Back on September 3, 128 teams in Division 1 College Football began their journeys toward the ultimate prize (pictured above). Months of dramatic upsets and unforgettable on-field battles took over the headlines before trimming down the championship field to just four. Those four schools were the Alabama Crimson Tide, Clemson Tigers, Michigan State Spartans, and Oklahoma Sooners. New Year’s Eve saw the committee-chosen competitors take on one another in the semifinal, where Alabama took on Michigan State and Clemson took on Oklahoma.
Ultimately, both the Crimson Tide and the Tigers displayed their strengths and dominated their respective opponents, which set the stage for the final game of the 2015-16 College Football season. Monday night will put the top teams in the nation on the same field (in Glendale, Arizona) to determine who deserves the right to own the title of National Champion. With that, here are our key matchups, factors, and other things to look out for when Alabama and Clemson face off in the desert.
Key matchup: Deshaun Watson vs. Alabama’s defense
There’s no doubt that the Clemson Tigers’ Deshaun Watson has been one of the premier players in the country this season. The sophomore quarterback has thrown for 3,699 yards to go along with 31 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions this season through the air. On the ground, Watson has compiled over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns, making him the most dangerous dual-threat quarterback in college football today (and one of the best dual-threats in the game’s history).
For the most part, defenses haven’t been able to handle the talent of Watson. However, no defense that Watson has seen this season is nearly as talented as the Alabama Crimson Tide. Ranking near the top in several significant defensive categories, the Tide gave up the third-fewest points per game in the nation this season and were the top team against the run. Watson will have to deal with pass rushers, like defensive lineman Jonathan Allen (12 sacks on the year), and defensive backs that create turnovers, like Eddie Jackson (five interceptions this season).
An interesting note: The Tide have historically struggled against mobile quarterbacks like Watson. Remember back in 2012 when Johnny Manziel ripped apart Alabama’s defense in a shocking upset? Manziel threw for 253 and ran for 92 in that contest as a dual-threat signal caller for Texas A&M. The history of ‘Bama having trouble containing mobile QBs doesn’t stop there. Just last season, they couldn’t contain Cardale Jones and Ohio State. Before that, it was Auburn (multiple times) with their multifaceted quarterbacks. This historic struggle could be a sign of good things to come for Clemson in this game.
When you’re looking for a player who most people won’t expect to determine the outcome of a specific game (i.e. an X-factor), a team’s quarterback is typically not the first place you look. That isn’t the case for Alabama, however, who’s signal caller could make-or-break the team’s chances of securing a fourth national title in the Nick Saban era. At times this season, Jake Coker, Alabama’s senior QB, seemed to hold his team back. The Tide, as usual, have been stout on defense all season long, but Coker and the offense had trouble taking care of the ball early in the season and it cost them.
As the season progressed, however, Coker improved. With Heisman winner Derrick Henry running with serious purpose, Coker and the passing game have finally come along. Against Michigan State in the CFP Semifinal, Coker played perhaps the game of his life, throwing for 286 yards (on 25 of 30 passing) and two touchdowns, which supported his defense’s dominant effort in the 38-0 victory. That performance has to have the senior sizzling with confidence heading into Monday’s contest. If he plays well, it’s almost certain that the Tide will hoist the trophy once again.
Clemson has a lot of talent on offense. Outside of Watson, there’s running back Wayne Gallman (nearly 1,500 yards on the season) and explosive receiver Artavis Scott. While the effectiveness of the Tigers’ offensive weapons will play a key role in this matchup, the game could come down to the presence (or lack there of) of one of their best defensive players. Junior defensive end Shaq Lawson is one of the best pass rushers in the country, as he has accumulated 10.5 sacks on the season. He’s helped Clemson own one of the best defensive units in the nation and is an integral part of their game plan on that side of the ball.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, it’s still questionable whether or not Lawson will be on the field come Monday night. In the win over Oklahoma, Lawson injured his knee and while he’s been participating in practice, it appears that the top defender’s participation will be a game-time decision. If he’s able to play, the Tigers should have some success in containing Coker and the Tide’s passing game, putting all of the pressure on Henry and the running game. If Lawson’s out, the Tigers’ chances of victory will take a huge hit.
Battle of the Heisman finalists
An intriguing part of this national championship: Two of this year’s Heisman finalists will take part in the action; Deshaun Watson for Clemson and Derrick Henry, the Heisman winner, for Alabama. Of course, this won’t be the first time we’ve seen Heisman-worthy players battle one another. Just last season, Marcus Mariota (the 2014 winner) and Jameis Winston (the 2013 winner) played in one of the national semifinals, with Mariota’s Oregon Ducks coming out on top in a convincing manner. It seemed like Mariota was determined to show the nation that he was the better Heisman winner.
The Heisman trophy often plays a role on the game’s biggest stage. Back in 2006, Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns defeated Reggie Bush and the USC Trojans for the national title, weeks after Young lost the Heisman to Bush. Young played out of his mind in that game and proved that the Heisman committee may have gotten it wrong. In this game, it will be interesting to see the kind of chip that Watson plays with going up against Henry after losing the Heisman. We could very well be in for another Young-type performance.
If this game was determined by historical success, it would produce a terribly boring, one-sided blowout. Alabama is searching for its fourth national championship since 2009 while Clemson is seeking its first title since 1981. However, this game won’t be determined by the history books. Based on each school’s performance this season, we think this will be a very close game. The Tigers and the Crimson Tide have been the two most consistent teams in the nation and their appearance in the final game of the season shouldn’t be disputed.
With that, we think this is Clemson’s season to take the crown. They’re undefeated and have withstood every test thrown their way, which should have more than prepared them for whatever Alabama does. It could come down to the final possession as well, and if the Tigers own the ball in the final minutes, Watson has earned the right to be trusted. Regardless, it could be the most memorable championship game since that USC versus Texas contest about 10 years ago.