CFT Previews & Predictions: Clemson-Alabama Tale of the Tape

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WHO
No. 2 Clemson (14-0) vs. No. 1 Alabama (14-0)

WHAT
The College Football Playoff National Championship Game, Presented by AT&T

WHEN
8:00 p.m. ET (8:17 p.m. ET kickoff)

WHERE
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California

HEAD COACHES
Clemson’s Dabo Swinney (115-30 in 11 seasons with the Tigers; one national championship)
Alabama’s Nick Saban (142-20 in 12 seasons with the Crimson Tide, 233-62-1 overall; six national championships)

STATISTICAL LEADERS
Clemson
Passing: Trevor Lawrence, 239-365 (65.5%), 2,933 yards, 27 touchdowns, four interceptions
Rushing: Travis Etienne, 1,583 yards, 22 touchdowns
Receiving: Tee Higgins, 56 receptions, 855 yards, 11 touchdowns
Punt returns: Amari Rodgers, 7.7 yards per on 39 returns, one touchdown
Kick returns: Derion Kendrick, 23 yards per on 13 returns
Punting: Will Spiers, 39.5 yards per, 19 of 61 inside the 20
Kicking: Greg Huegel, 10-15 field goals, long of 49; 71-72 extra points
Tackles: Isaiah Simmons, 88
Tackles for loss: Clelin Ferrell, 18
Sacks: Ferrell, 11½
QB Hits: Dexter Lawrence, 15
Interceptions: Tanner Muse, A.J. Terrell, two
Passes breakups: Simmons, Terrell, K’Von Wallace, seven

Alabama
Passing: Tua Tagovailoa, 223-321 (69.5%), 3,671 yards, 41 touchdowns, four interceptions
Rushing: Damien Harris, 819 yards; Josh Jacobs, 11 touchdowns
Receiving: Jerry Jeudy, 63 receptions, 1,176 yards, 13 touchdowns
Punt returns: Jaylen Waddle, 15.1 per on 15 returns, one touchdown
Kick returns: Jacobs, 30.6 per on 13 returns, one touchdown
Punting: Mike Bernier, 37 yards per, four of 23 inside the 20
Kicking: Joseph Bulovas, 13-17 field goals, long of 49; 74-79 extra points
Tackles: Dylan Moses, 82
Tackles for loss: Quinnen Williams, 18
Sacks: Isaiah Buggs, 9½
QB Hits: Williams, Christian Miller, 12
Interceptions: Saivion Smith, three
Passes breakups: Anfernee Jennings, Shyheim Carter, 10

STATISTICAL MATCHUPS
Alabama’s 34th-ranked rush offense (202 ypg) vs. Clemson’s 2nd-ranked run defense (92.6 ypg)
Clemson’s 10th-ranked rush offense (256.3 ypg) vs. Alabama’s 19th-ranked run defense (120.3 ypg)
Alabama’s 6th-ranked pass offense (325.6 ypg) vs. Clemson’s 16th-ranked pass defense (182.1 ypg)
Clemson’s 24th-ranked pass offense (274.1 ypg) vs. Alabama’s 22nd-ranked pass defense (187.6 ypg)
Alabama’s 2nd-ranked scoring offense (47.7 ppg) vs. Clemson’s top-ranked scoring defense (12.9 ppg)
Clemson’s 4th-ranked scoring offense (44.3 ppg) vs. Alabama’s 5th-ranked scoring defense (16.1 ppg)

COMMON OPPONENTS
Texas A&M
Clemson won 28-26 Sept. 8 in College Station, Alabama won 45-23 Sept. 22 in Tuscaloosa.

Louisville
Clemson won 77-16 Nov. 3 in Clemson, Alabama won 51-14 Sept. 1 on a neutral field.

LOSSES
None for either team as this will mark the first time in the five-year history of the College Football Playoff that two undefeated teams will be playing in the national championship game.

