Clemson and Alabama will face off for the fourth time in as many years with three of those meetings being National Championship games.
These matchups have been far from similar to each other. There have been three different starting quarterbacks for each team in this period. Clemson has started Deshaun Watson (twice) and Kelly Bryant, while Trevor Lawrence will start this year. Alabama has started Jake Coker, Jalen Hurts (2), and this year the starter will be Tua Tagovailoa.
The major difference in the game this year is that Clemson and Alabama are far more explosive on offense than they have been in previous years. Alabama has 30 plays of 40 yards or more, while Clemson has 33 such plays.
While both teams boast big-play ability on offense, their defenses are very stout in this matchup. Alabama had trouble containing Kyler Murray and the Oklahoma offense in the second half of the Orange Bowl, but so did every other team that played the Heisman Trophy Winner.
Clemson has played teams with the defensive ability to stop the big play, most recently Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish came into the Cotton Bowl only having allowed one passing touchdown over 20 yards all season. Clemson threw two touchdowns over twenty yards in the first half of that game alone.
In order for Clemson to win this game they will need to be two-dimensional on offense and limit the big plays on defense. Alabama will try to stop the run early on so that they can force Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence into obvious passing situations. The Crimson Tide will try to give Lawrence confusing looks in coverage and bring exotic blitzes.
Only three freshman quarterbacks have beaten an Alabama team coached by Nick Saban. Fortunately for Clemson, Trevor Lawrence is not a typical freshman quarterback. He never seems to get rattled and always knows what to do with the ball. The Alabama defense will try to make Lawrence have his “freshman moment” that still has yet to come.
The Clemson defense will have the daunting task of stopping Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa. The sophomore signal caller has thrown for 3,671 yards and 41 touchdowns against only four interceptions.
The only knock only Tagovailoa is that he does not throw the ball well under pressure nor while being hit. Georgia did this to him and he did not perform well, but he was also dealing with an injured ankle. Alabama will run the ball behind a big offensive line and use that success to propel the passing game. If Clemson can shut down the run game and take the running threat away from Tua Tagovailoa, that will put them in good shape.
This is the same Alabama from the past few years in terms of team character and discipline. They will not make mistakes that beat themselves. They will not make many mistakes at all. Most of all, they are going to be physical at the point of attack. Clemson will have to get momentum on both sides of the ball.
If Alabama can not stop the run and if they are not able to get a consistent running game themselves, all signs point to a favorable matchup for the Tigers. Tua Tagovailoa can still win the game with his arm and so can Trevor Lawrence, but both teams are built behind a strong rushing attack, and that is the major key to this game.
The Tigers will take on the Crimson Tide on Monday, January 7th at 8:00 pm.