8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Alabama -7, Over/Under: 51
If you need proof that life truly comes full circle, look no further than the National Championship Game as the Top-Ranked Alabama Crimson Tide battle the Second-Ranked Clemson Tigers in a rematch of last year’s epic contest. The Sequel. Part Two. The Next Chapter. Needless to say, Monday Night’s game is a rare commodity in the world of College Football, as this particular meeting represents the first time that the same two teams have met for the National Title in back-to-back seasons. However, when it comes to storylines, that’s pretty far down the proverbial totem pole, for this collision of powerhouses is as ripe with drama. When it comes to Nick Saban and his Alabama (14-0, 8-0 in SEC) Defense, everyone knows they’re great, but we’ll take the opportunity to run down the numbers for you anyway; the Crimson Tide led the nation in Points Allowed (11.4), Total Yards Allowed (244.4), and Rushing Yards Allowed (62.4), limiting the opposition to a scant 2.0 Yards per Carry. But what truly makes this unit so impressive is the fact that they’ve developed an uncanny ability of turning turnovers into points. No, we’re not talking about their cohorts parlaying good field position via turnovers into scores… the Defense and Special Teams have just beaten them to the punch; Saban’s charges have registered a staggering fifteen Non-Offensive Touchdowns, which is more than about a quarter of the FBS alone. A perfect example of their playmaking prowess was on show in their 24-7 Peach Bowl triumph over Washington, propelling them to this point once again. Leading 10-7 with just two minutes remaining in the First Half, Alabama Linebacker Ryan Anderson (54 TKL, 16.5 TFL, 7.5 SK, 3 FF, 1 INT, 1 TD) picked off an errant John Browning pass that was intended to go out of bounds, and returned it twenty-six yards for the score, completely changing the complexion of the game heading into Halftime. It should be interesting to see how they match wits against an explosive Offense that torched them for forty points and a whopping 550 total Yards, including ten plays of twenty yards or more. With all that said, there is even more drama on the offensive side of the ball, where Jalen Hurts (64.6% 2,620 YDS, 21 TD, 9 INT) looks to become the first True Freshman Quarterback to lead his team to a National Championship since Jamelle Holieway did so with Oklahoma back in 1985. Hurts’ command of the Offense has grown exponentially as the campaign has progressed, but where this kid can really hurt defenses is with his legs; the youngster carried the ball 181 times for 891 yards and another dozen touchdowns, bringing a dynamic quality to the position that Saban hasn’t had before. However, there’s a last minute wrinkle to be had, as Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin was surprisingly let go after the Tide’s victory over Washington, as Saban unceremoniously dismissed his chief play-caller five days before the National Championship Game. Kiffin, who had accepted the Head Coach position at Florida Atlantic a month ago, has done remarkable work with Saban’s Quarterbacks over the last three years, and has had a heavy hand in the development of Hurts, whose performance remains to be seen given the circumstances of such an abrupt change. Taking over play-calling responsibilities will be Steve Sarkisian, who has had quite a rough go over the last year; after being fired by USC midway through the 2015 campaign (while struggling with personal issues), Sarkisian was hired as an Offensive Assistant during the Offseason, and was handpicked by Saban to be Kiffin’s successor in 2017. Let’s be completely honest here folks: as bizarre as this situation is, and as ridiculous as the timing may be, Sarkisian was NOT a Position Coach, which leaves many to question just how comfortable a True Freshman Quarterback will be with somebody new calling plays with such a short time to prepare for the biggest game of their lives. As heretical as it may sound, is Saban actually hedging his bets here in case of defeat? Or will this be yet another stroke of genius for the most successful College Football Coach of his time?
Meanwhile, everyone insists that they want to play Alabama, and then the predictable thing happens. Why is that when Clemson (13-1, 7-1 in ACC) does so, it feels so different? Perhaps it’s because they came so damn close to toppling the eventual National Champions in last year’s 45-40 slugfest, and have looked like they’ve been on a mission ever since. Yes, the Tigers have experienced plenty of close calls this season, but in one fell stroke appeared to wash all that away as they embarrassed Third-Ranked Ohio State in last weekend’s Fiesta Bowl, shutting out the Buckeyes 31-0. Dabo Swinney’s charges absolutely dominated Urban Meyer’s, relegating them to a scant 215 Total Yards and forcing three turnovers. On the flipside, Clemson’s Offense racked up 470 yards themselves, led by Heisman Finalist Deshaun Watson, who completed 23-of-36 passes (63.9%) for 259 yards a touchdown and a pair of interceptions, while rushing for another fifty-seven yards and two scores on fifteen carries. The Junior Quarterback has taken his fair share of criticism this season, as he has fallen a bit in the eyes of many, particularly in terms of interceptions thrown (seventeen). Watson has tossed thirty picks in his last twenty-nine games, which should have everyone on Swinney’s Staff on alert heading into this meeting with Alabama’s opportunistic Defense. Injuries played no small role in his struggles early in the season, but the fact of the matter is that he was forced to throw the ball a helluva lot more than he’s had in the past; Watson has attempted 523 passes thus far (compared to 491 in 2015), while carrying the football 143 times (opposed to 207 in 2015), as opposing Defenses have gone out of their way to stack the Line of Scrimmage in an attempt to force him to throw the ball. But let’s be honest here folks: take a long hard look at this guy’s passing statistics and they’re remarkably similar to last year’s impressive line; Watson completed 67.9% of his attempts in 2015 for 4,109 yards (8.4 Y/A), thirty-five touchdowns and thirteen interceptions, while completing 67.3% of his passes for 4,133 yards (8.0 Y/A), thirty-eight touchdowns and seventeen interceptions in 2016. But hey, all people are really talking about is what he managed to do against Alabama’s vaunted Defense in last year’s CFP Championship Final. In a word, Watson was spectacular, torching the Crimson Tide for 478 Total Yards, connecting on 30-of-47 passes (63.8%) for 405 yards, four touchdowns and an interception, while picking another seventy three yards on twenty carries. So many Offenses make the mistake of taking the Tide head on and running right at them like a battering ram. Obviously that has rarely worked, but where the Tigers have found success has been in spreading them out and giving their opponent a ton of things to think about, with a Quarterback that can create chaos with his arm or legs. Clemson averaged a robust 39.5 points (13th Overall) on 503.4 Total Yards, including 327.8 through the air and another 175.6 on the ground, with most of their success attributed to Watson. As we mentioned earlier, this group produced a number of big plays against ‘Bama last year, which they did without the services of Mike Williams (90 REC, 1,267 YDS, 10 TD), who has been the definition of a playmaker at Receiver, averaging 14.1 Yards per Reception, while as many as five other players logged at least 400 yards receiving. Then there is the Defense, which while overshadowed by their more heralded counterparts, has been damn good in their own right, allowing 17.1 points (7th Overall) on 306.9 Total Yards. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables is one of the best in the business, and if what they did to Ohio State was any indication (coupled with the unsettled Alabama Offense), Jalen Hurts and Steve Sarkisian could be in for a quite a long night.