8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Alabama -6.5, Over/Under: 50
Finally, the wait is over folks, as the last two teams standing meet in the CFB National Championship Game, as the top-ranked Clemson Tigers battle the second-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in the confines of University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. For Clemson (14-0, 9-0 in ACC), history is within their grasp, as they look to secure their first National Championship since 1981. Head Coach Dabo Swinney and his charges have enjoyed a wave of momentum in 2015, rolling through the Atlantic Coast Conference with nary a blemish, en route to blasting the Oklahoma Sooners in the National Semifinal. And honestly, the 37-17 score wasn’t even that close; things started off slow for the Tigers, with the Sooners owning a slim 17-16 lead heading into intermission, before the last remaining undefeated exploded in the second half, rolling off twenty-one unanswered points. Tailback Wayne Gallman got things started with 1-yard touchdown run at the 10:51 mark of the Third Quarter, followed by a 35-yard touchdown reception from Hunter Renfrow courtesy of Deshaun Watson on the following drive, with another Gallman rush putting the game out of reach with just under eleven minutes to play in game. The Sophomore rusher was outstanding, trampling the Oklahoma Defensive Front to the tune of 150 yards and a pair of touchdowns on twenty-six carries, while his versatile teammate Watson, nearly matched his total 145 rushing yards and a touchdown on twenty-four carries. That’s right, folks, Clemson hung a ridiculous 312 rushing yards on Bob Stoops’ charges, averaging a whopping 5.4 yards per carry. Defensively, Swinney’s charges snuffed out the run themselves, relegating Boomer Sooner to a mere sixty-seven yards on thirty-three carries, for a dreadful 2.0 yards per rush. It didn’t help matters that stud Tailback Samaje Perine (15 carries, 58 yards, 1 TD) suffered a leg injury after the hallway point, with his successor Joe Mixon (3 carries, 4 yards) getting knocked out of the game with a similar injury. With no running game to lean on for the first time this season, Oklahoma Quarterback Baker Mayfield struggled to probe the Tigers’ athletic defense, completing 26-of-41 passes (63.4%) for 311 yards, one touchdown and two costly interceptions. On the night, Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables guided his unit to five sacks, nine tackles for loss, and a pair of interceptions, all without the services of All-American Edge Rusher Shaq Lawson, who was sidelined with an ailing knee.
Before we get into the matchup itself, let’s touch upon some recent history first. Swinney was actually a member of Alabama’s 1992 National Championship team under Gene Stallings, joining a list with Frank Howard and Danny Ford as Tigers’ skippers that were graduates from Tuscaloosa. In fact, those three coaches are the three winningest coaches in the history of Clemson program, with Ford guiding the program to that aforementioned 1981 National Championship. However, let’s fast-forward to 2008, which served as the genesis for this team, and the unlikely hand that their opponent tonight had played in it. In the season opener for both teams, the Tide humbled the then Tommy Bowden-led Tigers in a 34-10 beatdown that would ultimately lead to the coach’s dismissal, he resigned after just six games. Swinney, who served as Bowden’s Receivers Coach, filled the void as Interim Head Coach, leading the team to a 4-3 mark over the final seven games, which was good enough to make them Bowl Eligible. This was enough to earn the eccentric and charismatic coach the full-time gig, with the rest simply being history at this point. Now in his seventh year as the Head Coach, Swinney is a stellar 75-26 (.743), including a staggering 56-11 (.835) since 2011, highlighted by three consecutive bowl victories. To his credit, he has recruited exceptionally well since taking over at Clemson, keeping the program flush with a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball. The likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Stephon Anthony, and Vic Beasley are just some of the names that are making plays on Sundays, with many more to come as this year’s Tigers have a number of key components likely to hear their names called come May. Kevin Dodd (9.5 Sacks, 19.0 TFL, 1 FF) and the aforementioned Lawson (10.5 Sacks, 22.5 TFL, 1 FF) are terrors in the trenches, while B.J. Goodson (5.5 Sacks, 14.0 TFL, 1 FF, 2 INT) looks to continue the legacy of solid Linebackers to emerge from the program. Mackensie Alexander (5 PD) and Cordrea Tankersley (5 INT, 9 PD) are playmakers at Cornerback, while Jayron Kearse (6.5 TFL, 1 INT, 6 PD) is arguably the top Safety prospect in the country. Offensively, Gallman (1,469 yards, 12 TDs) has emerged as a beast in his second year as a starter, while Watson (who isn’t Draft Eligible yet) has realized the potential that made him such a prized recruit two years ago. The Sophomore Quarterback overcame a nasty knee injury last season to fuel the Tigers’ explosive attack, completing 68.2% of his passes for 3,704 yards (8.3 y/a), thirty-one touchdowns and twelve interceptions, while rushing for another 1,032 yards and a dozen scores on 187 carries. Keep an eye on what this kid does with his legs, because the common perception is that mobile Quarterbacks are capable of giving the Alabama defense problems. Remember that in last year’s National Semifinal, Ohio State’s multifaceted Offense rolled up 537 yards, including 281 on the ground, with Cardale Jones racking up 286 total yards on the night. Opposing Quarterbacks have scored a total of fourteen touchdowns against the Tide this season compared to Watson’s fifty-three, but it’s worth noting that the one rushing touchdown allowed attributed to a passer was Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly, who was the only Quarterback to defeat them this year.
