CFP notebook: Clemson's Deshaun Watson braces for No. 1 Alabama

By Anthony Gimino, The Sports Xchange   |   Jan. 9, 2017 at 1:32 AM
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Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is the same player who torched Alabama for 478 total yards in last season's national championship game. Maybe better.

Watson also is the same player who has been intercepted 30 times in the past two seasons. And that's the potential problem.

If Monday night's College Football Playoff title game -- 8 p.m. ET in Tampa, Fla. -- spins on the outcome of a few key plays, No. 2 Clemson doesn't want those plays to come off errant passes against one of the best big-play defenses in college football history.

Top-ranked Alabama has scored 11 defensive touchdowns, six on interception returns, including a game-changer right before halftime against Washington in a 24-7 semifinal playoff victory.

"Turnovers are going to happen, mistakes are going to happen," Watson said.

"You just move on and live from it. The great ones throw interceptions, too, so things like that happen. If you break down the film, sometimes it's tipped balls, sometimes the receiver slips, like last week. Sometimes the defense makes a good play. You only can control so much."

Watson has twice thrown three interceptions in a game this season, including in a loss to Pitt. Ohio State picked him off twice in last week's semifinal, although Watson shook those off in an otherwise efficient performance in which he passed for 259 yards and ran for 57.

"I just snap and clear," he said. "Think about the next play and the next task I have at hand. I can't focus on the mistakes that I made, because that's going to drag throughout the course of the game and impact not just me but my teammates, too."

Watson, the Heisman runner-up, did throw for 580 yards on 70 attempts against Pitt and likely has played his best ball since then. He is 96 of 136 (70.6 percent) for 1,096 yards and 11 touchdowns in the past four games. Watson ran for 1,105 yards last season and 586 this season.

"Sometimes you look at an athletic quarterback, and you think, well, this guy is going to run around and extend plays all the time," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

"He does that extremely well when he needs to. But that's not his style of play. He reads the defense, he gets the ball out of his hand quickly, he does a really good job of reading what you're playing on defense and tries to take advantage of it."

Having a dynamic, athletic quarterback is a near necessity to beat an Alabama defense that leads the nation in points and yards allowed. Watson came close last season in a 45-40 loss to the Tide, when he threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns.

Watson has two weapons this season he didn't have a year ago -- wide receivers Mike Williams (injured last season) and Deon Cain (suspended).

"When you look at a defense like this, there are really no weaknesses," Watson said. "You just got to go out there and win your match-ups. ... We have answers on this offense and we have weapons."

CHAMPIONSHIP NOTES:

--With a victory Monday night, 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 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."

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