Clemson’s 31-0 destruction of Ohio State in the college football championship semifinals gives me a reason to pause before making what should be an automatic decision to pick Alabama in Monday night’s title game …
Alabama coach Nick Saban’s abrupt move to escort bad-boy offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to the Tuscaloosa city limits and order him out gives me another reason to hesitate before selecting the Crimson Tide to win its fifth national championship in the last eight seasons ….
Memories of watching Clemson and quarterback Deshaun Watson impressively match big plays and scores with Alabama before succumbing 45-40 in last year’s national championship makes me wince at the thought of underestimating the Tigers’ chances to roll back the Tide.
After all, the elite programs led by Saban (.916) and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney (.841) have the two best winning percentages in the FBS division since 2011. Clemson is highly capable of defying the point spread — the Tigers are 6.5 point ‘dogs — and seizing the championship trophy.
And it’s probably foolish to ignore the reality at the quarterback matchup. On the Clemson side there’s the experienced Watson who has 31 career wins, is the nation’s best offensive player, and was my No. 1 choice on my 2016 Heisman Trophy ballot. On the Alabama side is the talented true freshman Jalen Hurts. He’s struggled down the stretch, seemingly losing confidence … and that was before his offensive coordinator got sacked.
Despite seeing all of those flashing warning lights, I’m going with Alabama.
1. The obvious: Bama is 14-0 this season, has won 26 straight games, hasn’t lost since Sept. 9, 2015 and is 40-3 since the start of the 2014 season. Picking Alabama to prevail in a big game doesn’t exactly qualify as “what in the world is this idiot thinking” material. Until someone knocks out the dominant champion, I’ll go with the champ.
2. Coach Saban knows his way around the ring for these heavyweight championship fights. He’s going for his sixth overall national title (one with LSU, four with ‘Bama.) He’s 5-0 in national title games. He’s 12-1 in games played for the conference or national title. Alabama has clicked off 16 consecutive victories against ranked opponents, winning the games by an average of 22 points.
3. Alabama has a better defense and a more aggressive defensive coordinator for this Clemson rematch. A year ago, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was a man distracted and divided, trying to hire a staff and recruit players for his imminent head-coaching job at Georgia — while also putting together a game plan and schooling Alabama defenders in preparation of the 2015 national championship showdown with Clemson. Smart is a good man, and was at the time a loyal assistant to Saban. But his concentration was understandably racing and drifting as he tried to serve two programs (UGA and ‘Bama) at the same time. There is no conflict on Alabama’s defensive end this time around. The 2016 Tide are more talented, faster and ferocious compared to the 2015 unit. This season’s defense is also more disruptive, scoring 11 touchdowns via interception or fumble return. And defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has an attacking, big-play, hunting mentality that incites his players. That should pose problems for a Clemson offense that had a relatively easy course to navigate in last season’s title game. And to a man Alabama’s defensive players are ticked off by giving up 40 points to Clemson last season. You don’t want to make these young gentlemen angry.
4. Watson has been intercepted 17 times this season (second-most in FBS) and no FBS division quarterback has thrown more INTs (30) than Watson over the last two seasons. Going against the most opportunistic defense in the nation, Watson can’t afford to make donations to Alabama.
5. Alabama is No. 1 nationally in fewest points allowed (11.4 per game), No. 1 in fewest yards allowed (244 per game), fewest rushing yards allowed (62 net per game), fewest touchdowns allowed (15) and is No. 2 for most sacks (50) and No. 5 in opponents’ passer rating. The Tide’s unmovable rushing defense can be especially crucial in this one, because Clemson can’t afford to be one-dimensional and play into Alabama’s hands by disregarding the run. Alabama has yielded only three rushing TDs in 14 games — and none since Oct. 15 in the second quarter at Tennessee. Over the last seven games opponents have averaged 1.9 yards per rushing attempt against the Alabama defense. Watson is a threat on the perimeter who burned Alabama with scrambles. Saban and Pruitt won’t let that go uncorrected. Watson will have more company surrounding him this time. Alabama’s defensive team speed is outstanding.
6. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I think the change from Kiffin to Sarkisian will be positive for Hurts and Alabama. In the late stages of the season the Tide offense was dragging under Kiffin — laboring to sustain drives, roll up first downs, and take advantage of Hurt’s all-purpose skill. Hurt was slumping. Until Saban (presumably) ordered Kiffin to go heavy with the running game after a slow start, Alabama’s offense looked absolutely awful against in the 24-7 semifinal win over Washington. Why would it make sense for Saban to stick with Kiffin’s disruptive and distracted presence at a critical time — especially with the ‘Bama offense in decline? Sarkisian is a brilliant offensive mind. He knows what he’s doing. Based on media reports, Sarkisian has energized Alabama’s offensive practices, increased the tempo, and has Hurts back to focusing on reacting instinctively as a natural-born playmaker instead of trying to overload him with robotic programming. A faster pace dictated by Sarkisian should jumpstart the Tide. And if I’m wrong about that, then I’m wrong. We’ll see.
7. Clemson was sensational and unreal in wiping out Ohio State on New Year’s Eve. But can the Tigers replicate that peak performance against an Alabama contingent that’s clearly superior to Ohio State? I’m skeptical. Clemson had way too many close calls this season … winning by six points at Auburn, beating Troy by six, lucking out of a loss when the N.C. State kicker missed an easy field-goal attempt, losing to Pittsburgh, and straining to put away Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game. There’s an overall inconsistency that frequently imperils the Tigers. Alabama consistency is more reliable; at no point, watching every game this season, did I believe Alabama was in true danger of losing a game.
Enjoy the game. I just hope we’re in for a classic.
Thanks for reading …