8:45 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Alabama -3, Over/Under: 47
A matchup that has decided the National Championship in each of the last two years will instead decide who will be competing on that stage next week, as the Top-Ranked Clemson Tigers and the Fourth-Ranked Alabama Crimson Tide meet in the College Football Playoff for the third time in a row, this time from the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome. While the winner of tonight’s matchup won’t be crowned National Champions (at least not yet), it will provide the rubber match between the past two owners of that distinction; Alabama bested Clemson on the strength of a late Interception Return and a shocking Onside Kick in route to a 45-40 triumph two years ago, while the Tigers returned the favor a year later securing a 35-31 comeback with one second remaining. Needless to say, the third installment in this trilogy is every bit as hyped up as it needs to be. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 in Southeastern Conference), who very nearly missed the opportunity to reach this point altogether, was ultimately selected as the final participant in the Playoff, despite losing their annual Iron Bowl matchup with Auburn (26-14) in the Regular Season Finale, preventing them from competing in the SEC Championship Game for a fourth consecutive year. However, the CFP Selection Committee favored them over respective league champions such as Ohio State and Southern California, ensuring a fourth straight trip to the Playoff, making them the only Program to do so since it’s inception in 2014. As has been the case since he arrived in Tuscaloosa back in 2007, Nick Saban’s charges have reached this point on a very familiar formula consisting of dominant defense and a punishing rushing attack. Despite all the players they’ve lost to the NFL Draft over the past two years, this current incarnation of the Crimson Tide Defense is statistically greater than either of their previous two counterparts, yielding the fewest points in the nation (11.5 P/G) on a scant 258.9 Total Yards, including just 163.7 Yards versus the Pass and another 95.3 Yards versus the Run. Once again loaded with size, speed, and athleticism, made even more impressive by the fact that this unit has been racked with a number of injuries throughout the campaign, forcing Saban and his Staff to blood a host of players ahead of schedule with many of them becoming key contributors to their success. On the season, the Tide totaled 78.5 Tackles for Loss, including 30.0 Sacks, while forcing Twenty Turnovers, Fifteen of which were Interceptions. Rashaan Evans (57 TKL, 10.5 TFL, 5.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR) and Raekwon Davis (59 TKL, 7.0 TFL, 6.5 SK, 1 FR) have been nightmares for opposing Linemen, while Minkah Fitzpatrick (52 TKL, 6.0 TFL, 1.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 6 PD) and Ronnie Harrison (68 TKL, 3.3 TFL, 2.5 SK, 3 INT, 3 PD) represent the next wave of ‘Bama Defensive Backs to play on Sundays. With that said, this group must rebound from a disappointing performance against Auburn, in which they allowed season-highs both in Points (26) and Total Yards (408), and also left them worse for wear, with Deionte Thompson (Knee), Shaun Dion Hamilton (Knee), Dylan Moses (Foot), and the aforementioned Fitzpatrick (Hamstring) all sustaining various injuries in that affair. Keep an eye on how Saban’s Linebackers perform tonight, for Hamilton (40 TKL, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 SK, 1 FF, 2 PD) and Moses (30 TKL, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT) have both been pronounced out for the remainder of the Postseason, leaving a Position Group that was already short on healthy bodies with even fewer to choose from. Offensively, Alabama has bludgeoned their opponents to the tune of 265.3 Rushing Yards per Game on a mighty healthy 6.0 Yards per Carry, led by the tandem of Damien Harris (110 CAR, 906 YDS, 11 TD) and Bo Scarbrough (108 CAR, 549 YDS, 8 TD), with help from Sophomore Quarterback Jalen Hurts (60.7%, 2,005 YDS, 9.0 Y/A, 15 TD, 1 INT), who actually led the team in Rushing Attempts, carrying the football 137 times for 768 Yards and Eight Touchdowns. Hurts is likely to be the biggest difference for the Tide between last year’s National Title Game and this one, for his last meeting with Clemson was not one of his finer performances; the then-Freshman completed a career-worst 13-of-31 Attempts (41.9%) for 131 Yards and a Touchdown, despite rushing for Eighty-One Yards on Eighteen Carries, struggling with his consistency throughout the Second Half. Play-calling was also an issue for the young Quarterback, as Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin was surprisingly released from his duties days before the affair in order to become the Head Coach at Florida Atlantic, replaced by Steve Sarkisian, who would part ways with the Program not long after the defeat. A year later, Hurts has benefitted from the experience, leading arguably the most efficient Offense in the country; simply put, these guys don’t beat themselves, with Hurts throwing only One Interception, while the unit as a whole has only committed a scant Eight Turnovers thus far, parlaying into a very healthy Plus-12 Differential. The key to victory tonight will be remaining balanced, for Alabama must establish their Running Game early, which would allow Hurts to judiciously pick his spots in attacking downfield. However, if they’re unable to get much of anything going on the ground, he’ll be too busy running for his life against arguably the best Defensive Front in the country.
