One of the greatest aspects about college football are the rivalries. Generally, rivalries grow because of three reasons: the programs compete in the same conference, are located in the same state and/or lie on opposite sides of a state line.
Alabama (11-1) and the Playoff’s top-seed Clemson (12-1) have none of those in common, yet it feels like it’s become one of the nation’s budding rivalries. The previous games between the two have decided each of the last two national champions, each school winning one. The games have also been incredibly even, with the combined score of the first two being Alabama 76, Clemson 75. While the rubber match doesn’t take place in the Playoff final, it doesn’t mean this game is without luster.
The Crimson Tide’s calling card under head coach Nick Saban, its defense, was shredded by Clemson in both games. In the first matchup, Clemson posted 550 yards of offense—405 through the air and 145 on the ground—and ran 85 offensive plays in the 45-40 loss to Alabama. Last year, Clemson ran 99 plays while accumulating 511 yards of offense in the dramatic 35-31 victory over the Tide.
One thing in the fourth-seeded Alabama’s favor heading into this game is the fact that DeShaun Watson no longer plays for Clemson. Last year’sfirst-round draft pick combined for over 800 yards and eight touchdowns in his two games against Alabama.
Following a legend is never easy, but Kelly Bryant has held his own this year as the Clemson quarterback, completing close to 70 percent of his passes while combining for 24 touchdowns. He hasn’t yet flashed the kind of take-over-the-game ability that’s often needed to beat Alabama’s defense, but things may be trending that way.
Bryant was the MVP of the ACC Championship Game win over Miami (FL), going 23-for-29 for 252 yards and two total touchdowns. In his final three games versus FBS opponents — Florida State, South Carolina and Miami — Bryant completed 71.2 percent of his passes and racked up eight touchdowns.
While Watson is gone from the previous two Clemson teams, wide receiver Hunter Renfrow is not. In the last two championship games, Renfrow has four touchdown catches against Alabama, including last year’s game-winner in the final seconds. For some reason, the 5-foot-10 former walk-on has given Saban’s unit all kinds of fits.
After having an impact like that against him, twice, expect Saban’s game plan to pay much more attention to the crafty wide receiver who’s averaged 8.5 receptions in the two games against the Tide.
Saban and his defense haven’t been able to crack the code on the Clemson offense, while dominating pretty much every other team for close to a decade. Since 2009, no team has allowed the fewer touchdowns than the Crimson Tide’s 182—which is 50 fewer than LSU in that span, which ranks second with 232.
Injuries on that side of the ball have been a major storyline for Alabama in 2017, especially at linebacker. Of the 40 starts missed by eight players this year for the Tide, 34 of them came from the linebacker spot. The defense will have middle linebacker Mack Wilson closer to 100 percent after battling a foot injury much of the year.
Due to the injuries of Shaun Dion Hamilton and Dylan Moses—both are out for this game—Wilson will be the one calling the plays and barking out the signals for the Tide’s No.1 scoring defense.
On the other side of the ball, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts will need to show he’s more than just a running threat. Clemson boasts the best defense front Hurts will have faced since, well, last year’s national championship game.
Three players on the Tigers’ front four were named All-Americans this season: Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant. Also, the Tigers’ defense is third nationally in sacks per game and is ninth in rushing yards allowed per game, which figures to give Hurts all sorts of problems.
Hurts’ limitations with downfield passing were exposed in November against three quality defenses in the SEC. Against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn, Hurts went 11-for-24, 10-for-19 and 13-for-23, a combined completion percentage of 51.6. Granted, Hurts didn’t throw any interceptions the Tide won two of the three games, but against Clemson it’s hard to believe Alabama could get a game like that out of Hurts and still beat this year’s Tigers defense.
The running game will be key for Alabama, but it won’t be easy going against that vaunted Clemson defensive line. If the Tide fail to get running back Damien Harris, who led the SEC in yards per carry (8.24) or Hurts going on the ground, it could be a long afternoon for the Alabama offense.
Prediction: Clemson 24, Alabama 20