NCAA Football

The Clemson Tide: Inside Dabo Swinney's Lifelong Love Affair with Alabama

PELHAM, Ala. — The dream first stirred in the boy when he was four years old.

Sitting in the living room of his family’s two-story house on the corner lot at 1000 Ryecroft Road, his face pressed close to the glow of the television screen, William Swinney would be hypnotized by the action unfolding 60 miles away at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa. The child they called Dabo—his older brother referred to him as “that boy,” which sounded like “Dabo”—was hooked on Alabama football before he even entered grade school. One day, he told his parents, he would play for the Crimson Tide.

Autumn Sunday mornings were just as special to the boy. With several of his good friends by his side and nibbling on his mom’s chocolate muffins, Dabo would watch The Bear Bryant Show as the Alabama legend reviewed the previous day’s game in his base-thumping growl. The strategies of football fired the boy’s imagination; the making of a coach was underway.

The boy’s father, Ervil Swinney, was an Alabama fan to the marrow of his bones, and he passed down his love of the Tide to Dabo like genetic code. Ervil owned a washing machine repair shop, and he took Dabo to as many Crimson Tide games as he could afford. In 1980, the father loaded his entire family into a car—wife Carol and sons Tracy, Tripp and Dabo—and drove to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Young Dabo was in a state of ecstasy as he watched his beloved Crimson Tide demolish Arkansas, 24-9.

Alabama football became the air he breathed, the sun in his universe. So is it really any surprise that now, more than three decades later, 46-year-old Dabo Swinney has molded his Clemson program in the image of Alabama, the team Swinney will face Monday night in Glendale, Arizona, in the national championship game?

“Dabo has recruited NFL size onto his team the way Bear Bryant did and the way Saban has,” said one longtime NFL scout. “Clemson has perimeter speed on offense like Alabama, and their interior guys on defense will outmuscle you just like the Alabama front.”

Indeed, Swinney has built his defense based on Nick Saban’s philosophy that the key players are the defensive linemen. Saban loves big, athletic interior linemen (one of his pet phrases is, “Heavyweights knock out middleweights”), and Swinney has used the Saban template to construct a unit that finished the season ranked sixth in the country in total defense.

“We’ve built this team in the trenches, and most great teams, that’s where it starts,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to be able to control the line of scrimmage and have some type of running game and stopping the run, and certainly that’s been what Alabama has been for a long time. We’ve tried to do that here.”

There’s another potential Alabama connection to keep in mind tonight when watching Swinney pace up and down the sideline facing the team he grew up worshiping: It’s taken as an article of faith inside the Crimson Tide athletic department that, whenever Saban retires or leaves Tuscaloosa for another job, the first call that Alabama athletic director Bill Battle will make will be to the cellphone of Swinney.

“Dabo would be the perfect guy to hand the program to once Coach Saban moves on,” said an Alabama employee who is close to Battle. “Dabo knows what Alabama football is all about as well as anyone, knows the culture, knows the expectations. And he’s proven himself at Clemson. A lot of people around here believe he’ll be the next in line whenever Nick decides to walk away.”

It would make sense. After all, during Swinney’s head coaching tenure at Clemson, which began in 2008, hordes of his coaches and key support staff members have had experience playing, coaching or working in Tuscaloosa. The current list of past Alabama football figures is deep at Clemson: Woody McCorvey (the associate athletic director for football administration), Danny Pearman (the special teams and tight ends coach), Thad Turnipseed (the director of football recruiting and external affairs), Paul Hogan (the strength and conditioning coach) and Lemanski Hall (a defensive analyst).

What have some of the staffers, behind closed doors, jokingly called the Tigers during the Swinney era? According to multiple sources, a three-word nickname has been uttered: The Clemson Tide.

In high school, the future Tigers coach was a classic overachiever—a characteristic of most successful coaches. At Pelham High, Swinney was a standout receiver. Football became even more important to him in his sophomore year when his home life started to disintegrate. His father’s business was floundering, and Ervil began to lose himself in the bottom of a bottle. Ervil fell deeply in debt.

