Alabama vs. Clemson prediction, preview: 2017 College Football National Championship game

By Anthony Gimino, The Sports Xchange   |   Updated Jan. 9, 2017 at 3:15 PM
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There just might be an antidote to Alabama football's best-in-the-nation defense. His name is Deshaun Watson.

Clemson's junior quarterback rolled up 478 yards and directed the Tigers to 40 points in last season's national championship loss to the Tide. He's back for more -- especially a ring -- when No. 1 Alabama (14-0) and No. 2 Clemson (13-1) play tonight in Tampa, Fla., for this season's title (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

"Deshaun Watson has played big in every game since he's been at Clemson," Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. "I think he's played great his whole three years. I mean, great."

If anybody is going to unravel the Tide, it's Watson. He's an athletic dual-threat. He has a big arm and go-deep receivers. That all means big plays. You don't beat Alabama with methodical 12-play, 75-yard drives. You need "chunk" plays. You need "splash" plays.

Clemson carved up Alabama with 10 plays of 20-plus yards last season. Contrast that to Saturday, when the Tide allowed one such play -- a 20-yard pass -- in a dominating 24-7 semifinal victory over Washington.

"I thought he played fantastic against us last year," Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Watson.

"He may be arguably the best player in college football. The guy is very athletic. He's got a great understanding of their offense. He does a really good job of executing for his team. He can extend plays. He can run. He can run quarterback runs. And he's a terrific passer. I mean, he is the complete package."

The knock on Watson -- the Heisman runner-up this season and third-place finisher last year -- are his 30 interceptions in 29 games in the past two seasons.

While that might be disconcerting for Clemson fans, it's probably not as distressing as losing your offensive play-caller the week before the season's biggest game.

That's the highly unusual position Alabama is in after Saban parted ways with Lane Kiffin on Monday, saying that Kiffin hasn't been able to successfully juggle two jobs since accepting the coaching position at Florida Atlantic.

Saban elevated offensive analyst Steve Sarkisian to coordinator. Sarkisian has been involved with the planning of the offense this season, but, by NCAA rule, wasn't able to coach at practice or otherwise instruct the players.

Now, Sarkisian directs freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts and tries to find a play-calling rhythm against a Clemson defense coming off a 31-0 shutout of Ohio State.

Hurts has many of the same qualities as Watson, just in a younger package. In fact, when he enrolled early at Alabama at last year's winter break, he played the role of Watson on the Tide's scout team in preparation for the title game, won 45-40 by the Tide.

Hurts was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, directing an offense that was best when it played up-tempo. Alabama often relied on its ground attack, led by Hurts and running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, but it has multiple threats in the passing game, including receivers ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley, and tight end O.J. Howard, the offensive MVP of last season's championship game.

"I guess you've got some nuances that might be a little bit different maybe from a play-call or something like that, but it's not like they're going to come out and run the triple option," Swinney said of Alabama's change of coordinators.

"They're going to do what they do. It's just as simple as that. Why would they change? Nobody has stopped them."

Alabama, going for its fifth title in eight seasons, leads the country in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense. Clemson is salty, too, seventh in scoring defense and eighth in total defense.

One mistake by either quarterback could be the difference. Alabama has scored 11 times on defense this season and will be hunting off-target throws by Watson. Clemson, as is its usual strategy under coordinator Brent Venables, will bring defensive pressure and force Hurts to make quick decisions and complete passes in the intermediate and deep zones.

No true freshman quarterback has led his team to the national championship since 1985, when Jamelle Holieway did so for Oklahoma.

Will quarterback experience matter?

Will defenses rule?

Clemson is going for its first national title since 1981, and Swinney said these Tigers have "more juice" than the 2015 squad. Meanwhile, at Alabama, winning never gets old.

"When you play an outstanding opponent, that's something that in and of itself as a competitor is motivation," Saban said. "And that's certainly the case in this game."

CHAMPIONSHIP NOTES:

--With a victory tonight, Alabama coach Nick Saban will tie Alabama legend Bear Bryant for the most national championships (six) in the poll era. There already is much discussion about Saban being anointed the best ever.

"Well, I think Bear Bryant is probably the greatest coach that ever coached college football, and that would be my vote, and it would stay that way for a long time, because he had success over a long, long period of time," Saban said.

Bryant, though, never had to navigate extra layers of games, such as conference championships and semifinal playoff games. Bryant's first two titles -- 1961 and 1964 -- came when the wire services declared their national champion before the bowl games.

Saban is 10-0 in "championship" games, either in the SEC or for the national title. His teams have won their national championship games by an average of 15.4 points.

--Alabama tight end O.J. Howard was the Offensive MVP of last season's title game, with five catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns.

"We completely ignored him last year," said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "So we did a terrible job at defending him, obviously. And if we do it again, we'll lose again."

--The game features 15 of the top 103 NFL Draft prospects for 2017, according to NFLDraftScout.com. Alabama has nine such players, led by defensive end Jonathan Allen at No. 1. Clemson's top-rated prospect for now is receiver Mike Williams at No. 11.

--Clemson coach Dabo Swinney on Alabama's Jonathan Allen: "What makes him so good? He's big, strong, fast, well-coached, got heavy hands. He's got violent hands, man. Those guys disrupt the ball as good as anybody we've played."

-- Swinney on Saban: "I've never seen anything like it. I mean, obviously, I grew up, Coach Bryant was a hero of mine, and everybody here knows about Coach Bryant. But with what Coach Saban has done, the amount of championships in the span of time with scholarships, it's just incredible. I really have no words, because it's really hard to do. He's changed college football. I mean, he really has been a pioneer and changed a lot of the way things are done in college football, in building infrastructure, which I think are great, because now you have young people that have lot more resources. They have a lot more people trying to help them be successful. Just incredible, the run that they've had, no question."

Prediction

Clemson has redemption on their mind for last year's loss in the national championship. Watson and company looked ready for the challenge of the Alabama defense in last week's dismantling of the Ohio State Buckeyes. With Sarkisian installed as Alabama's new offensive coordinator for this game and a freshman QB, Clemson should bring pressure early and often to Jalen Hurts. Whoever wins the turnover battle should prevail. Clemson's experience at the quarterback position gives them the edge.

Pick

Clemson 34, Alabama 27

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