Welcome to the National Championship edition of What We Are Hearing!
It has all come to this…Clemson-Alabama IV. These two programs have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the nation and have co-written a remarkable chapter in college football history. At no other time have two programs met in 3 out of 4 National Championship Games or 4 straight years with a national title on the line. Obviously, Alabama holds the 2-1 edge with the win last year, but the Tigers are even in National Championship Games and have an opportunity to win 2 out of 3 against Nick Saban in National Championship Games. The Tigers handed Saban his first and only loss in a National Championship Game two years ago with the famous last-second touchdown completion from Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow. Many look at last year’s Alabama win a lopsided anomaly because of the 24-6 final score, but the game was much closer in actuality. It was 10-6 in the 4th quarter, and the defense only allowed 17 points, with one touchdown coming on a pick-six by Kelly Bryant. The Tigers’ defense was great, but Alabama’s was a little better, and Kelly Bryant was completely unable to get any semblance of a passing offense going, which also allowed Bama to bottle up the run. Pass protection was an issue for the Tigers all night in that Sugar Bowl, and field position was an enormous advantage for the Tide. The Tigers were behind the 8 ball from a field position standpoint for the entire game and could not mount any long drives against that fierce and fully rested Alabama defense with 5 weeks off. This is not the same Alabama defense as last year, but the offense is much better. Of course we also have two different starting quarterbacks in this fourth edition of the best four-year rivalry in the history of college football. More on Clemson vs Bama IV in a moment. First, a few observations from the last few days here in San Jose.
I arrived here on Thursday night, the day before the two teams arrived. The vibe here is a lot different than the last couple meetings between the Tigers and Tide. Everything is kind of spread out here, with the teams staying in Santa Clara, near the stadium, and all of the media events taking place in San Jose. Everything was much more consolidated and centralized in New Orleans and Tampa. This has felt more like Arizona 3 years ago, when the game was in Glendale and the media events were all in Scottsdale. The fans are similarly scattered around the area here. That being said, I would have to say that from what I saw yesterday, it’s a decided crowd advantage for the Tigers so far. That could easily change because there could just be more Alabama fans staying in Santa Clara, San Francisco, etc. Perhaps fewer Alabama fans decided to spend the considerable cost of the flight to California after winning the title last year and 5 of the last 9. Clemson fans are certainly hungrier than Alabama fans. We’ll find out Monday night whether the disparity in fan bases will be significant. It will also be interesting to see how many empty seats there are. Tickets were practically being given away online a few days ago because fans weren’t booking air fare for the game in large numbers. Perhaps some locals will buy some of the surplus tickets at reduced prices, but after talking to many of the locals here, you can see why college football on the west coast and the Pac-12 has been so bad over the last decade. The general awareness and interest level for college football isn’t half of what it is in the southeast. People here look at you like they are European when you ask them about the National Championship Game, even though it is being played in their own back yard. The weather here has been terrible over the last couple days, with constant cold rain and wind. Fortunately, it’s supposed to be clear for the game. Finally, there will be several former Clemson greats on the sideline Monday night. I went to the Clemson Legends party here in San Jose Sunday night and saw C.J. Spiller, Jacoby Ford, Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington, Chansi Stuckey, Patrick Sapp, Jock McKissic and a few more former players. I had a good conversation with Tajh Boyd about Monday night’s matchup, Trevor Lawrence and the famous 4th and 16 play against LSU in the Peach Bowl, when Tajh found Nuk Hopkins to keep the game-winning drive alive. Patrick Sapp told me that he expects Mike Williams to be at the game, despite traveling from Baltimore after beating the Ravens on Sunday, and Dabo told me that he expects Deshaun Watson to be there as well.
Now onto the matchup….
