Welcome to the National Championship edition of What We Are Hearing!
Well, Clemson Nation, this is it. The moment about which we have all fantasized for years and years. I was 5 years old when Clemson won the 1981 National Title, so I have no idea what it's like to experience that. Many of you weren't even born yet. This journey to the top has been a long one for all of us, so I'd like to start with my own personal perspective on the evolution of the Clemson program. Like many of you, I am an alumnus and have been a die-hard Clemson fan for most of my life. As you all know, I am in my first season covering Clemson professionally as a member of the media. Back in 2008, I bought my tickets and watched the games from the stands just like all of you, and I was among the Orange-clad Clemson faithful in the bitterly frigid nose-bleeds of Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill to watch Clemson play Boston College--a team that had been a thorn in the Tigers' side since they joined the ACC. I was in Death Valley in 2005--BC's first year in the conference--when Matt Ryan made his college debut and beat us in triple overtime in Death Valley on one of the hottest game days ever. They beat us in overtime again the folllowing year and robbed us of an appearance in the ACC Championship Game, thanks to one of Ron Cherry's many infamous calls. The following year, in 2007, they beat us again in the ACC Championship play-in game when Matt Ryan scrambled and connected on a last-minute touchdown bomb for their first lead of the game. So on that blisteringly cold Halloween weekend in Boston, the odds seemed stacked against Dabo Swinney in his second career game as Interim Head Coach. I was at his first career game the previous week in Death Valley, when the Tigers led in the 4th quarter and should have beaten a good GT team, but too many turnovers resulted in a tough loss. In Boston the following week, I hit the town with some friends, fully costumed, to celebrate Halloween on Friday night. My costume? I was dressed in Clemson Head Coach attire, with a whistle around my neck, a play card under my belt and a bag over my head with a giant orange question mark. My costume was the 2009 Clemson Head Coach--a complete unknown at that time. I can tell you this, though. Even back then, I had a feeling about Dabo. I could see his charisma, his infectious energy and his hard-nosed persona. I knew he was a solid WR coach, but more importantly, I knew he was one of the best recruiters in the nation. I liked some of the changes I saw him make right off the bat, such as making the players dress on game day and incorporating the Tiger Walk. It was immediately apparent that Dabo was a better motivator than Tommy Bowden--something that many felt was his biggest shortcoming. I also remember hearing Gene Stallings talk about Dabo at that time and how he thought he had all the qualities you look for in a head coach. Those things resonated with me back then, and when I saw Dabo record his first career victory at Boston College--something Clemson was unable to do in each of its first three ACC meetings with a spot in the championship on the line--I had a hunch that Dabo might finally be that stalwart coach that had eluded Clemson since the Danny Ford era. Here we are, 74 wins and 7 years later. Dabo has taken the Clemson program back to the zenith, and lo and behold, we'll be facing Dabo's alma mater, Alabama--the most dynastic program in the nation during Dabo's 7-year tenure as Head Coach. It is also intriguing and ironic that the beginning of Tommy Bowden's undoing and Dabo's ascension was the 2008 season-opener against Alabama in Atlanta. I was in attendance that night as well. It seems hard to believe now, but NONE of the Alabama fans I talked to that day believed they had a chance to hang with Clemson. The Tigers were preseason top-10, and Alabama had a very underwhelming 2007. They lost to Louisiana Monroe that season and had to overcome a 17-point deficit to Colorado in the bowl game. However, true freshman Julio Jones and Bama dominated the Tigers that night en route to an undefeated regular season, and thus the Nick Saban dyasty was born. That game was undeniably the coming out party for both Julio Jones and the Nick Saban Alabama regime. It also epitomized the national perception of Bowden's Clemson teams to disappoint whenever they achieved a high ranking or faced inferior opponents. Tommy Bowden had been on the hot seat before--especially after losing badly to Wake Forest in 2003--but he bounced back the following week to dominate #3 FSU and go on one of the greatest Clemson runs in recent memory to finish that season. In my opinion, that embarrassing season opener against underdog Alabama set the wheels in motion for his mid-season demise.