Meanwhile, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same for Clemson (12-1, 8-1 in Atlantic Coast Conference), who enter the College Football Playoff the same way they exited the previous one, as the top-ranked team in the country. The reigning National Champions have been dominant throughout the campaign, in route to securing their third consecutive ACC Championship, embarrassing Miami in 38-3 debacle back on December 2nd. Dabo Swinney’s charges wasted no time establishing who was the better team, jumping out to a 21-0 lead early in the Second Quarter, with their Defense smothering the Hurricanes, permitting just Ten First Downs and 214 Total Yards, while forcing Three Turnovers when it was all said and done. That affair marked the fourth outing in a row in which the Tigers relegated the opposition below 300 Total Yards of Offense, which is really no surprise given the amount of talent they’ve amassed over the years. If Alabama has allowed the fewest points in the country, then these guys aren’t far behind, for Clemson has yielded the second-fewest points overall (12.8 P/G) on 277.9 Total Yards, including 165.1 Yards against the Pass, and another 112.8 Yards versus the Run. It all starts up front for this group, where the star-studded Defensive Line featuring Austin Bryant (47 TKL, 14.5 TFL, 7.5 SK, 2 FF, 1 INT, 1 PD), Clelin Ferrell (62 TKL, 17.0 TFL, 8.5 SK, 2 FF, 1 PD), Christian Wilkins (52 TKL, 9.0 TFL, 5.0 SK, 4 PD), and Dexter Lawrence (32 TKL, 2.5 TFL, 2.0 SK, 1 FF), are all sure to be playing on Sundays in the near future. Each of these guys participated in last year’s National Title Game, and will likely be relishing another opportunity to make life miserable for Jalen Hurts once again. On the season, the Tigers have created nothing short of havoc in opposing Backfields, leading the nation with a staggering 105.0 Tackles for Loss, Forty-Four of which were Sacks, helping translate Nineteen Takeaways, with eleven of that figure coming in the last five games alone. With that said, Swinney and Co. will be missing a rather large component of the last two heavyweight fights with the Tide, for Deshaun Watson is now plying his trade in the National Football League. Simply put, Watson was absolutely phenomenal in the last two matchups, assaulting Alabama’s Defense in ways we’ve yet to witness during the Saban Era; the 2016 First Round Pick completed 66-of-103 Passes (64.1%) for 825 Yards and Seven Touchdown in comparison to One Interception, while rushing for another 116 Yards and a Score on Forty-One Carries over the course of the two meetings, while leading his side back from an early 14-Point Deficit to engineer the final game-winning drive last January. Needless to say, there are a host of folks in Tuscaloosa that are happy to see the kid playing on Sundays. Undertaking the unenviable task of replacing Watson is Kelly Bryant (67.4%, 2,678 YDS, 7.34 Y/A, 13 TD, 6 INT), who had served as his young understudy over the last two years. There have certainly been more than a few instances this season in which the Junior Quarterback has looked very similar to his mentor, particularly when using his legs, rushing for 646 Yards and Eleven Touchdowns on 173 Carries. As a whole, the Offense has remained explosive with him at the controls, averaging 35.4 Points per Game (20th Overall) on a very balanced 449.2 Total Yards, including 244.1 Yards through the air, and another 205.1 Yards on the ground. And if you were wondering just how indispensable Bryant has been for the Tigers, just refer to their only loss of the season, a 27-24 defeat at Syracuse, in which he limped throughout the First Half with a nasty High ankle Sprain, only to be pulled by Swinney at Halftime. Clearly, getting his Signal-Caller healthy was the most important thing for the team, which really paid off over the duration of the last six games of the term, with Bryant completing 67.2% of his Attempts for an average of 217.2 Yards (while rushing for another 42.2 Yards), while totaling thirteen Total touchdowns in comparison to just Two Interceptions. And anyone that questions how this kid would perform against an SEC Defense, look no further than his team’s 14-6 defeat of Auburn back on September 9th, in which Clemson relegated the only team to defeat Alabama this year to Six Points, Thirteen First Downs, and 117 Total Yards, while Bryant connected on 19-of-29 Passes (65.5%) for 181 Yards, while rushing for his side’s only two scores, the latter of which put the game away on a 27-Yard Run.