The rematch is on in the College Football Playoff national championship game with Alabama and Clemson set to battle for the national championship for a second straight season. Both teams will have the benefit of having gone through this experience against each other last year, so there is a certain familiarity with what the other team is capable of doing. For Alabama, knowing just how dangerous Deshaun Watson can be leading the Tigers offense going in will lead Alabama to look for new ways to scheme against him.
In last year’s championship game, Watson put on a performance that drew comparisons to Vince Young in the Rose Bowl against USC, although Watson came up on the short end of the winning tally. In the epic 45-40 loss to the Tide, Watson scorched Alabama for 405 passing yards and four touchdowns and added 73 rushing yards. It was Watson’s best performance of the year, and it came against the best defense in the country. Guess what. Alabama once again has the best defense in the country, and Watson is fully capable of going off for a big game once again. You can make him make a mistake, as evidenced at times this season. Watson has been picked off 17 times this year, including twice last week by Ohio State. The key for Alabama will be converting points off turnovers. Ohio State, obviously, was unable to do that, but the only team to beat them this year managed to do that. Watson was intercepted three times against Pittsburgh in Clemson’s only loss of the season. The Panthers took advantage of two of those picks by scoring touchdowns on the ensuing possession (Pitt was forced to punt on the first, scored two touchdowns on the next two).
Disrupting Clemson’s momentum on offense will not be easy, even for a talented and stacked defense like Alabama’s, because Clemson does like to move the ball quickly. It’s not just the no-huddle style either. It is also how quickly Clemson releases the ball and gets it in movement. Take a look at how quickly Watson gets the play rolling after taking the snap. Unless he is looking to go downfield and has to wait for a man to get open, he is pulling a quick trigger on a screen pass or tossing to the running back and then Clemson is on the go. That caught up to Ohio State and wore down the defense. Wearing down Alabama’s defense should not be as easy, and if the Tide can get in the backfield on the snap to cause chaos before Clemson can get things rolling consistently, then it will apply pressure on Watson and Clemson to do something else.
When Watson does get rid of the ball, Alabama will have to find ways to cover wide receiver Mike Williams (1,297 receiving yards, 10 TDs) and tight end Jordan Leggett, who could be a wild card factor in this matchup. But Alabama’s biggest concern in this game (other than Watson) will be Clemson’s defensive line. The Tigers just pitched a shutout against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, allowing just 215 yards of offense to the Buckeyes and forcing three turnovers (including two interceptions of J.T. Barrett). Clemson’s defensive effort put everybody on notice that they are on a mission and primed to give Alabama all they can handle. The good news for Alabama is their offensive line is much better than Ohio State’s, so fending off the pressure should be more successful to the point where Jalen Hurts will get some time to think more often than not.
The biggest mystery for Alabama is what happens on offense. Giving the bizarre circumstances this week of showing Lane Kiffin on the door on his way to FAU and promoting Steve Sarkisian to offensive coordinator, where he will call plays for the first time in years, there is a bit of a question as to how much of Alabama’s offense may look different compared to under Kiffin. Will Sarkisian stick to what has been working or will he throw in some new wrinkles? That could be good or bad for Alabama, could catch Clemson off guard or completely blow up in Alabama’s face. Sarkisian is taking on a huge role in this championship game, and it will responsibility to find whatever cracks he can in Clemson’s defense and open them up.