With the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game just a few hours away, our so-called “final thoughts” are basically the same as those we have had since Alabama’s opponent for the game was learned.
Alabama, 14-0 and ranked first in the nation, meets Clemson (13-1, ranked second) at 8 p.m. EST (7 central, and kickoff will actually be about 17 minutes after the hour) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
The stadium seats about 71,000, one reason tickets have been selling at premium prices. For those without tickets, ESPN will televise the game.
To get to the heart of the matter, we have not wavered in the belief that Alabama will win the game, its second consecutive national championship game and its second in a row over Clemson. It would also be Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban’s fifth at Alabama in eight years, his sixth overall as a college head coach (tying legendary Bama Coach Paul Bryant), and Alabama’s 17th – the only thing that makes sense about this championship at the conclusion of the 2016 season being called the 2017 title game.
Clemson has an excellent program under Coach Dabo Swinney, the former Alabama walkon, graduate assistant, and assistant coach who has built the ACC Tigers into a Southeastern Conference type team.
Clemson comes into the game with much momentum, having destroyed Ohio State in its semifinal game, 31-0, while Bama was making the championship with a 24-7 win over Washington.
We take that Clemson win over Ohio State with a stifled yawn. Prior to bowl season, we called the Big Ten (of which Ohio State was not even the champion) as “wildly overrated.” So we were not surprised that Ohio State went down – or Michigan or Penn State or Iowa or any others in that league.
Overall, Alabama’s performance to reach the title game has been more impressive than has Clemson’s. While Alabama was beating eventual Rose Bowl champion Southern Cal, 52-6, in the first weekend of college football, Clemson was struggling to get by eventual five-loss Auburn, 19-13. Clemson also had a close win against Troy (yes, that Troy), 30-24, and North Carolina State, 24-17 in overtime when NC State missed a game-winning chip shot field goal at the end of regulation.
They did have close wins over good – not great – Louisville and Florida State teams and an okay Virginia Tech team in the ACC championship game, but lost a home game to Pitt.
Alabama had to beat nationally ranked teams on four consecutive weekends, three of them on the road (Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU).
Don’t kid yourself. Even with the SEC having something of a down year, going undefeated in the league is very, very difficult, much more of a challenge than doing so in the ACC, much less NOT doing it in the ACC.
For as long as I have studied college football, I have been convinced that it is a coaches’ game. The best teams have the best coaches.
Clemson’s Swinney is good. Alabama’s Saban ranks with the greatest of all time. Both teams will be well-prepared, both have excellent athletes, both are probably confident. If it comes down to a coach having to make a game-winning decision, it’s almost certain to be Saban.
Defense wins championships. Yes, Clemson has an excellent defense. But Alabama’s defense has taken the game to a different level. Bama’s defense has scored 11 touchdowns this year, its punting game four more. It went the better part of a month without allowing a touchdown. Many call it the best Bama defense ever, which it may be even without the TD production. Those scores break the backs of opponents, and that’s why we believe this to be the best Tide ever.
For some reason, conventional wisdom has it that Alabama’s defense this year is designed to “contain” the Tigers’ great quarterback, Deshaun Watson. True, the defensive front doesn’t want to break down and allow Watson to escape on a scramble, but the likes of Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Reuben Foster, and Ryan Allen aren’t about contain. They are about sack, one reason the Tide has 50 this year – not to mention another 60+ tackles for loss.
For some reason, all the experts think that all Clemson’s defense has to do is shut down the Alabama running game and that Bama quarterback Jalen Hurts won’t be able to win the game passing.
Jalen Hurts was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year. True, he’s made some mistakes. True, many of his passes traveled only a yard or two with the likes of ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley turning them into big gains. But those count, too.
As for shutting down the running game, it’s true that Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry is gone, but Damien Harris has been consistent, Josh Jacobs has been very good in his true freshman season, and Bo Scarbrough – the MVP of the CFP semifinal win over Washington – has come on very strong in the latter part of the season after recovering from injuries.
The final concern of the so-called experts concerns Saban changing offensive coordinator/quarterback coach/play-caller in the week before the championship game. These commentators are convinced that there will be a problem in play-calling, perhaps in the tempo or flow of the game, perhaps in lack of communication between Hurts and new coach Steve Sarkisian. But ask a football coach. Our belief – based on conversations with real football people – is that it’s unlikely Alabama misses a beat in this area.
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Thus, “No problem.” Our final thought – just like our initial thought – is that Alabama brings another trophy back to Tuscaloosa.