Alabama is 14-4 in the series all time against Clemson….Clemson joined Florida as the only Power Five programs to win four consecutive championship games….The Clemson senior class won its 54th game against Notre Dame, just one behind the all-time record of 55 held by the current Alabama senior class. If the Tigers go on to win the national title on Monday, they will tie Alabama for the most wins in a four-year period. The .929 win percentage by the Clemson senior class is a program record….The Tigers have won 9 straight games in the month of December, dating back to their first ACC Championship Game win over Virginia Tech in 2011….Dabo has 115 wins, which is 3rd on the all-time list for wins by a head coach while in the ACC. After beating Pitt for his 4th straight ACC Title, Dabo passed Frank Beamer, whose Hokies didn’t join the conference until 2004….The Tigers’ win over the Gamecocks was their 100th win of the decade. Only Alabama and Ohio State have won as many games in this decade….The Tigers have won 9 straight games by 20 points or more, a program record. They have scored 27 points or more in 14 straight games, also a program record….Clemson has won a school-record 30 consecutive Saturday games. That is the longest such streak in the nation….Sophomore Travis Etienne set the school single season record for rushing touchdowns with his two touchdowns against the Gamecocks, giving him 19 this season. He now has 22, which is tied for the most in the nation. Wayne Gallman, James Davis and Lester Brown all had 17….With his 62-yard touchdown run against Notre Dame, Etienne broke Wayne Gallman’s Clemson single season rushing record of 1,527 yards set in 2015….The Tigers have allowed just one first-quarter touchdown all season, against South Carolina. They have not allowed a first-half touchdown in 15 of their last 19 games….Hunter Renfrow has caught a pass in 42 straight games, breaking Artavis Scott’s Clemson record. He needs one touchdown to tie Jacoby Ford, Derrick Hamilton and Terrance Roulhac with 16 career TD's, 10th on the all-time Clemson list…Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 56 weeks. Next is Georgia at 27….Clemson has been ranked in the top 4 of the College Football Playoff Rankings for 25 consecutive weeks since the Tigers were #1 in the first release of 2015. That is the most weeks in the top 4 behind Alabama....
Obviously, the big story with Alabama all season has been their sensational sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. His story book second-half insertion in last year’s National Championship Game and game-winning touchdown pass in overtime to beat Georgia was the stuff of legends. Since then, he has taken over the starting job from one of the winningest quarterbacks of all time, Jalen Hurts, and completely transformed Alabama from the prototypical style we have seen over the course of Nick Saban’s dynasty. Rather than being a run-heavy, win with defense team, they have become a pass-heavy, offensively explosive team with home run threats all over the field. The Tide has always had a great running back or two and one very talented wide receiver, like Julio Jones, Amari Cooper or Calvin Ridley. Now they have a plethora of go-to wide receivers in Jerry Jeudy—this year’s Biletnikof winner—Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. None of them have the physical stature of Tee Higgins or Justyn Ross, but they can all make big plays and score from anywhere on the field. Look out for TE Irv Smith as well. The big 6’4, 241-pound junior has 38 catches for 648 yards and 7 touchdowns this season. Everyone remembers how the TE O.J. Howard killed the Tigers with 2 long touchdowns in the first National Championship meeting! Remarkably, the Tide have 4 players averaging over 17 yards per catch, so it will be a big test for the Tigers’ secondary.
The big story line for the last month, of course, has been the health of Tua after suffering a high ankle sprain against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. He had surgery just over a month ago but didn’t show it in the Orange Bowl against Miami. He had one of his best career games, going 24-27 for 318 yards, 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. He told us last week that his ankle was pretty sore after the game, and he will receive daily treatment all the way up to game day on Monday. I would expect the ankle not to affect his play on Monday, but if the Tigers are able to get a couple good hits on him, that could change in a hurry. However, Jalen Hurts was outstanding in relief of Tua in the SEC Championship Game and saved the game for the Tide, throwing one touchdown and running for another to bring them from behind for the win. Alabama’s offense may not be as prolific with Hurts in the game, but in my opinion, Hurts is a much better passer than he has been at any point in the past, so Alabama is still very much alive if Tua has to leave the game. Also, don’t be surprised if you see Hurts come into the game with Tua lined up at wide receiver, as they showed against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Defensively, look out for DT Quinnen Williams. Expectations weren’t high for him coming into the season, but he is an absolute beast and has had a tremendous season. He’s third on the team in tackles, 66, and second in sacks with 8. DE Isaiah Buggs leads the team in sacks with 9.5. Keep an eye on starting linebacker Christian Miller. He injured his hamstring and is questionable for Monday night. Even if he plays, he won’t be 100 percent, so that could be a critical loss for the Tide. He has 7.5 sacks this season.