Of course, Tommy Bowden didn't lose his job on the basis of the 2008 season alone. His tenure at Clemson was beset by bad luck and heartbreaking losses. There was the 2004 debacle at home against Calvin Johnson and GT, blowing an 11-point lead with the ball and less than two minues left after a botched punt. There were the aforementioned losses to BC. There was the 2006 Maryland game, when the would-be game-winning TD was reversed for having too many players on the field. There were at least a half dozen other bizarre plays or crazy calls that any one of which cost Clemson a division title. Ever since the 2009 season, when Dabo won the division in his first full season, I have pontificated that perhaps all those flukish things happened during the Bowden era as a part of a providential plan for Dabo to ascend to the Head Coach position. Think about it. If any ONE of those crazy plays or calls hadn't happened, and Bowden had won even one ACC Title, perhaps he doesn't lose his job and Dabo goes elsewhere, given his reputation as a recruiter. Even if Dabo had stayed at Clemson under Tommy Bowden, he might have never been named Head Coach, and Clemson probably would have toiled in mediocrity for several more years. It almost certainly wouldn't be where it is today--the second-most consistent program in the nation over the last 5 years.
Sorry to digress, but I thought this was the perfect time to express my thoughts and personal perspective on this amazing journey we have all been on with Dabo over the last 7 years.
What a performance by the Tigers in the Orange Bowl! I have to admit I was surprised Clemson had such a significant crowd advantage. I knew the stadium would be at least slightly more Orange than crimson because of geography and the excitement surrounding the Clemson program this season, but the Oklahoma fan base is enormous and travels well, so I was expecting it to be closer to even than it was. Perhaps Sooner fans were looking past the Orange Bowl and saving their money for Arizona. That would be understandable, given that nearly all of the national pundits were picking Oklahoma to win the game. It was, without a doubt, irritating to see Clemson treated as the underdog despite being the ONLY undefeated team in the nation and having gone wire-to-wire as the #1 team in the CFP rankings. It would appear the players were irritated by that as well, and they made a statement by shutting out the Sooners' vaunted offense in the second half for a 20-point win. They held the three-headed monster of Perine, Mixon and Mayfield to -3 yards rushing in the first half and just 67 for the game! Watson and Gallman combined for over 300 yards rushing, and the Tigers would have won by more had they not stopped themselves a few times in the first half in and near the red zone. It was really a brilliant, dominant win in the trenches on both sides of the ball, and the fake punt completion from Teasdall to Wilkins was the stuff of legends. It has to be the call of the year by the staff, and when you see a play like that, it's hard to believe that this isn't a team of destiny. You can read my grades and analysis of the Orange Bowl HERE.
Before I get to the big showdown, some recruiting news for those of you who might be checking in for the first time in a week. Clemson continued its recruiting momentum over the holidays, picking up two huge commitments during All-American games. First, 5-star LB Rahshaun Smith re-committed to Clemson during the Under Armour All-American Game. The star from Florida was, of course, originally committed to Clemson until he de-committed in August in order to take some other visits. We maintained throughout the interim that we believed he would ultimately come back to Clemson, and he has done just that. Next, 4-star WR Diondre Overton announced his commitment at the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl. It was essentially down to a battle between Clemson and his hometown team, NC State, but the success Clemson has had at the wide receiver position, coupled with the relationships Overton had established with Jeff Scott and fellow WR commit Cornell Powell, were too much for NC State to overcome. This, of course, came shortly after a trio of big Clemson commitments just a few weeks ago. The Tigers landed 5-star DT Dexter Lawrence, who is rated as the #4 overall player in the nation, and they also received commitments from 5-star QB Hunter Johnson and 4-star QB Chase Brice that same week.
