Clemson’s Dabo Swinney believes he coaches the only college football team with a realistic chance of knocking off undefeated No. 1 Alabama.
He might have a point. A prerequisite to beating the 14-0 Crimson Tide is a slew of offensive playmakers. The 13-1 Tigers have that, starting with elite dual-threat quarterback Deshaun Watson. Clemson gave Alabama all it could handle in last season’s title game before succumbing 45-40. They get a rematch Monday night at Raymond James Stadium.
How the teams got here
Alabama: They might have the best defense in Alabama history, which covers lots of ground. The only teams to give them a game were SEC rivals Mississippi (won 48-43) and LSU (won 10-0).
Clemson: They were vulnerable at times in the regular season. Pittsburgh beat them in Death Valley and N.C. State was a botched field goal away. But the 31-0 slaughter of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl was a statement victory.
3 matchups to watch
▪ Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen versus Watson: Watson might be more dangerous once he’s flushed out of the pocket. Allen is an extraordinary athlete with 9 1/2 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
▪ Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough versus Clemson’s front seven: Scarbrough is Derrick Henry 2.0 as far as power, but the Tigers say he’s faster and quicker than Alabama’s star of a season ago.
▪ Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams versus Alabama’s secondary: How far will the Crimson Tide go to neutralize Williams, who can’t be defended one-on-one?
5 players to keep an eye on
O.J. Howard, tight end-H back, Alabama: He had five receptions for 208 yards and two touchdowns in the last championship game. That’s great incentive for Clemson to give him added attention this time.
Ben Boulware, linebacker, Clemson: Perhaps no Clemson player took the title-game loss harder. He figures to be at fever’s pitch come kickoff.
Jalen Hurts, quarterback., Alabama: He threw for 22 touchdowns and rushed for 12 more. This is nothing like what we think of as a freshman.
Dexter Lawrence, defensive tackle, Clemson: A true freshman, he weighs 340 pounds with just 18 percent body fat. Whether or not he gets to the quarterback, he defines pocket-collapser.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, safety, Alabama: He returned two interceptions for touchdowns this season. The Crimson Tide defense specializes in turning turnovers into scores.
▪ Clemson’s defense allowed far too many explosive plays last season. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables attacked that problem relentlessly in the off-season and chunk plays allowed are way down this season.
▪ Alabama’s switch to Steve Sarkisian as offensive coordinator made for some extra homework by Clemson’s defensive coaches. But it’s not as if the Crimson Tide reinvented its offense in four days of practice.
▪ The Crimson Tide added a term to the football lexicon this season: “NOTS” for non-offensive touchdowns scored. They had 15 between the defense and special teams.
▪ Allen found Clemson defenders groping opponents pretty ridiculous: “That’s not football.”
▪ Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett has a ton of talent. He needs to be more of a factor in this game down the seam.
By the numbers
16 Alabama’s current streak of victories over ranked opponents.
3 Alabama defensive back Eddie Jackson’s non-offensive touchdowns: Two punt returns and one interception return.
1 Clemson’s ranking in strength-of-schedule this season, based on opponent winning percentage (.653) in games not involving Clemson.
27 Clemson’s victories over two seasons. It’s a program record.
50 Games Alabama’s Nick Saban has coached overseeing the top-ranked team in the Associated Press Top 25.
They said it
“Ben is a bull in a china shop. He spoke like a bull in a china shop.” – Swinney on what he called Boulware’s inappropriate comments about groping opponents.
“Everyone is more willing to change and improve when bad things happen.” – Saban on how adversity makes for better performance.
“To be the best ever.” – Allen on the goal for Alabama’s defense this season.
Who has the edge?
Offense: Clemson has the most offensive playmakers in college football. They will need all of them against so formidable a defense as Alabama.
Defense: Alabama isn’t just the best defense this season. As Allen said, the Crimson Tide belongs in the discussion for best defense ever.
Special teams: Clemson’s special teams were flawed last season, and the coaching staff cleaned up those flaws. Alabama’s special teams scored four touchdowns this season.
Intangibles: Clemson’s players burned for a second chance against Alabama after last season’s five-point loss in the title game.
Coaching: Swinney has done a great job of building a national program, but Saban is the model of dominance in college football.