Alabama and Clemson will face off in college football’s national title game in Glendale, Arizona in what should be a fantastic championship clash.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney (Roll Dabo) is an Alabama alum who walked onto the football program and was given a scholarship by coach Gene Stallings, who knew that Swinney came from an impoverished family. He started in Alabama’s 1993 national title game, which they won, against Miami in the Sugar Bowl as a wide receiver. Swinney’s overcome a lot in his life, does not hide from his faith, and may replace Saban at Alabama one day when Saban rides into the sunset. Swinney just gets it. Because of his background, he relates to many of his players—who love playing for him because they know he cares about them—just like Arizona Cardinals (the game is being played in their home stadium) head coach Bruce Arians bonded with Tyrann Mathieu and became a father figure to him after telling him that Arians had been kicked out of high school but made the most of his many second chances.
If Alabama wins tonight, head coach Nick Saban can arguably be considered the greatest college football coach of all time. Saban is seeking his fourth national title at Alabama and fifth as a head coach.
I think Alabama vs. Stanford would be the closest pro-style college football championship game with strength (Alabama’s front seven) on strength (Stanford’s offensive line), pro-style offenses, and lack of gimmicky plays.
But Alabama versus Clemson is also fascinating, to say the least, because mobile quarterbacks, especially ones who can also throw the ball downfield like Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, give Alabama’s defense fits.
The ACC was a weak conference this year, and Bowl Season has proven that. On paper, Alabama—and Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry—should wear down Clemson’s defense and win easily. But two things are keeping me from saying that with confidence. First, USC was supposed to steamroll Texas in the 2006 national title game at the Rose Bowl. Like Reggie Bush’s USC team, Alabama has the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in Henry. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing, because Heisman runner-ups (Clemson’s Watson)—and their teammates who often take it personally—play with extra motivation (just ask Texas and Vince Young in 2006 and Stanford and Christian McCaffrey this year). Second, like Vince Young gave USC’s stout defense fits, Clemson’s Watson is the prototypical mobile quarterback that has given Alabama’s defense so much trouble in the Saban era. Mobile quarterbacks like Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton, Nick Marshall, Cardale Jones, and Chad Kelly have gotten the better of Alabama’s defense. And Watson is one special player who players have said runs faster and throws the ball with more precision on the field than they expected after studying film.
If the game comes down to the wire, a potential Watson to Hunter Renfrow connection on a broken play like the game-tying touchdown in the infamous “Kick Six” Iron Bowl game should give Alabama fans nightmares. Alabama’s defenders must be disciplined like Seattle’s defenders who stayed at home against Adrian Peterson this weekend, especially since mobile quarterbacks have often used Alabama’s athleticism and aggressiveness against them. Alabama fans do not want to see a repeat of this:
Saban wins his incredible fourth title at Alabama in the last seven years and fifth national title, trailing only Bear Bryant. It’s Alabama’s 16th. A redemptive game for so many after falling short last year against Ohio State. Alabama native Jake Coker, who won his teammates over by scratching and clawing Alabama back against Ole Miss in the Tide’s only loss of the year and then cementing his status as the starting signal-caller in the Texas A&M game with some gritty scrambles (punctuated with a handshake with Saban immediately after the A&M game), gets to hoist the national title trophy and fulfill his childhood dream. O.J. Howard, an all-world talent who will shine on Sundays, was the consummate team player the last two years and his sacrifices and patience were rewarded as Howard dazzled on the grandest stage. Lane Kiffin, who was USC’s offensive coordinator when Texas derailed SC’s dynasty in the 2006 at the Rose Bowl (Kiffin learned from the fourth down that Texas stopped and decided not to hand it off to Henry on a critical third down play in which Coker scrambled for the first down on a naked bootleg), got to prove his doubters wrong, win a title as an offensive coordinator, and reward Saban, who took a chance on him and gave him a second chance when nobody else would after he got ousted from USC. Kenyan Drake, an all-world talent who could not escape gruesome injuries, showed his dizzying speed on his backbreaking kickoff return. For kicker Adam Griffith, who has taken so much grief from Alabama fans for his struggles, executed a perfect onside kick as Saban channeled his inner Sean Payton to completely change the game’s momentum. Give tons of credit to Saban and his staff–recruits like Rashaan Evans got their tickets to Alabama to specifically neutralize quarterbacks like Watson, and those players showed why Saban is arguably the best recruiter in the history of college football. And to think–none of this even happens without an insane fourth-down lateral (heave) in overtime that Arkansas running back Alex Collins turned into a first down en route Arkansas’s shocking victory over Ole Miss in which they won by going for two.