On nights his dad drank, a terrified young Dabo would hide on the roof of the house or sleep in the car in the garage. Eventually, the family couldn’t make its mortgage payment. The Swinneys lost their house. Ervil and Carol divorced.

Sometimes, Dabo, his mom and his brothers stayed in cheap motels. Other nights, Dabo slept in his mother’s car parked in the woods, or he’d crash on the floor at a friend’s place. But the one thing he always had was the dream of playing for the Crimson Tide.

“We never missed an Alabama game growing up,” said Norm Saia, one of Dabo’s closest childhood friends who still lives in Birmingham. “And the thing with Dabo was, he never got down. Even when his home life was a nightmare, he was positive about life. Heck, he even made me do my homework before we could go out and play basketball or throw around the football.”

But Alabama coaches weren’t interested in Swinney, who enrolled in Tuscaloosa as a student in 1988. He watched the first three home football games that fall sitting in the stands of Bryant-Denny. He eventually turned to his girlfriend, Kathleen Bassett, whom he met in second grade and began dating in middle school, and—never one to lack confidence—told her that he was better than any of the receivers on the field.

That spring, Swinney was one of 45 players to attend a tryout for walk-ons. The thing that stuck out about Swinney to the coaches was his toughness—at 6'1", 175 pounds, he routinely blocked players who weighed 100 more pounds than him—and the fact that he carried himself like an All-American. After a grueling six weeks of tryouts that were filled with 5:30 a.m. running sessions and trashcans full of vomit, he was one of two walk-ons to make the team.

He began as a scout-team player but played in four games in 1990 and caught one pass for 18 yards. Coach Gene Stallings, realizing Swinney’s financial woes, awarded him a scholarship. He became an ace on special teams. And always, he took his camera with him to every game, snapping photos to document his dream come true.

“Dabo was an athletic, possession type of receiver,” said Jay Barker, Alabama’s starting quarterback from 1992 to '94. “He’s been an underdog his entire life. But he worked at it as hard as anyone, both on the field and off the field. He had a coach’s mind even back then. And in a lot of ways, football was his escape.”

In his sophomore year, Swinney’s mother, Carol, unable to afford housing costs for her son and herself, moved into Unit 81 of the Fontainebleau Apartments in Tuscaloosa with Dabo. The two even shared a bed. But instead of being embarrassed that he took his mom to college, Swinney reveled in it, inviting teammates over to enjoy his mom’s chicken and dumplings.

“We all loved Dabo’s mom because we got home-cooked meals in college,” said Saia, who attended Alabama and walked onto the team with his buddy. “And Dabo just enjoyed having his mom there. He loved her as much as a son could.”

Dabo cleaned gutters to make extra money. And six days a week, his mother was out the door by 6 a.m. to drive 50 miles to Birmingham for her $8-an-hour job at a department store. Carol’s work ethic inspired her son.

Midway through his college career, Saia was involved in a serious car accident. He broke his pelvis and couldn’t walk for months. He moved back to Pelham. One of the few friends to frequently come see him was Swinney, who would drive him around Birmingham to see old friends and coaches.

“Here Dabo was in the middle of his college life, with football a huge priority, and he knew I was going stir crazy. So he’d come and say, ‘Hey man, let’s go for a ride,’” said Saia. “I wouldn’t even get out of the car, but just his positive attitude impacted me.”

In Swinney’s final collegiate season, 1992, he played in all 12 games (he caught four passes for 48 yards) on Alabama’s national championship-winning team. He later became the first person in his family to graduate from college, eventually earning a master’s degree in business administration.

Gene Stallings hired him as a graduate assistant in 1993. Swinney made $489 a month and typically feasted on SpaghettiOs for dinner.

That August, on a warm summer night, he grabbed the hand of Kathleen Bassett, and the two went on a walk around the Quad, the large grassy area in the center of campus. They strolled to the Denny Chimes, a bell tower where at the base the handprints and footprints of all the Alabama team captains since the 1940s are pressed into concrete.

