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Alabama-Clemson: Deshaun Watson key for Tigers in national championship game

By Anthony Gimino, The Sports Xchange   |   Updated Jan. 11, 2016 at 8:18 AM
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If the College Football Playoff National Championship game were played a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Clemson Tigers coach Dabo Swinney, facing an onslaught from an oppressive force, would have to send out the following plea:

Help us, Deshaun Watson, you're our only hope.

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Watson, the Tigers' All-American quarterback, is the answer, the antidote, the young gun aiming for that one, tiny weak spot in Alabama's defense -- its vulnerability to dual-threat quarterbacks.

For undefeated (and underdog) Clemson to win the national championship game Monday night in Glendale, Ariz., Watson is almost assuredly going to have to turn into the 2005 version of Texas quarterback Vince Young, who lifted the Longhorns onto his shoulders in an epic title-winning victory over USC.

Watson is good enough to do just that.

"I don't know that anybody stops Deshaun Watson," Alabama coach Nick Saban said at Media Day from Phoenix on Saturday morning.

"You're talking about a phenomenal player, a player who can beat you in a lot of different ways in terms of his passing ability, his ability to execute their offense effectively, can make plays with his legs, can extend plays in the passing game.

"I think he truly, truly understands what they want him to do and really gets it done on a pretty consistent basis."

Watson, who was third in the Heisman voting behind Alabama running back Derrick Henry and Stanford all-purpose ace Christian McCaffrey, has studied game film on how it is done: Auburn's Cam Newton beating the Tide in 2010, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel in 2012, even Ole Miss' Chad Kelly doing so in September, when he passed for 341 yards.

Now, as then, there is but one way to defeat the Tide: Spread out its defense, use no-huddle tempo, and have a quarterback who can make something out of nothing. That's Clemson.

That wasn't Michigan State, which was shut out by Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal game. The Spartans' style of offense dictated they had to try to get into an alley-fight with Alabama's defensive line, featuring three potential 2016 first-round NFL Draft picks -- A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen.

Watson has rushed for more than 100 yards in five of the past six games, including 145 on 24 carries in a semifinal win over Oklahoma.

"That's part of my strength," Watson said Saturday. "I'm going to use it to the best of my ability. If I have time or I have a chance to run, then I run. But if not, then I make the throws in the pocket. I'm just going to do my job, whatever situation comes. ...

"I just have to do my job, my part, continue to be me and don't try to be no superhero."

While Clemson's offense is aiming to turn the game into a track meet and to tilt the numbers in its favor by having Alabama have to account for the quarterback run game, the Tide are better equipped than ever to handle the spread.

Alabama has streamlined its substitutions patterns to counter tempo, slimmed down (relatively speaking) on the defensive line, and are using lighter safeties -- such as Eddie Jackson and nickel Minkah Fitzpatrick -- who are better in coverage and in space.

Saban made these purposeful tweaks without sacrificing the run-stopping power of a Mack truck -- Alabama is first in the country by allowing only 70.8 yards per game on the ground.

Swinney called it a "complete" defense.

"There's no question about that," Swinney said. "I mean, they're deep up front, they're fast, athletic. They've got freaky linebackers, and they've got guys that can play man and cover."

The Tide also lead the nation with 50 sacks.

"Everybody knows they're good," Watson said. "But we're good on offense, too."

Watson, a sophomore, is just the third quarterback in FBS history to pass for 3,500 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season. He passed for 31 touchdowns and ran for 12.

Earlier this week, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who is facing one final challenge before taking over as Georgia's head coach, compared Watson to three former SEC stars. He said Watson has the perimeter running skills of ex-Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, is the creator in space that Manziel was, and can run with power like Newton did.

But here's the thing about Watson that sets him apart from almost all dual-threat quarterback: He would excel as solely a pocket passer. He has four games this season with more than 340 passing yards.

The pace, the misdirection, the quick-game passing, the ability to sidestep Alabama's speed rushers -- the success of Clemson's offense is all going to fall on Watson. He is the X-factor. Not unlike a certain X-wing fighter from the movies who toppled an empire.

No need to over-think this.

As Swinney said earlier this week about Watson: "We probably won't win if he doesn't play well."

Clemson DE Lawson trying to play

Clemson junior defensive end Shaq Lawson, who suffered a sprained MCL early in the Orange Bowl, gave himself a "60 percent" chance of playing Monday night.

"I don't feel any weakness," Lawson said.

Lawson said he hasn't had contact work in practice and is trying to regain a full range of lateral movement.

"I feel like I'm getting better each day," Lawson said. "I'm moving. I'm continuing to work on that and get it back to where I was at."

Lawson, a consensus All-American who already has declared for the NFL Draft, has 10.5 sacks and a national-best 23.5 tackles for loss.

"I still have until Monday night to get better and get treatment and everything," Lawson said.

If Lawson can't play or is limited, true freshman Austin Bryant is next up, followed by redshirt freshman Richard Yeargin.

Clemson RB Gallman good, too

While Alabama has Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry, Clemson tailback Wayne Gallman is often tagged as being one of college football's most underrated players.

Gallman has rushed 269 times for 1,482 yards and 12 touchdowns.

"He's a good, quick-twitch guy," said Alabama All-American linebacker Reggie Ragland. "We really have to inside tackle him because he loves to stop on a dime and get you going past him. He's a good running back for the most part. He's tough."

Chip Kelly visits

Saban confirmed Saturday that a certain unemployed coach -- recently fired Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly -- visited with the Alabama coaches this week.

But the rumor mill can stop right now, if you were thinking of connecting Kelly to Alabama.

"Chip Kelly is a good friend of myself and a lot of coaches on our staff," Saban said. "He just happened to be in the area and he stopped by and visited with us for a little bit, and not really anything of significance relative to this game."

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