Alabama 45, Clemson 40
Clemson keeps its hopes alive on a Watson-Leggett touchdown completion with 12 seconds left. But there is no miracle as Clemson’s onside kick attempt goes out of bounds.
Alabama, 45 Clemson 33.
Alabama, after another huge Coker-Howard connection, and gutsy playcall from Kiffin (naked bootleg on third down in which Coker scrambles head-first for the first down) ten years after the USC-Texas debacle, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry reaches the ball across the goal line to, barring some type of miracle, put this championship on ice and bring yet another title to Tuscaloosa, officially college football’s Title Town.
Alabama 38, Clemson 33.
In a game that is turning out to be eerily similar to USC-Texas, Clemson scores on a touchdown as Watson connects with Scott. The two-point conversion fails. This game is far from over.
Alabama 38, Clemson 27.
Alabama’s Kenyan Drake returns the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown that could be the dagger, especially since Alabama’s defense gets to make Clemson one dimensional. Could not be happier for Drake, who suffered a gruesome leg injury at Ole Miss last year and another at Texas A&M this year. Could not be happier for players like Drake and kicker Griffith for making huge plays in this game. Alabama is a defensive stop away from winning the national title.
Alabama 31, Clemson 27.
Clemson marches into Alabama territory on two plays. But they can’t score a touchdown and settle for a field goal.
Alabama 31, Clemson 24.
Alabama cashes in the onside kick recovery as Coker connects with O.J. Howard (the tight end!) on a 53-yard touchdown pass as Clemson’s secondary loses him for the third time tonight.
Nick Saban pulls a Sean Payton and goes for an onside kick and ALABAMA recovers as Marlon Humphrey catches the ball 15 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Alabama 24, Clemson 24.
Alabama’s Coker converts a huge 38-yard completion to Stewart on third and 11 gets Alabama into field goal range. Alabama can’t punch it into the end zone, but Griffith ties the game with a field goal.
At the start of the fourth quarter, it’s Clemson with the three-point lead. What a game. The clash of titans that many expected.
A huge sack again by Rashaan Evans on a critical drive for Alabama. Again, Evans is a “hybrid” player recruited specifically to defend against mobile quarterbacks. He’s paying huge dividends in this game. Alabama is pinned back deep in its own territory. But at least they are not down one score. Again, Clemson’s defense has given up some “home run” runs.
Clemson 24, Alabama 21.
Clemson, with Watson turning broken plays into first downs, marches down the field and Gallman powers through Alabama’s brick wall up front to put Clemson on top. For Alabama fans, Watson’s first-down scrambles just brings back terrible memories. Watson took some vicious hits on the drive and Gallman seems like he is hurt as well. That could have potentially been a costly drive for Clemson.
Alabama 21, Clemson 17.
Clemson answers with a field goal after two stellar plays by Alabama’s true freshmen corners Harrison and Fitzpatrick keeps the Tigers from tying the game. Alabama now has a chance to start pulling away. More importantly, the offense needs to pick up a few first downs to give Alabama’s defense some rest. It may not be a good idea for Kiffin to run tempo on this drive in case Clemson forces a three-and-out and puts Alabama’s defense right back on the field.
Alabama 21, Clemson 14.
Coker hits tight end Howard for a 53-yard touchdown pass as Clemson’s secondary loses Howard. Kiffin’s making my analysis look great.
Alabama’s defense auspiciously gets a three-and-out to start the third quarter. Alabama gets the ball near its 40-yard line.