Perhaps the most exciting recruiting news from the past week is that DT Rashan Gary, the nation's #1 overall recruit, has scheduled an official visit to Tigertown, which will be his last before National Signing Day. Gary is from New Jersey, but he has family close to Clemson, so distance should not be an issue here. His mother is very committed to ensuring that Gary will receive the best possible education, and we believe that works in the Tigers' favor because of Dabo's track record for academic success. He has graduated all but 6 of the players that have come through the program under his watch, and most of those have left early for the NFL. Clemson has been ranked in the top-10 football programs academically 6 of his 7 years. Plus, we all know that getting talented prospects to set foot on the Clemson campus for the first time is half the battle. Once they do, many of them fall in love with the place, and the school sells itself. It also helps that Dabo is one of the best closers in the business. Gary has been thought to be a Michigan lean all sesaon, but at the very least Clemson will be in the mix, which will make this one of the most exciting NSD's we've seen in a few years.
Finally, the Army All-American Game will be this Saturday, and Clemson has players of interest all over the field. You'll be able to watch commits Tavien Feaster (5-star RB), Dexter Lawrence (5-star DT) and Xavier Kelly (4-star DE), as well as prospects John Simpson (4-star OL) and Trayvon Mullen (4-star CB).
Gary, of course, will continue to keep you aprised of all the latest inside recruiting intel leading up to and through NSD, and be sure to look for his weekly Recruiting Radar this weekend! You can check out his last Radar HERE.
Now on to the epic showdown between YOUR #1 CLEMSON TIGERS and #2 Alabama Crimson Tide.
Players of the game for the Orange Bowl were Wayne Gallman on offense, Ben Boulware and Kevin Dodd on defense and Christian Wilkins, Andy Teasdall and Greg Huegel on special teams…..Clemson has won a nation-leading 17 consecutive game. Alabama is second with 11 straight wins….Deshaun Watson is 17-0 in games he has started and finished…..The Clemson offense has recorded at least 500 yards in 10 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation…..Clemson’s 312 rushing yards in the Orange Bowl was a new school bowl record…..Deshaun Watson’s 145 yards rushing was a new career record….In the Orange Bowl, Watson broke the ACC record for total yards in a season, held by Philip Rivers. Watson is only the second Power Five QB in history (Manziel) to throw for at least 3,500 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He needs only 301 yards passing against Alabama to become the FIRST EVER with 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in a season……Greg Huegel tied C.J. Spiller’s record for points scored in a season, with 128. His 25 field goals is a new Clemson record, and he is just 2 field goals short of the ACC record. Jad Dean had 24 field goals in 2005…..Clemson has still not trailed in a 4th quarter this season…..Clemson has the opportunity to become the first team in major college football to win 15 games in a season…..Clemson shut out Alabama in the first 3 meetings, dating back to 1900 when John Heisman coached the Tigers. Alabama has won all 12 meetings since the last Clemson win in 1905….Legendary coaches Frank Howard and Bear Bryant were close friends. Howard was a senior at Alabama when Bryant was a freshman…..Clemson and Alabama both lead their conferences in titles. Clemson and Florida State lead the ACC with 15 titles each, and Alabama has won the older SEC conference 25 times….Bear Bryant’s 100th win was against Clemson in 1969 at Tuscaloosa. It was also the 100th year of college football, and Alabama captain Danny Ford presented the game ball to Bryant, affixed with the 100 logo sticker from his helmet. Coincidentally, Nick Saban will be going for his 100th win against Clemson. The game will be Dabo Swinney’s 101st as the Clemson head coach…..Clemson’s 3 winningest head coaches were Alabama graduates: Frank Howard, Danny Ford and Dabo Swinney. Tommy Bowden is Clemson’s 4th winningest coach, and he coached wide receivers at Alabama. Two more of Clemson’s coaches, Charley Pell and Hootie Ingram, were also Alabama graduates….T.J. Green is the only Clemson player from the state of Alabama…..When Clemson won its national title in 1981, the team with the most former Clemson players—the San Fransisco 49ers—won their first Super Bowl. This year, the team with the most former Clemson players is the Arizona Cardinals, whose home is the stadium in which Clemson will play for its second national title. The Cardinals have 4 former Clemson players on the roster and two coaches—Brentson Buckner and Levon Kirkland. The Cardinals had a bye in the first round of the playoffs…..Clemson has 4 