By Ryan Mayer, CBS Local Sports
The college football season reaches its conclusion tonight. Alabama looks to win its fourth title under Nick Saban while Clemson is gunning for its first championship since 1981. Both teams sport dominant defenses and potent rushing attacks. But, the way in which the two teams attack on both sides of the ball is different. As you gear up for the game, here are five things to watch for heading into the title game tonight.
Kickoff: 8:30 pm ESPN
Clemson Offensive Line vs Alabama Front Seven
This match-up is going to be a major key. The Tide’s front seven is the main reason the team leads the nation in sacks (50) for the first time in Nick Saban’s tenure. A’Shawn Robinson is the leader of the group, but Jonathan Allen, Da’Shawn Hand, and Jarran Reed all will see plenty of time and present major problems. Behind them, linebackers Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland have largely been able to roam freely and make plays in the backfield because of the beef up front.
For the Tigers, the offensive line was a question coming into the season with many new faces stepping into starting roles. Despite the new group, Clemson finished the year tied for 13th in the country in sacks allowed with just 16 on the season. Part of that is due to the mobility and intelligence of QB Deshaun Watson, but the line deserves credit for keeping his nose clean as well.
The good news for the Tigers is their rushing attack doesn’t play into the hands of the Tide the way the Spartans did in that Cotton Bowl thrashing. This isn’t a fullback I-formation team. They’ll run read option with Watson as a major threat to run and Wayne Gallman as a punishing force. As always, football is decided in the trenches and this battle will be key.
Clemson Run Defense vs. Derrick Henry
The Spartans were able to keep Henry under wraps for much of the Cotton Bowl game allowing him to carry 20 times for just 75 yards and, granted, two touchdowns. That’s because the Spartans defensive strength is in stopping the run, so the Tide knowing that, gave the ball to QB Jake Coker who was a cool 25/30 for 286 yards and 2 TD’s.
The Tigers are the opposite. Their strength is against the passing game, with their defensive line wreaking havoc and a couple of lock down corners in Mackensie Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley. The Tigers are 9th in the nation allowing just 177 yards per game through the air and 8th in sacks with 43. Their run defense? Not bad, by any stretch, still Top 20 in fact (18th, 124 YPG) but still clearly the weaker part of the D.
Alabama went with that largely passing game plan against Michigan State because they knew that’s where the Spartans weakness lay. Now, against the Tigers, the Tide will most likely return to form by pounding the ball with the Heisman winning Henry.
Can Shaq Lawson Be Effective?
This is one of the biggest question marks of this game for me. Shaq Lawson is the biggest impact player on the Tigers defensive line and he sprained his MCL in the semi final against Oklahoma. Now, nothing will stop Lawson from playing for the national title. Coach Dabo Swinney said he expects him to play when speaking with media yesterday.
The question is, how effective can you be just a week and change removed from spraining your MCL? It’s different from spraining an ankle or a knee. Those can be stabilized with braces. Spraining the ligament? There’s not much that can be done to stabilize that. How much has it healed in the time off? Can he be 80 percent? 70? That’s the question on the minds of many Clemson fans heading into tonight.
Cyrus Jones vs Clemson Punt Coverage Unit
Another interesting battle. The old saying is you have to win two out of three phases to have a chance to win the game, right? Well, this is another key area for both teams. Cyrus Jones has been prolific on punt returns this season for the Tide averaging 12 yards per return and taking four punts back to the house, including one in the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State.
Clemson’s punt coverage unit hasn’t allowed a punt return TD this year and only allows an average of 5.6 yards per return. That said, the Tigers have only had to punt 15 times all year, so it’s not as if that unit has seen a ton of time. With how good Alabama’s defense is, I’m willing to bet Clemson will need to punt at least once. Containing Jones will be key.
Artavis Scott, Charone Peake, Jordan Leggett, Hunter Renfrow vs Alabama Secondary
The first key is giving Deshaun Watson time. We covered that. But, you can also help your QB by winning cleanly off the line as a wide receiver or tight end and that’s what faces this group of Clemson weapons on the outside. Due to their ability to get pressure with three or four guys, the Tide have been able to lock up many opponents in coverage without having to blitz.
It also helps to have lock down corners like Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Cyrus Jones on the outside backstopped by safeties like Eddie Jackson and Geno Matias-Smith. The Tide have picked off 18 passes this season and are 18th in the country allowing 186 yards per game through the air.
Can the Tigers wide receivers get into their routes cleanly? If so, that gives a deadly accurate QB like Watson the ability to pick apart a secondary. Or, can the Tide stay with their men and allow time for the pass rush to get home? These will be fun one on one match-ups to watch on the outside tonight.
For an overview of the betting line, prop bets, and picks you should make, check out Ken Boehlke’s piece breaking down all things betting for the National Championship game. One thing is for sure, we’re in for a fun game tonight at 8:30pm ET.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.