At 10 p.m., the chimes sounded. Dabo dropped to a knee and asked Kathleen to marry him. She melted into a puddle of tears as she said yes. For an Alabama boy, it was the perfect spot to ask the most important question of his life.

In 1996, Dabo became a full-time coach for the Crimson Tide. But, four years later, he was fired along with head coach Mike Dubose and the rest of his staff. Not knowing what he should do, he landed a job in Birmingham in commercial real estate, believing the rest of his life was about to begin. But he grew restless and called his old quarterback.

“I think I need to get back into football,” Swinney told Barker. “I need to see what I can do.”

Tommy Bowden hired him at Clemson in 2003. When Bowden was fired midway through the 2008 season, athletic director Terry Don Phillips surprisingly tapped Swinney, the wide receivers coach who had never even been a coordinator, to be the interim head coach.

Swinney had a well-earned reputation as a top-notch recruiter—his silver tongue was responsible for landing running back C.J. Spiller, the top-ranked running back in the class of ’06, according to Rivals.com—and he responded by guiding the Tigers to a 4-3 record to finish out the ’08 season. The interim tag was removed from his title.

And now, as he prepares to play his home-state team for the national title, Swinney already has pulled off perhaps his most remarkable upset: Tonight dozens of former Crimson Tide players will be wearing the Clemson colors and rooting for the ultimate underdog.

“I’ll be in the stands in my Clemson gear just like a ton of past Alabama players,” said Saia. “If you knew what Dabo has been through to reach this moment, then you’d cheer for him, too. And hey, maybe one day Dabo will be back where he belongs—at Alabama.” 

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National Signing Day 2016: Predictions for Top Recruits Before CFP Championship

Although the Big Ten and ACC have won the past two college football championships, the SEC ran off a streak of seven in a row before that, and the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide have a chance to make it eight of 10 against the No. 1 Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

It's safe to say the SEC is still the overall dominant conference, and it shows in the 2016 high school recruiting rankings with national signing day approaching Feb. 3.

Per 247Sports, six of the Top 10-ranked teams in terms of recruiting are from the SEC, led by the LSU Tigers at No. 1.

However, head coach Jim Harbaugh's transition from the NFL to the Michigan Wolverines is obviously making a difference, as his team is currently ranked No. 2, followed by the Ohio State Buckeyes in third.

The Florida State Seminoles are No. 4, while the SEC occupies five of the final six spots.

So, while the SEC has competition, it still has the overall edge when it comes to recruiting. Let's take a look at where some top recruits may land on national signing day.

 

Could Harbaugh Land No. 1 Overall Recruit?

Defensive tackle Rashan Gary of Paramus Catholic in Paramus, New Jersey, is the No. 1 recruit, and as of Sunday morning 247Sports' Crystal Ball predicts the 6'5'', 293-pounder to land at Michigan.

This video courtesy of PrepForce.com shows the strength and explosiveness that have helped Gary earn the title of top recruit:

While the Wolverines have 24 hard commitments—14 of which are from 4-star recruits—they have not landed a 5-star stud as of yet. However, that is about to change, per Brandon Brown of thewolverine.com (via Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press), who was asked if Gary was Michigan's top target.

“That’s pretty obvious, and it’s looking really, really good that he’s going to pick Michigan,” Brown said.

Harbaugh brings a winning background to Michigan and showed that by doubling the team's wins from five to 10 in 2015. An SEC team could certainly swoop in and snatch up Gary, but being from the East Coast he has no connection to the Southeast, so count on him playing in the Maize and Blue next season.

 

Florida or Florida State?

Per 247Sports, 32 of the Top 50 recruits have already given their hard commitments. The top offensive player yet to announce is Tampa (Florida) Catholic's Nate Craig-Myers. The No. 33 overall recruit is the No. 3 wide receiver in the country and the sixth-best senior in the state of Florida.

At 6'2'', 205 pounds, he has the skills to go up and snag passes most high school receivers can only dream about, as shown in this video from MaxPreps.com:

The 4-star athlete also shows great breakaway speed that a team like the Florida Gators could use, especially considering a stalled offense is what helped derail the Gators' 10-1 start, with embarrassing losses to the rival Florida State Seminoles, Alabama and Michigan.

The Gators seem to have the edge with the in-state product, as 247Sports currently gives Florida a 40 percent shot to land Craig-Myers over No. 2 Florida State, who checks in at 29 percent.

It's apparent both schools are leading the way in his recruitment, per Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel, who reported Craig-Myers has a strong relationship with the Gators' coaching staff.

"I have a great relationship with every coach they have. Me and [wide receivers] coach Kerry Dixon, we're real close. He's been on me hard, and he's definitely a hard coach on me, and he'll definitely try to teach me a lot of things," Craig-Myers said.

The receiver also praised the Florida State staff and said, per Hays, "I just have a great relationship with [wide receivers Coach [Lawrence] Dawsey ... We talk almost every other day." 

Craig-Meyers' brother, a defensive back, verbally committed to Florida but eventually changed his mind. The wide receiver said that will not affect his decision and hasn't shown much of a sign of which team he will choose. The only indication he has given is he will wait until national signing day, per Hays.

It's hard to predict here, but I'll stick with the Gators on this one. Hays said the Seminoles seemed like a lock early, and now that does not appear to be the case, which means Craig-Meyers may have some reservations about Florida State.

 

SEC vs. ACC

Trayvon Mullen is the No. 29 overall prospect, per 247Sports, and the third-best cornerback in the class of 2016.

The 6'1'', 168-pounder hails from Pompano Beach, Florida, and it figures one of his state schools would have the recruiting edge. However, 247Sports experts are currently predicting Mullen to enroll at LSU with a 52 percent chance.

In this video from SB Nation Recruiting, Mullen said the Tigers have been recruiting him the hardest, although Florida State, Ohio State, TCU and others have been hot on his trail:

Mullen also said, with a smile, his goal is to be the No. 1 defensive back in the nation. It was mentioned in the video that cornerback Saivion Smith, No. 18 overall, already has committed to LSU, but Mullen said the two have not talked much about playing together.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say Florida State—with a 35 percent chance per 247Sports—comes in late and snags Mullen away from the Tigers. He'll have a chance to make a name for himself, play for a team that has put a ton of players in the NFL the past two years and stay in-state as well.

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Tennessee Landing Defensive Coordinator Bob Shoop a Home Run for Vols

Go big or go home.

That appears to be the mantra of Tennessee head coach Butch Jones in 2016 after pulling off one of the most impressive coaching-staff coups of the offseason.

Jones and former defensive coordinator John Jancek "mutually agreed" to part ways late last week in a surprise move given the timing just one week before the recruiting dead period is lifted. 

It was Jones' version of taking a strike hoping to get his pitch later in the at-bat, and he knocked that pitch out of the park with the addition of former Penn State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who was announced as the new defensive coordinator of the Vols in a release late Saturday night.

"We are very excited about the addition of Bob Shoop to our coaching staff," Jones said in a statement. "Bob has established himself as one of the premier coordinators in all of college football and is very well-respected as a recruiter, football coach and person. He brings a wealth of experience at the highest level and possesses all the qualities we were looking for as we went through this process."

Shoop's defenses have been nothing short of spectacular in State College.

The Nittany Lions finished with the Big Ten's best defense in 2014, giving up just 278.7 yards per game and 4.27 yards per play, and gave up 4.78 yards per play in 2015—his second season with the program. Prior to that, Shoop coordinated a Vanderbilt defense that finished in the top six in total defense in the SEC every year from 2011-2013, and second in yards per play in 2013 (5.07).

