Parts 1 and 2 of the Alabama-Clemson playoff trilogy produced 151 points and a single-point net difference in favor of the Crimson Tide.
So Monday’s rubber match (8:45 p.m. at the Superdome) has to be another wide-open pointfest, right?
Not so much, predicts Todd Blackledge, ESPN’s color analyst on this College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl.
“I really think it’s going to be a lower-scoring game, a more physical game,” said Blackledge, a former NFL quarterback. “Defenses will have the upper hand for each team. The last couple of years, the offenses have set the tone. This year, the defenses will set the tone, and then field position becomes huge.”
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Clemson (12-1 and top-seeded in the four-team playoff field) has evolved into a more run-oriented offense, with Kelly Bryant succeeding Deshaun Watson as the Tigers’ quarterback. Clemson has the country’s best defensive line; all four starters should be locks to play in the NFL, health willing.
Eleven months ago in Tampa, Fla., Watson found wide receiver Hunter Renfrow with a 2-yard touchdown pass to edge Alabama 35-31. The year before, Alabama won in suburban Phoenix, 45-40. The winner of this game plays the winner of Georgia-Oklahoma (5 p.m., at the Rose Bowl).
If Clemson and Georgia advance to the championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium Jan. 8, Atlanta might never be the same. Sure would be a hoot, with the two campuses an easy drive away.
How the teams got here
Alabama: The Crimson Tide (11-1) was selected as the last of four playoff teams, despite not qualifying for the SEC Championship Game. Auburn dominated Alabama 26-14 Nov. 25. Ohio State beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game was key to Alabama backing into the fourth seed.
Clemson: The Tigers (12-1) overcame a loss Oct. 13 to a 4-8 Syracuse team that did not win the rest of the season. However, Clemson had a wealth of quality victories, including 14-6 over Auburn. The Tigers blew out then-7th ranked Miami 38-3 in the ACC championship game in Charlotte.
3 matchups to watch
▪ Bryant versus Alabama’s pass coverage: The Crimson Tide has 15 interceptions to just seven passing touchdowns allowed. If Clemson’s running game isn’t productive, Bryant will be deeply challenged to get the ball into the end zone.
▪ Renfrow vs. Alabama’s secondary: Clemson’s former walk-on has 17 receptions for 180 yards and four touchdowns in the previous two title games. He has the Crimson Tide’s full attention.
▪ Damien Harris vs. the Clemson front seven: Alabama running back Harris averages 7 yards per carry, the second-highest such average in Crimson Tide history. That’s a great opportunity to play keep-away.
Five players to watch
Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins: A first-team All-American and soon-to-be high NFL draft pick, Wilkins has declared that if the Tigers don’t perform in these playoffs, it’s on him (he learned that approach, by the way, from former Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware)..
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts: The sophomore has already set a school record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (21). As much option as Alabama has run in past eras, that is no small feat over 27 career games.
Alabama right offensive tackle Matt Womack: Clemson defensive end Austin Bryant has 14.5 tackles for loss, but he’s not so strong against the run. How Womack opens holes for Harris and Hurts looms large.
Clemson wide receiver Deon Cain: Over three seasons, he’s averaged 15.8 yards per reception and has scored 20 touchdowns. He’s the most likely Tiger to take the top off Alabama’s secondary.
Clemson placekicker Alex Spence: He was thrown in after Greg Huegel had a season-ending knee injury. Spence had a rough start on field goals, but has made five of his last six attempts.
▪ Alabama traditionally thrives in domed stadiums, with a 25-7-1 all-time record. The Crimson Tide plays indoors a lot because the SEC Championship Game is a fixture in Atlanta.
▪ Clemson and Alabama combined to provide six of the 32 picks in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft. Shows what depth these programs maintain that they are back in the playoffs.
▪ Alabama coach Nick Saban sure isn’t reluctant to play his young’uns: 17 true freshmen have played at least one snap this season
▪ Facing the No. 1 team is no big thing for Alabama; the Crimson Tide has beaten a top-ranked team eight times in program history.
▪ Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is an Alabama alumnus; he did all his holiday shopping in his home state on Christmas Eve, and says Tide fans were mighty kind to him.
By the numbers
1 The Crimson Tide has only a single nonoffensive touchdown this season, after a combined 25 such scores in the previous two seasons.
68 Points Clemson has scored this season directly off opponent turnovers.
27.6 The average margin by which Alabama has outscored opponents this season.
204 Clemson’s average rushing yards this season; that’s 30 yards more per game than in 2016.
4 Clemson’s victories this season against then-ranked opponents away from Death Valley.
They said it
“This was a so-called ‘rebuilding year’ this year. We weren’t supposed to be any good. Our boys didn’t get that memo.” – Swinney on exceeding expectations.
“I’ve been asked about that play so many times. We’re just ready to move past it, and make another memory this year.” – Renfrow, on the touchdown catch that beat Alabama for the championship last season.
“They ended our season last year. So that’s been on our hearts all season.” – Alabama defensive back Ronnie Harrison on whether the Crimson Tide defines this as a revenge game.
Who has the edge?
Offense: Narrowly, Alabama; if this becomes the run-oriented, ball-control game Blackledge anticipates, that is more the style the Crimson Tide thrives on. However, Bryant is more of a runner than Watson was, and the Tigers are low-turnover.
Defense: Clemson, based on a stellar defensive line. What tackles Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence do to occupy blockers is huge. The open question is the effect of Alabama’s injury losses at linebacker.
Special teams: Alabama, because of the uncertainty if the game comes down to Spence’s placekicking (He’s been better of late, but Swinney would no doubt like to avoid testing that dynamic.)
Intangibles: Even. Alabama can claim it has a revenge motivation, after Clemson won the last one. But it’s certainly not as if Clemson comes in overconfident. Wilkins is the Tigers’ emotional leader.
Coaching: How can you dismiss Saban’s track record when he has a month to dissect an opponent’s weaknesses? However, Clemson coaches haven’t been decorating Christmas cookies all December.
Clemson 24, Alabama 20.
Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell