It’s the championship game most predicted over the summer. Clemson, undefeated and winners of the 2016 College Football Playoff, against Alabama, also undefeated and looking for its third College Football Playoff championship in 5 years.
Both teams are considerably different than they were in their first meeting, a 45-40 Alabama victory to end the 2015 season. That Crimson Tide team was an explosive, bruising power running group led by Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. Clemson was a fast-paced spread option outfit led by a once-in-a-decade talent at quarterback in Deshaun Watson.
In the championship game rematch in the 2016 season, Alabama had switched to more of a zone-read look with true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, and adding his dual-threat abilities with a strong effort from running back Bo Scarbrough gave the Tide a 17-7 lead. But Watson would not be denied, throwing for over 400 yards and leading the Tigers to a 35-31 win and their first championship in 35 years,
Bama-Clemson III in the 2018 Sugar Bowl was a little underwhelming to say the least. Both teams struggled on offense at times, but Watson was in the NFL and Clemson’s lack of a passing game was exposed. Alabama’s 24-6 victory lacked drama, but it might have been the best thing that happened to Clemson.
As we prepare for Round 4 of college football’s two best teams, there are no secrets left. Both teams are built to win championships and built to beat each other. In many ways they mirror each other as they have continued to leave the rest of college football behind.
Alabama is as good as ever, and better than ever on offense. The Crimson Tide are a dynasty with a seemingly endless supply of talent that finally got a legitimate NFL first-round quality quarterback at the helm. With Tua Tagovailoa the best team in college football got better.
But Clemson isn’t far behind. The 2018 Tigers are much different than the 2016 Tigers that won it all, but they are just as good and might be better. Here are five reasons Clemson will be the toughest test for Alabama:
1. Trevor Lawrence is as good as advertised
When Dabo Swinney decided to promote the true freshman Lawrence to QB1, it was with Alabama in mind. As successful as Kelly Bryant had been since replacing Watson, Swinney couldn’t get 24-6 out of his mind. Bryant is a productive, solid football player, but he didn’t have the tools to beat Alabama. In comes Lawrence, who will be the third true freshman to start in a National Championship Game and will try to be the first to win the thing.
Lawrence was recruited to win a championship. He was recruited to beat Alabama and he knows that. Lawrence has proven he has the goods, but completing 65+ percent of his passes and throwing for 2,933 with 27 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. He appears to be ready for the moment and unintimidated by the challenge that lies ahead.
2. Travis Etienne has brought balance
As good of a passer as Lawrence is, he isn’t the do-everything playmaker that Watson was, so Clemson needed to establish a consistent rushing attack. Enter Travis Etienne, who has rushed for 1,572 and 22 touchdowns this season. It’s a rare game when it appears that Alabama doesn’t have the best running back on the field, but this might be the case as the sophomore from Jennings, La., has averaged an incredible 8.3. yards per carry this season. He’s not the young freshman Alabama held to 22 yards on 4 carries last year. Etienne is a big-play threat and really makes the play-action work. Notre Dame actually did a good job against him with the exception of one play — a 62-yard touchdown that turned out to be the only score of the second half.
3. Depth on the defensive front
The defensive line gets all the pub and it should. The foursome of Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence should go down as one of the best of this era. And on Saturday with Lawrence unavailable because of a drug suspension, Clemson showed it’s considerable depth when Albert Huggins, a former 4-star, top 100 prospect, stepped in and the drop was barely noticeable. In 2015 and 2016 Clemson’s defensive front was young and had potential. In 2018 it’s as dominant as it’s ever been and includes top-shelf depth. As of now Lawrence is still not cleared for Monday, but that could change. If it doesn’t, Huggins is more than ready for the challenge.
4. Bigger, better, badder offensive line
Watson’s mobility made up for an offensive line that was good, not great. Last year Clemson’s offensive front was older and thought to be better, but Alabama beat them up. Clemson couldn’t establish a ground game because it couldn’t handle anything the Tide’s front seven had to offer.
When Swinney made the quarterback change, it came with a challenge to the Clemson offensive line — you have to protect this kid and you have to get tougher with run blocking.
The change has been noticeable too. Clemson’s offensive front has met the challenge and they are a nasty group. The interior just appears to be much tougher than last season, especially at center with Justin Falcinelli and left guard with John Simpson. The tackles, most notably Mitch Hyatt, have been pretty athletic, but they needed the interior to be tougher. That seems to have been accomplished this year.
5. Explosive weapons on offense
If you want to compete with Alabama, you have to have big-time weapons on the outside. Watson had that in 2016 in Mike Williams, Deon Cain and Artavis Scott.
Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are big, talented receivers who can create mismatches and fight for the football. Both Higgins and Ross go about 6-3 and over 200 pounds so they aren’t going to be pushed around easily by Alabama’s physical secondary. And they are going to have to win physical battles on the outside to open up the slot for Amari Rodgers and the one man that most Tide fans wish would run out of eligibility already — Hunter Renfrow.
Even though Alabama plays in the SEC, there aren’t many instances where the Tide’s defensive backs have had to face a receiving corp that would be considered their physical equal. Ole Miss might be the other. Clemson has those type of dudes. Clemson’s WRs vs. Alabama’s DBs is going to be one of the most enjoyable position battles in a game full of position battles.