"This was not an easy decision and one that I didn’t take lightly," Shoop said in a statement. "Over the last 24 hours I had an opportunity to meet with Coach Jones and his staff.  It became evident to me that he is building a great program, a program on the rise and certainly one that will compete for an SEC championship." 

It's not like Shoop is taking over a broken defense.

The Vols finished third in the nation in third-down defense under Jancek in 2015 (27.6 percent), on the heels of a 2014 campaign in which they finished 16th (34.21 percent). Fourth-down defense under Jancek wasn't great, which is a big reason the Vols lost to Florida for the 11th straight year and missed out on what would have been their first appearance in the SEC Championship Game since 2007.

As Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports' noted on Twitter, he's walking into a perfect situation:

Cornerback Cam Sutton and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin are weighing their NFL decisions, monster defensive end Derek Barnett will be back as a true junior in 2016, talented youngsters Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle will be back up front and the secondary is still littered with talented youngsters like Todd Kelly and Evan Berry.

The window for Tennessee to return to the prominence it once enjoyed under Phillip Fulmer is wide-open in the SEC East thanks to the coaching changes at South Carolina, Georgia and Missouri, the quarterback issue at Florida and the depth that Jones has developed on Rocky Top over the last three recruiting cycles.

Jones knows it, stepped up to the plate and hit a home run that should resonate around the rest of the conference.

The Vols are going big, and Shoop's arrival is only more evidence.

It's a hire that could put Tennessee over the top and send it to Atlanta in early December.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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B/R CFB 250: Top 16 Dual-Threat Quarterbacks

Bleacher Report's CFB 250 is an annual ranking of the best players in college football, regardless of NFL potential. Through interviews with B/R Experts Matt Miller, Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer, authors Brian Leigh and Brian Pedersen have studied, ranked and graded the top athletes in the country, narrowed that list to 250 and sorted by position. Today, Brian Pedersen presents the Top 16 Dual-Threat Quarterbacks.

 

Other CFB 250 Positions

 

The dual-threat quarterback has become the most coveted type of player in college football. That athlete with a special blend of passing acumen and running ability who can just as easily go from one to the other in a moment's notice. Across the country, more and more teams are moving toward an uptempo offense, and having a quarterback who can do it all is essential to this attack.

But just being able to run and throw effectively isn't a guarantee of success, as several of the players who were on our preseason list of the top dual-threat QBs have either dropped in the rankings or out of them altogether. They were replaced by another batch of great mobile passers.

The following rankings are based primarily on players' skills as college players rather than how they'd fare in the NFL. Though they may be using this time to develop their game for the pro level, their goals are centered on helping their teams succeed.

The ratings are based on a tabulation of four different categories (arm strength, accuracy, mobility and intangibles) and based on evaluations made by our writers in conjunction with Bleacher Report football experts. 

 

NOTE: Any ties in overall grade were broken based on which player would gave a hypothetical college all-star team the best chance to win.

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College Football Championship 2016: Predictions for Stars in Alabama vs. Clemson

The College Football Playoff system worked well this year. The best two teams are going to play for the national championship Monday night, 8:30 p.m. at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, and there's not one team that didn't qualify for the CFP that can make a legitimate claim it was better than the Clemson Tigers or the Alabama Crimson Tide.

According to Odds Shark, Alabama is a 5.5-point favorite. The two biggest reasons Alabama is favored to win are its powerful running game and stout defense.

After establishing itself as the top run defense in the nation and one of the stingiest defenses in regard to points allowed, the unit proved its mettle by shutting out the Michigan State Spartans in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Eve.  

 

Regarding Henry

Alabama quarterback Jake Coker had a surprisingly strong game against the Spartans, but the threat of the running game set up much of his success. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry will be back as the primary weapon in the championship game.   

After running the ball 90 times combined in the Iron Bowl and SEC championship, Henry only had 20 carries against the Spartans. With the decreased workload and the big gap in time between the national semifinal and the national championship, Henry should be fresh.

In what will likely be his last college game, Henry will punctuate a great career at Alabama with a big performance. Clemson has the 18th-ranked run defense, but it has been victimized on a number of occasions this year.

Appalachian State (202) and Syracuse (242) have both eclipsed 200 yards on the ground against Clemson. The Florida State Seminoles ran for 197 yards against the Tigers. With those totals, it's easy to see Alabama having success on the ground. 

That should equate to a big day from Henry.

 

Watson, This Won't Be Elementary

Per Bryan Beasley of ESPN.com, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has been excellent against the blitz this season:

Watson has been blitzed on 27 percent of his dropbacks during his career, slightly more than the Power 5 average. Watson has had success on such plays, throwing 22 touchdowns and three interceptions while ranking third in both QBR (92) and yards per attempt (10.2) among Power 5 players. 

All of that information is impressive, but the truth is Alabama doesn't need to blitz to get pressure. Its primary rushers in A'Shawn Robinson, Tim Williams and others are so nasty that there's no need to bring extra pressure.

Simply rushing four will allow Alabama to drop up to seven in pass protection on most downs or six and one to spy Watson.

Alabama's speed and versatility will make it tough for the Heisman finalist to do damage. He'll make a decent account of himself, but this won't be the QB's best performance.

 

Reggie, Reggie, Reggie

This year's crop of inside linebackers looks to be especially strong. After the national championship game, Alabama's Reggie Ragland will be seen as one of the top two prospects at the position. 

Collectively, Alabama's defense is the best in the nation, but Ragland is the proven leader. Athletically, he's capable of making plays against the run and the pass, but what stands out with Ragland is his leadership skills.

In an interview with Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News, Ragland spoke about the difference between this year's team and the one that fell short in 2014:

Everybody on the team knew that leadership wasn't the right way (last year). But some guys can't say nothing about it. But now I can say something because I'm a leader. And I feel like, if I don't like something, I'm going to say it. The guys on the team know we got to do this the right way, because the right way gets it done. The wrong way doesn't. Guys are very focused in coming in on the plane and all. So I can tell my guys are ready already.

Expect him to fly around the field and make plays and adjustments at the line of scrimmage while leading 'Bama to a victory.

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Alabama vs. Clemson: Preview, Prediction for 2016 College Football Championship

So, as it turns out, having the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year’s Eve isn’t actually a great idea. Terrible ratings aside, though, the worst thing about the Orange and Cotton Bowls was that they were, to put it simply, boring.

Both Alabama and Clemson were clearly the better teams in their respective matchups, and there was little doubt by the end of the game that the committee had named gotten the No. 1 and No. 2 teams correct, even if Ohio State and Stanford fans scream until they turn blue.

But where there were bad semifinals, there is the chance at an epic clash in the national championship. With an established dynasty facing off against a team that has been on the fringe of the title picture without actually throwing its hat into the ring until this season, this could be a clash for the ages.

With two Heisman finalists—including the winner—in Derrick Henry and Deshaun Watson set to take center stage, there is no absence of star power in the championship game, and it very likely could come down to which superstar plays better Monday night at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Kickoff will take place at 8:30 p.m., with game coverage on ESPN.

Odds are, though, both players will find their typical amount of success. So before making a final score prediction, let’s take a look at which players could swing the game in their team’s favor.

 

X-Factor for Each Team

Alabama: QB Jake Coker

It might seem a bit unfair to label a starting quarterback for any team as an X-factor in the biggest matchup of the year, but when it comes to Alabama, there is this idea that the signal-callers are merely there to not screw up.

While the defense and the running backs take all the accolades, the quarterbacks are asked to not lose games, or at least that’s how the stereotype goes. But this has never really been a fair assessment, and this season has been no different with Jake Coker.

After emerging from a seemingly arbitrary competition in the early stages of the season, Coker hasn’t quite hit the heights Greg McElroy or AJ McCarron did, but he has had an outstanding season and showed he is more than capable of winning a title.

Against Michigan State, the veteran quarterback finished 25-30 for 286 yards and two touchdowns, and was a huge part of the 38-0 victory. If he can repeat his Cotton Bowl performance against Clemson, it could be hard for the Tigers to keep up.

 

Clemson WR: Hunter Renfrow

Beyond the obvious of Watson and running back Wayne Gallman, there might not be a more valuable player for the Clemson Tigers on offense than No. 1 receiver Artavis Scott. Leading the team in receptions and yards by a wide margin, the sophomore is clearly Watson’s top target, and that isn’t likely to change in the title game.

Thing is, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is more than aware of this fact and will game-plan as such, leaving the door open for the rest of the receiving corps to step up for the Tigers when their name is called. With Charone Peake drawing his share of attention in the secondary and Deon Cain suspended, it could come down to Hunter Renfrow to fill that role.

Only a freshman, Renfrow finished the season with 404 yards and three touchdowns through the air—fifth on the team—but stepped up in a big way when called on, putting in vital performances against Louisville, N.C. State and Oklahoma.

His showing against the Sooners, in particular—four catches for 59 yards and a score—could be a sign of things to come if Alabama elects to focus on Clemson’s top two receivers. Don’t be surprised if the matchup comes down to how the freshman receiver performs under pressure.

 

Prediction: Alabama 24, Clemson 20

Whether it be the natural charisma that Watson brings to the table or the typical idea of Clemson as a high-flying, speedy offensive team—which was the case during the last half-decade or more—the thing that gets overlooked by most casual fans is just how good the Tigers are defensively.

Ranking No. 6 in the country in yards per game allowed and No. 16 in points per game—a number that doesn’t do justice to the season as a whole, with games against N.C. State and North Carolina breaking the curve—Clemson dominated the Oklahoma offense, one of the most balanced in the country, to earn a spot here and cannot be overlooked in the title game.

But while the Tigers might be able to hold Alabama and Henry in check, none of that will matter if they can’t score themselves, and against the Crimson Tide that is easier said than done.

Alabama has only allowed more than 25 points once this season, and that was in a game where the team turned the ball over five times and saw the ball bounce in Ole Miss’ favor time and again. After watching Ohio State run over his defense in the semifinal the year before, Nick Saban isn’t going to let the same thing happen with Clemson this time around, and it could result in a defensive struggle for the ages.

It will be far more entertaining than some of Alabama’s field-goal heavy clashes with LSU in the past, but with scoring at a premium the Crimson Tide should have an advantage with their run-based attack and will keep their dynasty rolling with a close win against Clemson.

All stats via cfbstats.com

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Tennessee Football: 5 Reasons Why the Volunteers Should Be Optimistic About 2016

It was a strong conclusion to the season for the Tennessee football program, and 2016 started with a sizzle as well.

After the Volunteers won five consecutive games to end the regular season, they pummeled Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl.

Then when he lost tight ends coach Mark Elder to Eastern Kentucky and parted ways with defensive coordinator John Jancek, head coach Butch Jones upgraded his staff by hiring Larry Scott from Miami to replace Elder and securing Penn State's Bob Shoop to lead the defense.

Tennessee is finally beginning to flex its muscles as a college football alpha dog again, and with tons of talent returning in 2016, there's no reason to believe the Vols won't be in contention for the SEC championship. If that's the case, playing for the national title can't be that far behind.

Ever since Jones signed his first full, loaded recruiting class in 2014, the '16 season has been circled on Tennessee's calendar as "The Year of the Vols." They were oh so close this season, finishing 9-4 and coming just a 4th-and-14 failure away from playing in Atlanta for the league championship.

Instead, inexperience on the field and on the sideline led to losses. But as the season progressed, so did the Vols' capacity to make plays at important moments. By the time the Outback Bowl rolled around, they handled business.

Now the expectations and exposure will be rampant leading up to next season. Jones made some coaching tweaks in attempts to take UT to the next level, and all those great players are going to be a year older.

There's plenty about which to be excited for Vols fans as the calendar flips to '16. Let's take a look at the reasons.

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