8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Alabama -6, Over/Under: 59.5
Stop us if this sounds familiar, but for the fourth consecutive year, the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers will meet in the College Football Playoff, and for the third time in that span they will compete for the National Championship. Throughout the majority of the 2018 Regular Season, it became crystal clear that these were indeed the two top teas in the country, and at this point it must feel as their inevitable encounter was preordained. For Alabama (14-0, 9-0 in SEC), the mandate is as clear as ever: keep the crimson dynasty rolling. With a win tonight, Nick Saban’s charges will claim their third National Championship in three years, and their sixth since the venerable Head Coach arrived in Tuscaloosa back in 2007. The SEC Champions rolled their schedule largely unchallenged, even when they faced what should have been their stiffest test to date, the No. Four Oklahoma Sooners and their electrifying Heisman-winning Quarterback, Kyler Murray. However, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, Murray and the high-powered Sooners feel to the unrelenting fury of the Crimson Tide like everyone else of late.
While it certainly carried a wealth of hype, the College Football Semifinal between the Tide and Sooners was over rather early, folks. Alabama began the game making a point, and by the time their opponent could pull themselves up off the mat, the contest was all but over. The reigning National Champions kicked things off with a 7-Play, 75-Yard Drive culminating in a 1-Yard Damien Harris (126 CAR, 771 YDS, 6.1 Y/C, 7 TD) Rushing Touchdown. After a quick 3 & Out, they were back at it again, this time with a 8-Plyay, 55-Yard Drive ending with a 10-Yard scoring strike from Tua Tagovailoa (69.5%, 3,671 YDS, 11.4 Y/A, 41 TD, 4 INT) to Henry Ruggs (45 REC, 738 YDS, 16.4 Y/R, 11 TD) to double the lead. Each of their ensuing two Drives consisted of Five Plays, the first Sixty-One Yards and the second Forty-Eight ended just as their predecessors did establishing a 28-0 stranglehold midway through the Second Quarter. Oklahoma cut into the deficit in the Second Half, but could get no closer than Eleven Points in route to an uncontested 45-34 rout that wasn’t nearly close as the final score would indicate. At the end of the night the Box Score reflected the domination; Alabama continuously rolled over Oklahoma’s porous Defense piling up Twenty-Eight First Downs, a staggering 528 Total Yards, including 200 Rushing Yards on Forty-Carries, while the aforementioned Tagovailoa put on a show, completing all but three of his Twenty-Seven Attempts for 318 Yards and Four Touchdowns. Not bad for a guy who was apparently hampered by a highly-publicized High Ankle Sprain. The Runner-Up the Heisman Memorial Trophy looked like the best player on the field that night at the Orange Bowl, showing very few ill-effects from the injury. We’ve said it many times before, but this kid is the difference between this team simply being a National Championship contender, and being arguably the best group that Saban has had at Alabama. Consider this: this particular Offense is by far and away the most prolific in school history, averaging a whopping 47.7 Points per Game (2nd Overall) on 527.6 Total Yards, with the Passing Game accounting for 325.6 Yards of that figure. While this has annually been a methodical, grind-it-out kind of Offense that has judiciously taken it’s shots downfield in the past, this current incarnation is about that AND the big play; the Tide have averaged a staggering 7.9 Yards per Play this season, including 11.3 Yards per Pass, with five different players logging at least 16.4 Yards per Reception, led by All-American Jerry Jeudy and his 1,176 Yards and Thirteen Receiving Touchdowns.
With that said, enough about all that Offense, and let’s get into the Defense! Yes, Oklahoma scored Thirty-Four Points and posted a total of 471 Yards, which is coincidentally the most that Alabama has relinquished all season, but after watching the entirety of that affair, one can’t help but feel that the majority of those yards that the Sooners accumulated were nothing short of empty. Saban’s troops immediately attacked Murray & Co. from the opening possession, forcing a pair of punts and a Turnover on Downs on their first three Drives, all the while relegating an Offense that has long prided themselves on relentless tempo and big plays, to precisely Thirty Yards throughout the first twenty minutes of action. In fact, the Big XII Champions had just 197 Total Yards heading into Halftime trailing 10-31. The Crimson Tide routinely wrecked havoc in the trenches, compiling Four Tackles for Loss, including Three Sacks. This should really come as no surprise to anyone, for the major constant throughout Saban’s remarkable run of success in Tuscaloosa has been Defense, which even with a young, largely unproven group maintained the standard, limiting the opposition to 16.2 Points per Game (7th Overall) on 308.7 Total Yards, including 187.6 Yards against the Pass and another 121.5 versus the Run, while logging Twenty-One Takeaways, and amassing a ridiculous 100.5 Tackles for Loss, including Forty-Five Sacks. Defensive Linemen Quinnen Williams (67 TKL, 18.0 TFL, 8.0 SK, 1 PD) and Raekwon Davis (53 TKL, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 SK) are the names to know here, while rangy Safety Deionte Thompson (75 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 3 FF, 1 FR, 2 INT, 6 PD) join them as the next crop of Alabama defenders expected to hear their names called early in the NFL Draft.