PORTFOLIO
Wins vs. bowl teams: Clemson 11, Alabama 9
Wins vs. current CFP Top 25 teams: Clemson 3, Alabama 5
Wins in true road games: Clemson 5, Alabama 4
Wins by 10-plus points: Clemson 12, UA 13

THE BOVADA.LV LINE
Clemson, +5 (opened +6)
Over/under, 61

THE PREDICTIONS
Zach Barnett
Here’s a stat for you: in his two title bouts with Clemson, Deshaun Watson was a combined 66-of-103 for 825 yards with seven touchdowns against one interception, leading his Tigers to 40 and 35 points. In eight quarters against the most fearsome defense this side of the ’85 Bears, Watson and company averaged around 100 yards, a touchdown and field goal. If Clemson is to do the unthinkable for the second time in three years, true freshman Trevor Lawrence will have to put up similar numbers and a similar volume, keeping Alabama’s ultra-efficient offense off the field. I think they will.
Clemson 38, Alabama 34

Bryan Fisher
I’ve seen both the Tigers and the Crimson Tide win national titles before and the fourth edition of their heavyweight fight might just be the best yet. It’s got great quarterbacks, some terrific receivers and running backs, plus a host of defenders that will be playing on Sundays. Alabama will get pushed plenty by Dabo Swinney‘s side but the SEC champs have played at another gear, for the most part, this season and will wind up with Nick Saban lifting yet another trophy in a thriller out West.
Alabama 31, Clemson 27

Kevin McGuire
A season that was billed as a season-long exhibition before Alabama and Clemson square off in the national championship has delivered once again. Seeing Tua Tagovailoa appear to be just fine last week against Oklahoma was an encouraging sign for the Tide as they prepare to face the stiffest defensive challenge they have seen this season in the Tigers. The last two championship bouts between these two were instant classics, and we could very well have a third on our hands. This game has the look of a defensive battle, but the quarterback play is just too good to be stopped. In the end, Tagovailoa leads Alabama to one more critical touchdown drive than Trevor Lawrence and Alabama wins yet another championship.
Alabama 36, Clemson 31

John Taylor
I’ve picked against Alabama each of the past two title games — Georgia following the 2017 regular season, Clemson the year before — and the Crimson Tide split those meetings.  This year, Nick Saban has arguably his best squad overall during his dozen seasons in Tuscaloosa, with an offense that’s head and shoulders in the passing game above anything the future College Football Hall of Famer has ever fielded.  All of the ingredients are there for back-to-back national titles for Saban… for Saban to pass the legendary Bear Bryant for most career championships… for Saban to cement his legacy as the GOAT at this level… and yet I’m going with Dabo Swinney — with a heaping helping of Trevor Lawrence, a quarterback the likes of which ‘Bama hasn’t faced this season — to spoil yet another Tide coronation and pick up his second national championship at the expense of his nemesis the past four years.
Clemson 34, Alabama 31

Teams may be the same for Alabama-Clemson IV but the names — and preparation — are a lot different in 2019

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — There have been variations over the years or in different parts of the country but most folks are familiar with the old adage of once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence and three times is a trend. 

If that’s the case though, what exactly might that make Monday’s national title game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson? It’s not just the programs’ third meeting in the final game of the season the past four years but also their fourth consecutive postseason meeting.

In short, the same… yet different.

“I think this sort of has become a little bit like someone you play in your league because we have played several years in a row now,” Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban said Saturday. “I’m sure they know a little more about us, we know a little more about them. I think that players still look at each game as a new challenge, and certainly I think that’s going to be important, because they’re a really good team that you’re playing against, which is what you should expect in a game like this.”

Saban understands each game being a unique challenge more than most involved. It’s not just new faces as players graduate or depart for the NFL, it’s quite a bit of staff turnover as well. This may be Alabama’s fourth meeting with Clemson but the Crimson Tide have done so with a different offensive coordinator/play-caller each time. 

