider college football circa 1897 to be the same sport, or set a new one if you don’t. Alabama has gone wire-to-wire atop the AP poll; if it finishes there, it will join 1999 Florida State and 2004 USC as the only teams to hold down the No. 1 spot from start to finish.
Nick Saban, owner of 5 national championships since arriving in Tuscaloosa and 6 overall, can match Bear Bryant’s record of 6 national titles at the same school and move into first place on the all-time list with his 7th overall. It took the Bear 19 years to reach that mark, including a couple of dubious crowns in 1964 and 1973, in the days when championship claims were staked and settled prior to the bowl games. Saban can earn his 6th at Bama in just 10 years, none of them disputed, and in the process move past Minnesota’s Bernie Bierman (whose teams claimed 5 titles from 1934-41) for most championships in the span of a single decade.
Beyond the record books, Tua Tagovailoa vs. this Clemson D is a battle for posterity on both sides. Alabama’s offense has already cemented its place as the most prolific attack in SEC history; another high-octane performance against the best defense college football has to offer in 2018 would elevate the Tide into the discussion of the best ever. But the reverse is in play, too: Shut down Bama, and the Tigers can go out as one of the most revered defenses in years.
Then there’s Trevor Lawrence. Just a few years ago, the notion of a true freshman quarterback leading a team to a national championship seemed outlandish, regardless of the team or the quarterback. In the meantime, rookies Jalen Hurts and Jake Fromm have guided their teams to within an inch of the title in back-to-back seasons – both came up literally one play short of becoming the first true freshman starter to win the big one since 1985 – and Tagovailoa came off the bench last season to finish the job. With the hype that preceded him, Lawrence’s path to this point has unfolded so smoothly and predictably it’s a little bit surreal to still be referring to him as just a freshman.
Against anybody else, the combination of Lawrence, the brilliant young skill talent that surrounds him, and Clemson’s NFL-ready defensive front would be an easy pick. Against Bama, the Tigers are running into a juggernaut that can check each of those boxes on an annual basis, plus one more that it’s checking this year for the first time: A full-fledged, can’t-miss star at the most important position whose stock only keeps going up.
Tagovailoa has been the most compelling player in college football from the moment he set foot on the field against Georgia last January, and for all but a handful of moments late in the season he’s been the best. Those fleeting glimpses of mere mortality cost him the Heisman; as for his status as the most electric QB ever to put on a Crimson Tide uniform his legacy is very much intact.
Bama and Clemson’s strengths figure to cancel each other out in many ways. Behind center, the edge is straightforward. Lawrence’s time will come. Right now, Tua’s is still a long way from being up.
6 predictions …
1. Between Travis Etienne, Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, and Justyn Ross for Clemson, and Najee Harris, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle for Alabama, freshmen and sophomores account for more than 75 percent of the game’s total yards from scrimmage. (Bonus prediction: These two teams are going to be back in this game in 2019.)
2. Both offenses finish more than 100 yards below their season rushing averages (including negative yardage on sacks), with Clemson failing to crack 100 yards rushing as a team for just the second time this season.
3. Lawrence throws multiple touchdown passes, but also multiple interceptions for the first time this season.
4. Alabama struggles with Clemson’s pass rush early, allowing multiple sacks in the first half, but gets its feet under it in time to shut the Tigers out in the second.
5. Tagovailoa claims the mythical Retroactive Heisman with a 300-yard, multi-TD passing effort that sets him up as the runaway 2019 frontrunner; in the process, he also cedes the single-season efficiency record to Kyler Murray.
6. ALABAMA WINS, 31–23.