Meanwhile, it’s business as usual in Tuscaloosa, as Nick Saban has Alabama (13-1, 8-1 in SEC) on the cusp of winning their fourth National Championship since 2009. After last year’s disappointing 42-35 loss to the Buckeyes in the National Semifinal, the Tide have clearly had the look of a team on a mission to wipe away the stain of last year’s failure. Then again, that’s the culture that Saban has created at ‘Bama, where expectations are higher than any other program in the country. And ironically, we’ll go back to the same date in 2008 which served as the catalyst for change in Clemson, and ultimately the advent of a dynasty for Saban. Finishing that season 12-2, the Crimson Tide had successfully proclaimed to the world that they had in fact returned, winning the first of three National Championships the following season in a 37–21 romp over Texas in the BCS National Title Game. Since that aforementioned victory over Clemson, the venerable Head Coach has gone a staggering 97-12 (.889), losing no more than three games in any season, including 2009’s undefeated National Championship, followed two more BCS Titles in 2011 and 2012. In many ways, Saban has restored Alabama to the title of the premier College Football Program, and the most industrious pipeline to the professional level. This was definitely on display in their National Semifinal drubbing of fourth-ranked Michigan State, who were described as the proverbial Team of Destiny by many around the country. Only leading 10-0 at halftime, Alabama took command over the final thirty minutes of play, running off twenty-eight unanswered points, in a game that was completely and utterly dominated by the SEC Champions. So let’s take a moment to run down the numbers, shall we? The Tide’s offense grinded away a surprisingly balanced 440 total yards, including 286 through the air, and another 154 on the ground. Heisman-winner Derrick Henry earned a modest seventy-five yards on twenty carries, but scored a pair of touchdowns in the second half, where he also piled up the majority of yards against a tired Spartans’ defensive front. Defensively, ‘Bama suffocated Connor Cook and Co., allowing just 239 total yards, including a scant twenty-nine on the ground. Michigan State’s all-time leader in wins was a miserable 19-of-39 (48.7%) from the pocket for just 210 yards (5.4 y/a), and two interceptions, while sustaining four sacks. However, the key to victory was the play of another, an unexpected performance from what is usually the most important position on the field…
At the beginning of the season, the Crimson Tide were in the unenviable position of not knowing who their Quarterback for the 2015 campaign was going to be. In fact, it was Cooper Bateman who was intended to be the starter this year, with the Sophomore going on to start the first three games, in which he shared time with Jake Coker, a transfer from Florida State. With Bateman gaining the favor of both Saban and Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin, Coker started to fade to the background, but all that would change in a 43-37 loss at home to Ole Miss. Bateman started the game, going 11-of-14 (78.6%) for eighty-seven yards and an interception, failing to move the Alabama Offense much at all and losing a crucial fumble in the process. Saban pulled him early in the second stanza, sending Coker to lead a comeback, which he almost did; despite tossing a pair of interceptions, the former Seminole pushed the ball downfield relentlessly, racking up 201 passing yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing for another in a wild, yet failed, bid for a victory. In defeat, Saban and his Staff found their Quarterback, as Coker would go on to start for the remainder of the term, completing 67.1% of his passes for 2,775 yards (7.5 y/a), nineteen touchdowns and eight interceptions, with a Passer Rating of 143.2. It’s a familiar story for the kid, who after being a high profile recruit was forced to sit behind Heisman-winner Jameis Winston in Tallahassee, before ultimately transferring to Tuscaloosa, where he came up short again, this time in a Quarterback Competition with Blake Sims. Going into the New Year’s Eve matchup with Michigan State, nobody was talking about Coker’s potential impact of the game, however after it’s conclusion, he was the only player anyone was talking about; the Senior was a masterful 25-of-30 (83.3%) for two touchdowns and no turnovers, testing the Spartans’ stout defense on a number of occasions, finding Calvin Ridley deep for eight catches, 138 yards, and both of his touchdowns. Credit to Kiffin for putting together a brilliant gameplan, which took advantage of his opponent’s choice to crowd the line of scrimmage in an effort to stop Henry, leaving them exposed on the backend. It remains to be seen if he’ll keep the momentum going tonight, as Clemson’s defense will not make the mistake of overlooking the 6-5, 232 lb prototype passer, which means that it’ll be imperative that avoids any costly turnovers, which will more than likely determine the victor of this game. Keep in mind that despite Clemson’s offensive onslaught, they haven’t taken very good care of the football, committing twenty-six turnovers this year with a minus-differential. Turnovers were huge in Alabama’s victory over Michigan State, particularly Cyrus Jones’ huge goal line interception of Cook with just ten seconds remaining before halftime. And speaking of Jones (2 INT, 7 PD, 1 FF), the Senior Defensive Back returned a third quarter punt fifty-seven yards for a touchdown to stretch the lead to twenty-four points. Jones was very proficient in the return game this season, returning forty-one punts for 518 yards and four touchdowns, with all three figures representing the most in nation by any single player.