Lane Kiffin in 2016 gave way to a brief turn by Steve Sarkisian in 2017. Brian Daboll was one-and-done in 2018 and turned things over to Mike Locksley this season, who will also be leaving after the game to take over as head coach at Maryland. 

While the turnover isn’t quite as significant on the defensive side, it’s still there. Though this is firmly Saban’s defense, the team will have gone from Kirby Smart to Jeremy Pruitt to the combination of Tosh Lupoi and Pete Golding — to say nothing of all the other assistants who have shuffled in and out of Tuscaloosa. 

“We do know what to expect but they have new coaches every year,” said receiver Hunter Renfrow, a hero in the 2017 title game and one 30 Tigers players who will have played in all four editions. “They can prepare for us a little better because we have continuity in our staff. I can go look at notes and it’s new guys but the same elite level.”

No kidding. 

Daron Payne played a huge role in last year’s Sugar Bowl in holding down Clemson’s offense. This year he’s simply been replaced in the lineup by Quinnen Williams, a unanimous All-American who won the Outland Trophy and will likely follow Payne as a top 15 draft pick in the spring. Minkah Fitzpatrick starred in the secondary during the first three meetings and has given way to the stellar play of Deionte Thompson, going from top star recruit to another without missing a step. 

“I would say they just have a bigger stable of running backs. It’s the running backs and it’s the wide receivers, man,” Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said of the biggest difference on offense he’s noticed in Alabama over the years. “(Damien Harris) and Bo (Scarborough) last year got most of the carries but now they have three running backs that could go anywhere in the country and start and have a great career. The receiving core, it’s ridiculous to see the type of receivers they have and the tight ends, too. I really feel like they are a very complete offense. They can affect you in any level of their offense.”

Calvin Ridley was Bama’s big-play threat in the passing game before going on to become a first-round pick last spring but the team has actually gotten better in the passing game, including developing Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy this season and a host of others. Five Tide wideouts have over 600 yards and at least six touchdowns receiving coming into the title game and six different players have scored rushing. 

Then there’s the difference-maker at quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa, who was in high school during the first two meetings and sat on the bench for Round 3 in the Sugar Bowl. The Heisman Trophy runner-up has helped the Tide’s offense shatter several school records and is No. 2 in a number of statistical categories nationally behind the team, Oklahoma, they just beat in the Orange Bowl. The sophomore already has an incredible track record in the national title game and is looking for that to continue against Clemson.

“We’re very familiar with Alabama, same bat channel, different bat day, I guess,” remarked Dabo Swinney. “You just turn the page, whatever year. They’re great on defense. You can pick little things here or there. They’re built in the trenches. The biggest difference for them this year is just the explosiveness on offense. This is by far the best version of them we’ve seen offensively. I mean, it’s unbelievable.

“And we’re a lot alike, dynamic quarterbacks, explosive skill, explosive run game, built through the run game in the play action and those type of things.”

The head coach is spot on with that assessment. 

Tailback Travis Etienne has been phenomenal in helping take the Tigers ground game to the next level and is playing behind a veteran offensive line that has done a great job opening holes you could drive a truck through. While Renfrow is a mainstay at receiver, the Deon Cain’s and Ray-Ray McCloud’s of recent years have been replaced (and then some) by explosive playmakers like Amari Rodgers, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. 

It’s also the deepest group Clemson has taken to the championship game, adding a top recruiting class full of several five-stars to a roster that returned 61 players with experience coming into 2018. 

“I don’t think we were intimated by them (in the first meeting), we were more intimated by the moment,” added Renfrow. “It was new to everyone and we were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, kinda nervous. Now, we know what to expect, what it takes.”

They also have their own difference maker under center in Trevor Lawrence, a freshman who is no longer a freshman and inserted into the starting lineup in September specifically to make the big throws on this stage. He sliced up a stout Notre Dame secondary in the Cotton Bowl and is just the second player ever to top 300 yards and three touchdowns in a College Football Playoff game (the other being some fella named Deshaun Watson). 