Clemson’s defensive front is more than holding their own against Alabama. Coker feels comfortable with his tight ends, so Kiffin should utilize Richard Mullaney and O.J. Howard a bit more to find soft spots in Clemson’s defensive. What Alabama does not want is the ball in Watson’s hands with a chance to win the game. Alabama did not knock Clemson out in the first half, so it is even more critical for the Tide to jump on Clemson in the third quarter like they did to Michigan State. Terrible things have happened to Alabama over the years when a mobile quarterback has had an opportunity to defeat them. Alabama’s best option is to not give Watson that chance by playing lights out on defense and giving Alabama’s offense short fields. Designed plays are not working well for Clemson. Clemson’s best option may be to give Watson as many run-pass options and let him work his magic while hoping he does not take pounding that will wear him down in crunch time.
Halftime: Alabama 14, Clemson 14.
Clemson has a chance to close out the half with a field goal, but Alabama’s D.J. Pettway does his best Terrence Cody impression and blocks it. This is turning out to be a classic title bout. And the more Clemson stays in it, the more pressure Alabama feels and the less Clemson feels, as Watson can play the type of sandlot football that drives Alabama’s defense crazy.
As Clemson was driving near midfield, an ineligible receiver downfield penalty (they finally call this–referees need to call this more often on teams with mobile quarterbacks to make it a bit fairer for the defense) stifles Clemson’s drive and now Alabama gets the ball back with a chance to put together a two-minute drive before halftime. Alabama’s Rashaan Evans gets a huge sack — and it is worth nothing that Evans is exactly the type of “hybrid” player Saban has recruited during the last few years to help his defense against mobile quarterbacks. Paying huge dividends in this game.
Clemson gets the ball back with four minutes and change and has a chance to close out the drive with a score and get the opening kickoff. Huge series, to say the least, for Alabama’s defense.
Alabama’s defense is doing a decent job containing Watson. They hold Clemson, and the Tigers have to punt the ball back to Alabama. Clemson gets the ball to start the second half, so it’s important that Alabama prevents Clemson potentially getting two scores in a row. Best case scenario for Alabama is to have a seven-minute touchdown drive to put an exclamation mark on the first half.
Alabama 14, Clemson 14.
Henry plunges into the end zone and Alabama ties the game in what is turning out to be a terrific title bout.
Alabama gets the ball right back as Eddie Jackson intercepts Watson. And Alabama, and Henry, are marching into the red zone.
Clemson’s defense is playing lights out and confusing coker. Alabama punts it back to Clemson inside their 20.
Clemson 14, Alabama 7.
It’s game on. Watson connects with Renfrow, as I feared before the start of the game, in the red zone to put the Tigers up by seven. Clemson takes advantage of Alabama’s missed field goal.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) January 12, 2016
Alabama 7, Clemson 7.
Field goal problems for Alabama could be a bad omen. Place kicker Adam Griffith is wide right from 44 yards.
Alabama 7, Clemson 7.
And just like that, Clemson ties the game as Watson connects with Renfrow on a 31-yard touchdown connection after an Alabama pass interference penalty extended Clemson’s drive.
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) January 12, 2016
Alabama 7, Clemson 0.
Bamn. Clemson’s defense gives up the home-run run. Derrick Henry puts Alabama ahead with a 50-yard touchdown scamper. Alabama’s defense is lights out with a lead. This is what the doctor ordered for Alabama.
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) January 12, 2016
Alabama’s defense holds. And Clemson, after trying to move Alabama side to side to perhaps wear them down like Ohio State did last year, gets a few first downs and punts it back to Alabama. Alabama starts near midfield after a decent Cyrus Jones punt return.
Alabama gets the kickoff. But after picking up a few first downs, Alabama punts it back to Clemson and Watson. Alabama has a better set of defensive backs this year than they have in years past. It makes a huge difference, especially with Alabama’s all-world front seven.
As good as Clemson’s defense is, it can give off explosive runs (see Dalvin Cook’s run against them this year). Henry needs to break a few early to loosen up Clemson’s defense for Jake Coker. Alabama has to KO Clemson in the first half and not let Clemson hang around.
On the sidelines, viewers may see Alabama’s pioneering sideline tent. It is going to be to Alabama what Gatorade was to Florida. Here’s the story behind it. And video below of how it works and why it is has been so valuable: