NCAA Football News
If the College Football Playoff is all about matchups, then the semifinals turned out to be the worst pairings imaginable. Can the national championship game between the No. 1 Clemson Tigers and No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide on Jan. 11 provide a more even game?
We're going position by position to see which team has the edge on the field. At the end, we'll tally the scores and see which team, on paper, has the better chance of winning. Keep in mind this is not a prediction for the outcome.
Each position group is dissected by its starters, relevant stats, any postseason awards won and, in some cases, how it lines up against its appropriate, opposing position—i.e. cornerback vs. wide receiver.
A national title game can sell itself, but the upcoming battle between Alabama and Clemson on Monday will be especially exciting as a new champion is crowned.
Clemson is somehow still underrated despite being the undefeated No. 1 team in the country. The Tigers were underdogs against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and now enter this game as 6.5-point underdogs, per Odds Shark. Even with this lack of respect, they should provide a great challenge to No. 2 Alabama, winners of 11 straight games.
This close matchup will be decided by a few key areas that will shift the momentum from one side to the other. Each team has tons of ability, but here are the top storylines fans should watch for throughout the night.
Is Derrick Henry Unstoppable?
The toughest task in college football this season has been slowing down Derrick Henry. The Heisman Trophy winner currently has 2,061 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns, at times carrying Alabama's offense.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney discussed the importance of stopping the run, per Dan Hope of the Independent Mail:
This is of course easier said than done. At 6'3", 242 pounds, Henry is a monster with the ball in his hands and difficult to bring down. He also is capable of handling a heavy workload and wearing down opponents by the end of games.
Although he was relatively limited against Michigan State (20 carries for 75 yards), he still had two touchdowns and wasn't needed toward the end of the game. He had a much bigger role in the two previous games, where he combined for 90 carries and 460 rushing yards.
Clemson hasn't faced anyone of his caliber this season, but the squad has done well against its top competition. Oklahoma's Samaje Perine and North Carolina's Elijah Hood were limited over the last two games. Dalvin Cook of Florida State put up big numbers, but much of it was due to an early 75-yard touchdown run.
The Tigers do have talented players on the defensive line, and linebacker B.J. Goodson can make stops all over the field. But they better come prepared to slow down Henry, or else this game will be over before they know it.
Can Clemson Handle Alabama's Defensive Line?
Deshaun Watson was arguably the best quarterback in college football this season, and he and Wayne Gallman make a formidable attack through the air and on the ground. The problem is it isn't easy for anyone to beat Alabama up front.
The Crimson Tide are loaded with talent along the defensive line, starting with A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, two guys who don't put up big numbers but close any running lanes available. A deep rotation of players also keeps everyone fresh to ensure nothing is easy for opponents throughout the game.
Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports noted the job this unit did against Michigan State's offensive line in the Cotton Bowl:
Even All-Americans Jack Conklin and Jack Allen struggled against this group, leaving Michigan State with just 1.1 yards per carry while quarterback Connor Cook remained under pressure all night long.
Watson's mobility will help avoid some of the pass rush, but he still won't have a whole lot of time to let things develop down the field. He and Gallman could also struggle to run the ball in this one against the No. 1 rushing defense in the country.
Clemson's offensive line will be under a lot of pressure in this game, and its success or failure could help decide the outcome.
Will Turnovers Play a Big Role?
Even with an undefeated season, Clemson has gotten away with some sloppy games this year. The Tigers actually have a negative turnover ratio in 14 games with 25 turnovers forced and 26 giveaways.
Only 11 teams in college football turned the ball over more often than Clemson. Watson himself has 12 interceptions on the year, including five in the last five games.
Quarterback Jake Coker and the rest of Alabama have done a better job taking care of the football in recent months, although turnovers were a major story in the team's only loss this season. The Tide turned the ball over five times against Ole Miss in a wild September game.
No matter how good of a team you have, a minus-five turnover margin isn't going to win too many games.
In a competitive battle like this one, one or two mistakes could be the difference between winning and losing. The squad that does a better job of controlling the football will have a major edge, so both teams better be careful.
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