So while some may roll their eyes and claim fatigue in seeing Alabama and Clemson jerseys trot out onto the field for a fourth time, this year’s go-around is very much has a different flavor even if there’s plenty of similarities to past editions. 

Perhaps the lone thing that everybody agrees on coming into the 2019 National Championship Game is that both 14-0 squads are truly the best of the best and a fitting conclusion to a season where two elite teams rose above the rest. 

“Everybody says that they’re tired of watching us play. But year in, year out we proved that we’re the best two teams, and we play tough,” said Alabama’s Harris. “We take care of our business in the regular season. That’s why we keep meeting here.”

And so it will be — again — in Santa Clara with an undefeated season and the national championship on the line.

Trevor Lawrence against Alabama’s secondary could be legitimate advantage for Clemson

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This Alabama team, it’s been said, is the best of all of Nick Saban‘s Alabama teams. Thanks to Tua Tagovailoa and the development of the offense, this Crimson Tide team has truly no weaknesses. It’s an impenetrable fortress, a castle surrounded by 20-foot walls, a super weapon with no weakness.

But not exactly.

This Crimson Tide Death Star does have one weakness, and in Clemson they may find the one opponent to strong enough to exploit it.

While Alabama ranks 13th nationally in total defense (307.9 yards per game) and yards per play (4.70) and fifth in scoring (16.2 points per game), the Tide defense has shown one true vulnerability — in the deep passing game. To wit, opponents have completed 104 passes of 10-or-more yards, 52nd nationally. Furthermore, Alabama has surrendered 43 completions of at least 20 yards — 73rd nationally. That isn’t just bad by Alabama standards, it’s bad by anyone’s standards.

Those who have watched this team all season will recall moments where the Alabama back end has been exploited. Ole Miss opened its game with the Tide with a 75-yard touchdown pass. Tennessee put together a pair of drives that saw its quarterbacks go 6-of-8 for 149 yards and two touchdowns — an efficiency rating of 313.95. Oklahoma connected on a 49-yard touchdown pass and averaged 16.2 yards on its 19 completions.

Problem was, those moments were just that — moments. Ole Miss got outscored 62-0 after that opening punch. Tennessee was down 28-0 when it put those drives together. OU’s long touchdown pass pulled the Sooners to within 31-20.

While those teams may have had matchup advantages against an Alabama secondary that had to replace its entire starting group from last year, the rest of the game was such a mismatch it didn’t matter.

Clemson will be different. The Tigers won’t be blitzed in every other aspect of the game, perhaps allowing Trevor LawrenceTee Higgins, Amari RodgersJustyn RossHunter Renfrow and company — a group that’s completed 32 passes of 30 yards or more, sixth nationally — the chance to strike down field.

The best parallel to Clemson is Georgia, and Jake Fromm didn’t exactly struggle through the air. The Bulldogs quarterback hit 25-of-39 passes for 301 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

If Clemson manages to play Alabama to a draw elsewhere — no easy task, obviously — the Tigers may be able to exploit the rarest of things in college football: a matchup advantage against Alabama.

No. 2 Clemson clinches another ACC Atlantic title by beating banged up No. 17 Boston College

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Dabo Swinney was far from happy with his team’s performance on Saturday night. It didn’t matter in the end one bit though as the head coach was still left smiling after No. 2 Clemson clinched another ACC Atlantic division title by topping a beat up No. 17 Boston College squad 27-7 on a chilly night at Chestnut Hill.

Injuries might have been the biggest news to come out of the rather ho-hum game on both sides. Tigers starting left tackle Mitch Hyatt missed most of the second half with what appeared to be a shoulder injury while Eagles starting quarterback Anthony Brown left after just six snaps in the first quarter once he went down awkwardly following a hit. After heading to the locker room, the young signal-caller did not return to the game and probably ended what ever slim chances his team had to pull off the upset in the process.