straight bowl wins for the first time since it won 5 straight from 1986-90. All 4 wins came against top-25 teams, and Clemson is the only team to have won the last 4 bowl games against teams in the top 15 all time for wins. All 4 wins came against coaches who have won a national title……This will be Clemson’s first-ever #1 vs #2 game. It will be the first #1 vs #2 matchup in the nation since #1 Florida State beat #2 Auburn at the end of the 2013 season, which also featured a match up between ACC Atlantic and SEC West. This will be the 48th match up of #1 vs #2 in history, with #1 leading 26-19-2. The last 12 have been split 6-6. Clemson is 6-0 all-time when entering a game as #1, with 5 of those games coming this season. If Clemson beats Alabama, it will be the highest ranked win in Clemson Football history….This Clemson team is just the 8th in history to win 14 games in a season….Only 4 schools have been ranked in the AP Poll more often than Clemson over the last 4 years: Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida State and LSU. Clemson is 8th in top-10 appearances over the last 5 years….4 coaches on Clemson’s staff have won national championships. Dabo Swinney was a player on Alabama’s 1992 team, Brent Venables was on Oklahoma’s staff in 2000, Dan Brooks was on Tennessee’s 1998 staff and Danny Pearman was on the Alabama staff in 1992…..Clemson is just the 3rd program since 1994 to beat Notre Dame and Oklahoma in the same season. USC and Nebraska are the others. Clemson has the chance to become the first program ever to beat Notre Dame, Alabama and Oklahoma in the same season. They are 3 of the top-5 winningest programs of all time. Clemson has already beaten Florida State and Miami this season, which are two more top-15 programs in wins….If Clemson wins the national championship, Dabo Swinney will be just the second individual in history (Bud Wilkinson) to win an AP national title as both a player and head coach…….
Clemson 2015 accomplishments:
•Established school record for wins in a season with 14.
•The Tigers became just the third ACC team in history with at least 14 wins. Florida State did it in 2013 and 2014.
•Just as the case in 1981, Clemson was only team in the nation to complete regular season without a loss.
•Posted perfect 8-0 record in the ACC regular season, first Clemson team to win eight conference games in a season.
•Won ACC Championship with 45-37 victory over North Carolina in ACC Championship game on December 5 in Charlotte. That gave Clemson league record tying nine wins vs. ACC teams.
•Ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation for each of the six College Football Playoff Polls, first team to hold No. 1 ranking for every College Football Playoff Poll in a season.
•Just the second Clemson team to have a No. 1 ranking in the AP or Coaches polls during the season. The 1981 National Championship team held No. 1 for last two polls. The 2015 Clemson team was No. 1 by AP for the last five weeks of the regular season, and last four weeks by USA Today.
•Clemson entered the postseason with seven straight weeks in the top five of the AP poll, longest active streak in the nation. That is the second longest streak of top five rankings in Clemson history (8 in 1981), •Set Clemson record with five wins over teams that finished the season with at least 10 wins.
•Set school record with seven wins away from home. Previous mark was six by 1948 team and 1981 National Championship team.
•Had school record eight wins over FBS teams that finished the season with a winning record. Only Alabama had more.
•Trailed for just 81:28 of the 840 minutes this season (9.7 percent of the time) and never trailed in the fourth quarter of any game.
•Set school record for consecutive wins over two season with 17 in a row dating to last three games of 2014. Has longest active winning streak in the nation by six games.
•Has not trailed in the fourth quarter in 17 straight games and has won 51 in a row since 2010 when leading entering the fourth quarter.
•Set Clemson record for home winning streak, which is also at 16 entering next year. It is second longest active streak in the nation behind 21 in a row by Florida State.
•Clemson senior class set school record for wins in a four-year period with 46 (46-7 record). Also set record for wins over ACC teams (29) and tied record for home wins (26).
•First team to defeat Oklahoma and Notre Dame in same season since Southern California in 2004.
•Seniors also established record for winning percentage by a senior class with a .868 mark.
•Became just the 15th program in FBS history to have at least five consecutive seasons of 10 wins. Clemson and Alabama are the only schools in the nation to win at least 10 games five years in a row.
•Only school in the nation to win a bowl game in four straight years. All four have been over top 25 teams (AP or USA Today).
•For the fourth straight year did not lose a game to an unranked team. Clemson has a streak of 37 consecutive wins over unranked teams, a streak that will be active entering 2016.
•Became the 23rd program in FBS history to reach 700 wins. Program is now 20th in victories with 703.
•Posted a 3-0 record in games decided by seven points or less, giving the program an 11-1 record in such games over the last five years.
•Clemson was 4-0 this year against teams ranked among the top 20 winningest programs (percentage) in FBS college football history. Clemson defeated #1 Notre Dame, #6 Oklahoma, #11 Florida State, and #15 Miami (FL). Clemson is 13-4 against the top 20 programs over the last five years.
•The victory over Oklahoma was its fourth game against a team ranked in the top 25 entering the game. That tied school season record that was also accomplished in 2011 when Clemson had four top 25 wins.
•Tied the school record for wins over top 10 teams in a season with three. The 1981 team also accomplished the feat.
•Clemson has defeated rival South Carolina, won the ACC Championship and won a bowl game in the same year for the first time since 1988.
•Clemson has now won a bowl game against a coach who already had a National Championship on his resume each of the last four years. (Les Miles, Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops twice).
•Dabo Swinney is now 9-4 against top 10 teams in his Clemson coaching career. •Had a record 18 players named to an All-ACC team, including nine first team selections.
•Had a record six players named to an All-America team, including consensus All-Americans Deshaun Watson and Shaq Lawson.
•With wins over Notre Dame and Oklahoma in 2015 became only school to have a winning all-time record against Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Ohio State. Swinney is 4-0 against those teams in last three years.
Notes on Clemson’s 17-game Winning Streak:
Clemson has won 17 consecutive games, the longest streak in Clemson history and the longest active streak nationally. Alabama’s 11- game streak entering the national championship game is second. Clemson last suffered a loss on November 15, 2014 at Georgia Tech, a 28-6 defeat in Atlanta. Deshaun Watson started the game, but suffered a knee injury and played just 18 plays. Over Clemson’s 17-game winning streak the Tigers have outscored the opposition 640-303, an average victory margin of 19.8 points per game. Clemson averages 37.65 points per game during the winning streak and gives up 17.8. That means the Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma, 37-17, was typical of what Clemson has done during the winning streak that includes five wins over Top 25 teams, including three ranked in the top 10. In terms of total offense, Clemson has averaged 494 yards a game and given up 294, an average total offense margin of +200 yards per game. Clemson has averaged 277 yards passing and 217 yards rushing during that 17 game streak. The opposition has averaged 175 passing and 119 rushing. So, Clemson has nearly a 100-yard margin in both categories over the streak.
Here are some other quick notes on the streak:
•13 wins by at least double figures
•Seven wins by at least 20 points
•11 games with at least 500 yards total offense, including 10 in a row
•Seven games with at least 300 yards passing
•13 games with at least 200 yards rushing
•9 games with at least 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing, including six of last seven.
•Clemson has not trailed in the fourth quarter in any of the 17 games and been tied in just one game (FSU 2015).
Obviously, the big storyline for Clemson this weekend will be the status of First-Team All-American Shaq Lawson. I watched him at practice on Tuesday evening, and he was noticebaly favoring the sprained left knee that he had braced. However, I thought he was moving around reasonably well, given he had just sprained the knee days before. He is in a yellow jersey this week and doing light workouts with no contact. I think it is inevitable that Shaq will play, but the big question will be how close to 100% he will be come Monday night. Only time will tell. Still, you have to be encouraged by how well Dood and Austin Bryant played, along with the rest of the defensive line, after Shaq left the Orange Bowl. And that was against an offensive attack that is much more challending than Alabama's.