Meanwhile, the other half of this National Final formula is Clemson (14-0, 10-0 in ACC), who also rolled through their schedule largely unchallenged, though they had by far and away the more interesting storyline, for after all, what else is more compelling in football than a Quarterback Controversy? Well, perhaps the term controversy is bit strong, but Dabo Swinney nonetheless made the bold decision to make a change at the game’s most important position, benching the incumbent Kelly Bryant (66.0%, 456 YDS, 8.6 Y/A, 2 TD, 1 INT) in favor of True Freshman Trevor Lawrence (65.3%, 2,933 YDS, 8.0 Y/A, 27 TD, 4 INT). Last season, Bryant took over for 2016 National Final Hero Deshaun Watson, leading the Tigers into a third meeting with the Crimson Tide in the 2017 National Semifinal, though struggled mightily in the disappointing 6-24 defeat. On that day, he was thoroughly vexed by the eventual Champions, completing just 18-of-36 Passes for 124 Yards and a pair of Interceptions, while rushing for Nineteen Yards on as many carries. After landing the signature of the coveted Lawrence during the Offseason, followed by a heated battle during Training Camp, Bryant was announced the Starter, though his reign wouldn’t last very long.
Despite Clemson starting the campaign 4-0 with Bryant under Center (winning their games by an average margin of 25.5 Points), there was a prevailing feeling that Offense was not performing to it’s potential, which was a feeling that Swinney and his Staff clearly felt as well, leading to the seismic decision to appoint the young Lawrence. The impact was nearly immediate, as the Tigers’ Offense went on to reach another level with the towering, 6-6 Frosh pulling the strings, propelling an attack that averaged a whopping 47.4 Points per Game on 541.0 Total Yards, including 268.1 Yards through the air and another 272.9 Yards on the ground. The production in the Run Game has been particularly noteworthy as Clemson has repeatedly bludgeoned the opposition in the trenches, where Travis Etienne and Co. have run wild throughout much of the campaign. In his Sophomore term, the explosive Tailback has taken his game to another level, nearly doubling his rushing total from a year ago (766 YDS in 2017) with 1,464 Yards on 8.3 Yards per Carry thus far, with a whopping Twenty-One Touchdowns to boot. However, he’s not the only weapon in this arsenal, for Swinney has three other Tailbacks that have accumulated at least 400 Rushing Yards, with Tavien Feaster (71 CAR, 409 YDS, 5.8 Y/C, 6 TD), Adam Choice (68 CAR, 506 YDS, 7.4 Y/C, 7 TD), and Lyn-J Dixon (56 CAR, 536 YDS, 9.6 Y/C, 5 TD) all making the most of their opportunities. And what did this group do to No. Three Notre Dame in the National Semifinal last weekend, you ask? They took them to the proverbial woodshed, that’s what. It was another affair that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would have led you to believe (30-3), with the ACC Champions piling up Twenty-Six First Downs, 538 Total Yards, 211 of which came on the ground, while Lawrence announced himself to the world, shredding the Irish Secondary for 327 Yards and Three Touchdowns on 27-of-39 Passing.
And then there was the Defense, which was a story unto itself last Saturday, humiliating Notre Dame in the one-sided affair. Even without the presence of mammoth Defensive Tackle Dexter Lawrence (36 TKL, 7.0 TFL, 1.5 SK, 1 FR, 1 INT, 3 PD), who was suspended after surprisingly testing positive for a banned substance in the buildup to the Playoff, Clemson dismantled their counterpart with ruthless efficiency. In this case, the numbers tell you everything you need to know about the Tigers’ domination of the Irish Offense; they relegated them to a scant 248 Total Yards on Seventeen First Downs, including just Eighty-Eight Rushing Yards on Thirty-Five Carries, and another 160 Passing Yards on just 17-of-34 Attempts, while forcing a pair of Turnovers. Furthermore, they got off the field on a consistent basis, permitting their opponent to convert just 5-of-17 Third Downs. The Defensive Line, which even without Lawrence is LOADED with talent, took the task of performing without their absent comrade rather personally, racking up Eight Tackles for Loss, six of which were Sacks, with Clelin Ferrell (51 TKL, 18.5 TFL, 11.5 SK, 3 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD, 2 PD), Austin Bryant (42 TKL, 14.0 TFL, 8.5 SK), and Christian Wilkins (47 TKL, 13.0 TFL, 5.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 2 PD) wrecking havoc at behind the Line of Scrimmage.