That’s not to say Steve Addazio’s program gave up though, as they fought an uphill battle on both sides of the ball against a much more talented squad and kept things close for a few quarters. E.J. Perry replaced Brown under center but it was tough sledding on offense to get anything going (113 total yards) as the backup finished 12-of-21 for a respectable 98 yards. His arm was unable to loosen up the box at all for tailback A.J. Dillon though, who did overcome that bum ankle to start the game but rushed for just 39 hard-fought yards.

Two bright spots for the dudes on the hill? Defensive end Zach Allen was everywhere for the Eagles and had four tackles, multiple QB hurries and a pass breakup for good measure. He certainly flashed plenty for the NFL scouts on hand and looked like he could certainly be a player with all those All-Americans on the Tigers’ defensive line. Michael Walker also had a nifty punt return for a 74-yard touchdown that he took back after it hit a defender and bounced into his arms.

As for Clemson, their destruction of conference opponents trailed off a bit in the game but they still dominated nearly wire-to-wire against BC. QB Trevor Lawrence seemed to have the entire offense riding on his shoulders with tailback Travis Etienne limited to 78 yards on the ground and a nine-man box just about every touch. Going to the air though, the freshman passer completed 29-of-40 for 295 yards, an interception and a touchdown while adding a short scoring run as well.

Mix in a stellar effort on the defensive side plus an Amari Rodgers 58 yard punt return for a touchdown and it was overall a routine victory for Swinney and company even if the final score didn’t quite indicate the gap in performance between the two sides. Still, it’s time for those in orange and purple to officially book a trip to Charlotte for the ACC Championship Game in a few weeks — and probably eye a trip even further South to a College Football Playoff semifinal as well.

Clemson remains perfect after clobbering Florida State in most lopsided win in series history

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No. 2 Clemson (8-0, 5-0 ACC) is starting to have that look again. The Tigers were challenged early against Florida State (4-4, 2-4 ACC) in a scoreless first quarter, but Clemson woke up after that and left no doubt about how good they are. Clemson’s 59-10 victory over Florida State was the biggest margin for victory by the Tigers in the history of the series. It was so lopsided, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney had the luxury of inserting backup players in the third quarter.

Trevor Lawrence passed for 314 yards and four touchdowns before getting the entire fourth quarter off. Lawrence had a rough start to the game as it took time for he and the rest of the Clemson offense to get comfortable against a feisty start by the Florida State defense, but once the big plays started coming together, there was no looking back. Tee Higgins caught two touchdown passes inside the red zone to help get the Tigers on their roll, and Amari Rodgers pulled in two touchdown catches to go with his 156 receiving yards.

Clemson’s defense made life difficult for Florida State all afternoon. The Seminoles had a team total of -21 rushing yards and the team combined for 253 yards of offense in the game. Meanwhile, Clemson racked up more than double that with 523 yards, including 404 through the air. Florida State was also penalized 16 times for 140 yards, and two turnovers led to Clemson points when the game was still relatively up for grabs. For as uch progress as Florida State seemed to be making in recent weeks, all of that went out the window against Clemson.

Clemson’s 49-point victory is the largest margin for victory by Clemson in the all-time series against Florida State, and the second-most lopsided victory by either team in the series. Florida State defeated Clemson 57-0 in 1993 and 48-0 in 1998. Florida State also had a 47-point victory over the Tigers in 2000.

Next up for Clemson is a home game against Louisville. The Cardinals have been struggling mightily this season, which seems to suggest there should be another comfortable Clemson win on the horizon. Three of the final four games Clemson plays will come at home, with the only road trip remaining coming up in two weeks at Boston College. The fate of the division could come down to that game.

Florida State plays their next two games on the road, first at NC State next week and then at Notre Dame after that. The margin for error to get to a bowl game is beginning to get razor thin for the Seminoles. Florida State needs two wins in their final four games in order to go bowling. The two home games remaining will be played against Boston College and Florida.