From a health standpoint, Clemson is in very good shape other than Shaq. Of course, they will again be without freshman WR Deon Cain, who was sent home from Miami last week after failing a drug test. Cain is in class this week and will have one more opportunity to shape up before Dabo ships him out, but his 2015 season is over. Obviously, the Tigers were able to beat the Sooners without him, but you have to wonder how much easier it would have been with Cain in the lineup. Perhaps they don't settle for as many field goals in the first half. They might have also been able to connect on a big play or two down field. The fact that the offense was still able to rush for over 300 yards and put up 530 total yards speaks to the versatility of the Clemson offense. Oklahoma was committed to keep everything in front of them--much the way Louisville did--and the Tigers were able to exploit that and take everything underneath. By the way, Clemson now has the longest active streak in the nation for consecutive games with 500 yards or more of offense. The offense has exhibited the ability to score either running or passing all season long, and that is why they are so hard to stop. As I stated last week, I am confident that the offense can still make big plays down the field with players like Peake, Scott, Hopper and Renfrow, but Watson and Cain almost had it down to a science in the last 5 games of the season. Cain's absence makes the Clemson offense a little less dangerous.
That being said, Watson has plenty of weapons at his disposal and is running the ball better than ever. He rushed for 145 yards and a TD against Oklahoma, and it seems like he sets a new career rushing record every week. He is the only Power Five player in history other than Johnny Manziel to pass for at least 3,500 yards and rush for 1,000 yards! Watson is now 17-0 in games he has started and finished. He is simply a difference-maker, and Alabama has not faced a QB as good as #4 all season--in fact, not since Johnny Manziel. As good as Henry is, I think Clemson's defense has a better chance of stopping Henry than Alabama's defense has of stopping Watson.
In my opinion, Clemson needs to go high-tempo as much as possible on Monday night. Alabama's defense is very similar to Clemson's #1 unit last sesaon. They are very deep along the front seven and love to rotate players in and out. The Tigers can negate that depth advantage by playing at light speed on offense without substituting,l which will prevent Bama from subbing on defense. In order to do that, the offense will need to stay ahead of the chains.
Clemson's offensive line will also have to play its best game. They have been one of the best in the nation all season long, but this will be their biggest test--particularly for true freshman Mitch Hyatt. Bama loves to use bear fronts that occupy the offensive guards and force one-on-one match ups between the takcles and defensive ends. The Clemson offensive line has been one of the best in the nation all season long at preventing sacks, going 6 consecutive games without allowing one. Bama, on the other hand, leads the nation with 50 sacks. Something has to give here, so it will be interesting to see if the Clemson OLine is able to hold its own against the revered Bama front seven.
The bugaboo for Alabama's defenses over the years--if there's been one at all--has been spread offenses with mobile quarterbacks. It was first exposed by Cam Newton and Auburn, and we saw it again over the years with Manziel and Cardale Jones last year in the Sugar Bowl. Ordinarily, the Clemson offense would be a nightmare match up for Bama, but they have done a much better job against similar offenses this season. Despite the home loss to Ole Miss early in the season, they did a pretty good job containing Chad Kelly, and 43 points isn't as bad as it seems when you've turned the ball over 5 times. They also shut down Mississippi State and Dak Prescott, sacking him 9 times. Bama nearly lost at home again to Tennesee, but they limited Dobbs and the Vols' offense that has been explosive at times this season. Part of the reason for their improvement against these types of offenses is simply exposure and experience facing them, but it also has a lot to do with thier linebackers being more athletic in defending sideline to sideline than the old Nick Saban defenses that were built to stop the run. Again, Alabama has not faced a QB as poised and proficient as Watson, who always seems to make the perfect read and is getting better by the week.
As I noted, Bama leads the nation with 50 sacks. They have a formidible pass rush this season, and that is something they have lacked the past couple of years. Ironically, the leader of their defense, LB Reggie Ragland, has only 2.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles-for-loss on the season. He only has about 100 tackles on the season, but I think that speaks to the depth and talent that Bama has defensively across the board. The Clemson offense only put up 23 points against FSU, and this Alabama unit is better than that of the Noles. Of course, the FSU game was early in the season, and Clemson's offense is playing much better now than it was back then, but it's safe to say the Tigers have not seen a defense like this one all season.
Some keys to the game:
1) Keep Bama behind the chains in 3rd and long situations.