A key loss no one seems to be talking about for this year’s Alabama team is punter J.K. Scott. He was one of the best punters in the nation last year, and made an enormous impact in the Sugar Bowl win over the Tigers last year, pinning them deep all night long with that great Alabama defense. An Alabama insider told me his replacement has really struggled this season, and in a game like this, field position could be huge. Of course, the Tigers have also had their struggles with the punting from Will Spiers, so whichever punter steps up his game could be a difference maker for his team.
Finally, the Alabama’s kicker, Joseph Bulovas, is just 12-16 on the season. His maximum range is about 47 or 48 yards. He’s 3-3 from 40-47 yards this season, but he’s 0-1 over 50. He’s also had issues with PAT’s, missing 5 of them this season.
Since returning to Clemson from their 30-3 blowout win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, I would say the Tigers have exuded a quiet confidence. It’s not cockiness—they know what they’re up against in Alabama—but they also know how good they are and that they have beaten Alabama before and can do it again. All these players know is winning, and almost all of them have been here before.
They are also the healthiest they have ever been at this point in the season, thanks in large part to all the blowout wins the Tigers have enjoyed, playing a record number of players throughout the season. Travis Etienne, for example, has less than 200 carries this season, despite being arguably the best RB in the country, because of the Tigers’ depth at running back, and that has allowed his legs to stay fresh deep into the season.
However, the Tigers obviously suffered a substantial blow when it was announced earlier this week that their appeal to have Dexter Lawrence reinstated for the National Championship Game was denied by the NCAA. Backup Albert Huggins has really been like a co-starter at defensive tackle, playing over 20 snaps per game this season, and he really stepped up his game and made the most of his opportunity against Notre Dame. The Tigers stifled Dexter Williams and the great running game of the Irish, limiting them to just 88 rushing yards. The Tigers will have an even tougher test against Alabama’s stable of backs, and they will need Nyles Pinckney and perhaps Jordan Williams to contribute to stopping the likes of Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs. The secondary will also need to bring its A game, as it did against Pitt and Notre Dame. They were heavily criticized for having some busted coverages against South Carolina, but since then they have been lights out. It will be the biggest test of the season for this secondary, facing a great, improvisational quarterback in Tua, who sees the whole field and can drop a dime on a deep ball in a moment’s notice, and a deep and talented wide receiver corps—the best the Tigers will have seen this season.
Travis Etienne will hope to have a better game than he did against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last year, but he is a much better back right now than he was then—certainly stronger and more physical. It was tough sledding for Travis in the first half against Notre Dame, but Tony Elliott and the offense stuck with him, and he finally broke loose with a big 62-yard touchdown run in the second half. That tied him for the national lead in touchdowns, 22, and also broke Wayne Gallman’s single season rushing record of 1,527 yards set in 2015.
Everyone, of course, has eyes on Trevor Lawrence, who was brilliant against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. His 327 passing yards was the third most in a CFP Semifinal, and he had 3 touchdowns with no interceptions. He has an opportunity to make history on Monday night—if he wins, he will be just the second true freshman in history to start and win a National Championship Game (Holieway, Oklahoma). Many in the national media are wondering if Trevor Lawrence will have a “freshman moment” on the big stage against a great defense like Alabama’s, but they don’t know Trevor Lawrence. The kid is absolutely unflappable and truly does not rattle. The moment is never too big for him, and if anything, he doesn’t seem to be excited enough about what is in front of him. I truly believe he looks at this as just another game and is totally unphased by all the hype and attention.
This is a matchup of two titans and truly the two programs that have separated from the rest of the nation over the last four years. Since 2015, there is exactly one game of separation between these two programs. Alabama is 55-3, Clemson is 54-4. Just about everyone in the national media is picking Alabama. The Tide are favored in the eyes of the public, but not as unanimously. The opening line in Vegas was 6.5 points in favor of the Tide. It went down to 4 points and is now back up to 5.5. An ESPN fan poll has 56% saying Alabama will win. However, when you break down the two teams on paper, I believe Clemson actually has the edge. The Tigers are actually ranked ahead of the Tide in total offense and total defense. The Tigers are #3 in total offense, and Alabama is #4. The Tigers are #2 in total defense, and Alabama is #13. There are several other metrics that favor the Tigers as well. That being said, when you have two juggernauts colliding like this, any one play, mistake or fluke can be the difference in the game. We all remember the first meeting 3 years ago when the Tigers outplayed the Tide, but an onside kick, a kickoff return for a touchdown and a couple busted coverages allowed Alabama to win the game by 5 points. The margin for error in a game like this is miniscule, so turnover margin will be critical. A key matchup for me is the Tigers’ pass rush against the Alabama offensive line. The Tigers are #1 in the nation with 52 sacks, and Alabama is #10 in the nation in sacks allowed, with just 14. Tua is extremely difficult to coral and bring down, but the Tigers have faced similarly elusive quarterbacks with success. Notre Dame’s Ian Book is one of those guys, and the Tigers were able to sack him 6 times—their most all season. Austin Bryant had his best game of the season, with 2 sacks and another tackle-for-loss, earning him Defensive MVP honors.
Another matchup is the Tigers’ explosiveness against the Alabama defense. The Tigers have the most explosive offense in the nation, and the Alabama defense, while great, is not as strong in the secondary as they have been for the last several years. The Tigers’ twin towers, Ross and Higgins, had a field day against Notre Dame, combining for 3 touchdowns. When they line up on the same side of the field, it is extremely difficult to defend and forces the opponent to pick its poison. Then, of course, there is the “Bama killer” Hunter Renfrow, who carved up Alabama in the first two meeting. He scored 4 touchdowns in those two games, including the game winner two years ago, and he also had a game-saving tackle in that game. Renfrow was limited last year, but that was a result of the Tigers’ entire passing game being stymied. One thing is for sure: Alabama will know where #13 is at all times. But with so many other weapons on the field like Higgins, Ross and Amari Rodgers, don’t be surprised if old man Renfrow puts his stamp on another Alabama game in his swan song to cap a fairy tale Clemson career.
This game could go either way, but at the end of the day I have picked the Tigers to win every game this season, and I’m not going to deviate from that now. I have seen nothing from this team that indicates anything to the contrary. Dabo said two years ago that he knew they were going to beat Alabama because his players loved each other. I think this team has the same chemistry and love for each other as that team. The Tigers have no real weaknesses and in my opinion are a more complete team than Alabama. For the first time in the four meetings, the Tigers have a decided defensive edge over the Tide, and we all know defense wins championships. Amazingly, the lower seed is also 4-0 in the National Championship Game since the playoff began, and of course the lower seed has won all 3 of the playoff meetings between Clemson and Alabama. The Tigers have remarkably finished every season for the last 7 years ranked higher in the final AP Poll than they were preseason, including 2016 when they were #2 preseason, and I believe this team will make it 8 in a row.
The Tigers even the score with Alabama at 2-2 in the playoff series, and Dabo improves to 2-1 against the great Nick Saban in National Championship Games. The Tigers also even the Tide’s record of 55-4 over the last 4 seasons, an all-time college football record, and become the first team since 1897 to go 15-0.
The Prowl toward a 3rd National Title concludes, and the Tigers bring home another trophy. Get ready for another parade, Clemson Family!
CLEMSON 38 Alabama 31