Alabama is not a good 3rd down offense, which has a lot to do with their dependence on Henry and the run game. Their 3rd down conversion percentage is only 36% for the season. The Clemson defense is #1 in the nation on 3rd down and has been for the last two years. The Tigers need to stuff the run for little or no gain on first and second down. They did a fantastic job of this against an Oklahoma offense that was actually the #1 rushing offense in the Power Five, allowing -3 rushing yards in the first half and 67 yards for the game. The Clemson D should be able to load the box against the run and rely on Alexander and Tankersley to play on an island in man coverage.
2) Rattle Coker with pressure.
The Clemson defense did an excellent job of this in the last two games against two QB's who can hurt you running or passing. Marquise Williams was forced off his game by the Clemson pressure in the ACC Championship Game, completing just about 35% of his passes, and the Clemson defense did a great job on Mayfield in the Orange Bowl as well. He had just 5 interceptions on the season but surrendered 2 picks to the Tigers, and they were able to contain him all night long. Coker had probably his best game of the season against Sparty in the Cotton Bowl, but if the Clemson defense can rattle him, the Tide could have a lot of trouble scoring. This will be tougher to do if Shaq Lawson cannot play full speed.
3) Force Henry outside.
Henry gets most of his yards on vertical runs between the tackles. The Clemson D needs to create a pile at the line of scrimmage and force Henry to the outside, where he is not as effective. They did a tremendous job of this against Dalvin Cook after that first long touchdown run and again versus Oklahoma.
4) Alexander blanket Ridley.
Mackensie gave up a few plays to Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard but allowed no touchdowns and, for the most part, did an excellent job of locking down the talented WR. True freshman Calvin Ridley is Alabama's most dangerous weapon in the passing game and made a couple huge catches down field against Sparty in the Cotton Bowl. If Mackensie can shut him down in one-on-one coverage, it will allow the Clemson defense to load up against Derrick Henry and the rushing attack.
5) Clemson O-Line.
This is probably the most important match up on the field--can the Clemson offensive line go toe-to-toe with the fearsome Bama front seven? The Clemson OLine had been brilliant all season long and a huge reason the Tigers have put together the record-setting season they have. They finally allowed two sacks by Oklahoma, which isn't bad, but it was the first game in half a season that they have allowed a defense to get Watson down behind the line of scrimmage. Thanks in large part to the OLine, not only had Watson had a nice pocket and running lanes with which to work all season, but the Wayne Train has had fewer rushes for zero or negative yards than any RB in the nation. The play of the Clemson offensive line this season, with 5 new starters and a true freshman left tackle, has probably been the biggest surprise for the Tigers.
On the other side, you have the mighty Bama front seven, which led the nation in sacks and is #1 in the nation against the run. They have great success getting push and pressure on the QB with just 3 down linemen, which creates havoc for offenses because there is nowhere to go with the ball. The essence of the game probably resides in this matchup in the trenches because it is strenght against strength. If one side dominates the other, it will be a long night for the latter team.
6) Punt coverage.
Cyrus Jones is one of the best punt returners in the nation. He averages about 13 yards per return and has taken 4 for touchdowns, including one in the Cotton Bowl. As we all know, a play like that can totally break a game open and swing momentum. Clemson has been vulnerable on kick returns this season but has done a solid job on punt returns. The Tigers have faced several of the nation's premier punt returners against NC State, Syracuse and North Carolina, but Teasdall has been very reliable and has done a good job preventing big returns. They will certainly need to do that against Bama, or it could be the difference in the game.
This was probably the biggest achilles for the Tigers in the month of November. On the season, Clemson is -2 in the turnover margin, and it is remarkable that they have managed to go undefeated nevertheless. In the last 20 years, no national champion has been worse than +3 on the season in the turnover margin. WOW! That speaks to how good this Clemson team really is--that they have been able to beat great teams and win on the road despite losing the turnover battle. That is incredibly rare, and it makes you realize that if they had taken better care of the football, they would have crushed every team they played much like FSU did in 2013. The Tigers won the turnover battle in the Orange Bowl, and look what happened--they beat the favored Sooners by 20. The Tigers also did a great job protecting the football against UNC--the only turnover was a deflected Watson pass that touched the ground and should have been overturned. Hopefully, that trend will continue because it will be tough to beat Alabama if they get more possessions.
8) Must play fast on offense.
Alabama's greates advantage is their depth of talent on defense. They are able to rotate monsters in all game long and not lose a step, which keeps them fresh for 4 quarters--hence the Cotton Bowl shutout. They are very similar to Clemson's #1 defense last season in that regard. I believe Clemson can mitigate that advantage by going high-tempo on offense without substituting. This will prevent Bama from being able to get subs in defensively as frequently as they like to. Get that Bama defense playing on its heels and out of its comfort zone as the aggressor, and you'll start to see some hands on hips.
9) Take some shots down the field early.
This will be more difficult to do without Cain, but the Clemson offense needs to attach the Bama secondary early and often. Hopefully Peake, Renfrow, Scott and/or Hopper will be able to get separation down field a few times. Even if Watson doesn't connect on many of these, if the Tigers show the willingness and capability to make big plays against the Bama secondary--maybe get a couple pass interference calls--it should stretch the defense and open things up for Gallman and Watson running the ball. Leggett needs to have better game than he had in the Orange Bowl as well.
10) Don't deviate from game plan.
This will likely be a low-scoring game early, unless the Clemson offense plays out of its mind and hits on all cylinders out of the gate. The Cotton Bowl was actually 0-0 deep into the second quarter and was 17-0 late in the game. Alabama just won the war of attrition and Sparty finally wore out because of their inability to score. We saw the Clemson offense struggle to find the end zone in the first half of the Orange Bowl--only scoring one TD with 3 FG's and an INT in the endzone. However, they stuck with the game plan and dominated the Sooners in the second half. Ideally, Clemson will start this game much hotter and put Bama in the uneasy and unfamiliar situation of catch up, but if the points don't come early, don't let Bama rattle you. With #4 at the helm, I have confidence the Tigers will not. He simply does not rattle.
The only way I can characterize this season is that it has been magical in every sense of the word. The Tigers have set so many new records, including the nation-leading 17-game win streak, that I have lost count. I have predicted Clemson would win each and every game in my WWAH's, but I confess if you asked me preseason what our record would be, I would have told you 11-1. It's so hard to go undefeated--just ask Bama--that I thought surely we would drop a game somewhere along the line. Nevertheless, here we are in January, and the dream is a reality. We are sitting at 14-0 and on the cusp of doing something no major college football team has EVER done--win 15 games in a season. Not only that, but here is Dabo Swinney (everyone's coach of the year), a former walk-on WR on Alabama's 1992 national championship team facing his alma mater to win his first national championship! His dad, a lifelong Alabama fan, died right before the season started, and you have to think that he's up there smiling down on Dabo, and maybe he's even helped the ball bounce his way a couple of times. Then there are all the remarkable ties between the Clemson and Alabama football programs. Clemson's top 3 winningest coaches ALL graduated from Alabama, including legends Frank Howard, Danny Ford and Dabo Swinney. Clemson's fourth-winningest coach is Tommy Bowden, who also coached at Alabama as a WR coach. Two more Clemson head coaches--Charlie Pell and Hootie Ingram--also graduated from Alabama. This match up could not be more poetic. It is just dripping with irony and storylines.
I think that you can make a legitimate case on paper for clemson to win this game based on talent and match ups alone. Even if that weren't the case, though, the confluence of events that have led to this showdown is just too much to ignore. It has been a magical season, and I think that magic continues through the finish line. Clemson relishes the underdog role. No one expected them to beat Notre Dame, and they did. No one expected them to beat Oklahoma, and they did. Of the four CFP teams, Clemson had the lowest probability of winning it all, according to an ESPN fan vote. Clemson is the only undefeated team in the nation and #1. Clemson is the only team to beat 4 top-10 teams and 5 teams with at least 10 wins. Yet people are still calling them the underdog.
Clemson puts the final nail in the "Clemsoning" coffin with an exclamation point--knocking off the Goliath of college football for a second National Title. The prowl toward a second National Title concludes, and the prowl toward a REPEAT National Title begins....
CLEMSON 34 Alabama 24