After nearly five months of football played between 130 Division 1 football programs, 39 bowl games and thousands of points scored, the College Football season will come to an end on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, CA. From the beginning of the year, the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers seemed destined for a fourth straight showdown in the College Football Playoff, and sure enough, it came to be. While the matchup seemed probable from an early stage, the result of the game is very much up for debate. Both teams will enter the contest with perfect records and a plethora of talented players primed to make their mark on College Football’s biggest stage. Here are some of the key players, matchups, and storylines to watch for.
Tua Tagovailoa’s ankle
After bursting onto the college football scene in last year’s National Championship when he replaced starter Jalen Hurts and led an improbable comeback against the Georgia Bulldogs, Tagovailoa has followed up with an impressive second act. The sophomore threw for 3671 yards and 41 touchdowns while only conceding four interceptions. Those numbers were good for a second place finish in the Heisman award voting. Had it not been for late season knee and ankle injuries, Tagovailoa would have likely run away with the award. The ankle injury, which ultimately required surgery, held him to a 10/25, 165 yard and two interception performance against the Georgia Bulldogs on December 1st and caused great concern amongst the Alabama faithful leading into the Orange Bowl matchup with Oklahoma. To their relief, Tagovailoa was back to his dominant form, throwing for 318 yards and four touchdowns against the Sooners. While Tagovailoa looked 100 percent on the field, he told ESPN's Laura Rutledge in the post game interview that, “My left ankle is still uncertain right now...We’re still trying to get better with it.”
After the SEC Championship, Tagovailoa had nearly a month to rest his injured ankle. Before the matchup with Clemson, he will have just eight days. It’s also worth noting that Clemson’s pass rush is perhaps the best in the nation even without projected first-round pick Dexter Lawrence. If the Tigers have their way, Tagovailoa will be scrambling and taking hits all night long. It will be interesting to see if Tagovailoa’s ankle will be able to sustain the pressure.
Trevor Lawrence in the spotlight
Tagovailoa’s counterpart, freshman Trevor Lawrence, came to Death Valley as the number one high school recruit in the nation. After surpassing senior Kelly Bryant on the depth chart, Lawrence has turned heads with his astonishing arm talent and elite composure. Standing at 6 feet 5 inches, Lawrence is every NFL scout’s dream prospect, and he will surely go No. 1 overall in the 2021 draft. In the Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame, Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns in one of his most impressive performances of the season. While Lawrence has slowly accumulated national attention as the season has progressed, Monday night will give him the opportunity to establish himself as a household name across the country just as Tagovailoa did a year ago.
The reason why Dabo Swinney made the switch to Lawrence over Bryant likely had to do with last year’s matchup between these two teams. In last year’s Cotton Bowl, Bryant was shut down. The dual threat quarterback was unable to make a difference on the ground or through the air. It was clear that in order to beat Alabama, Clemson needed a more talented passer. Lawrence is exactly that. While he is just a freshman, Lawrence has shown the composure of a senior all season long for the Tigers, stepping up when the lights are brightest. In order for Clemson to have a chance against Alabama, Lawrence will have to do so once again against his biggest challenger of the season.
Albert Huggins vs the Alabama run game
One of the most talked about storylines throughout the College Football Playoff has been the suspension of three Clemson players including defensive tackle, Dexter Lawrence. In Lawrence, the Tigers lost a 6 feet 4 inches, 350 pound monster on the defensive line that would have commanded double teams all night long. Lawrence’s main replacement, Albert Huggins, will line up at 6’ 3” 315 pounds. While losing Lawrence is a huge blow, Huggins is not your average backup. Huggins was used as a rotation player all season long, and the senior has a chance to be drafted this year. With a smaller frame than Lawrence, Huggins is quick off the snap and has the ability to pressure the quarterback, though Huggins is not on the same level as Lawrence against the run.
With Alabama’s stacked offensive line and potent running game, expect Nick Saban to call for several runs at Clemson’s number 67. Huggins will benefit from the help of players like Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant around him, but he will have to step up and make plays in the run game. Alabama has three powerful running backs in Joshua Jacobs, Najee Harris and Damien Harris that rotate in and out of the game, staying fresh and productive for the whole 60 minutes. Huggins and fellow backup tackle Nyles Pinckney will have to do the same.
Clemson Secondary vs Alabama receivers
Clemson’s defense has earned its reputation as one of the best in the nation. If there’s an area where the team is vulnerable however, it is in the secondary. At times this season, the secondary has been torched. Against SEC opponents Texas A&M and South Carolina, the Tigers gave up a combined 940 yards and eight touchdowns through the air. Against Notre Dame however, the secondary allowed just 160 yards of passing. While the Tigers were able to shut down Ian Book and the Irish, Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide are on another level. Surely there is no way to completely shut down this Alabama passing attack that features several star receivers. Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Irv Smith Jr and Henry Ruggs III are all electric receivers that would be number one options on most Division 1 rosters. There is almost no chance that none of these five players finds the endzone on Monday night, but the challenge for the Tigers will be limiting the amount of times they find the endzone. The key for the Tigers will be keeping these star receivers in front of them. Alabama has burned teams all year long with the deep ball and Clemson’s secondary will have to find a way to limit the homerun shots on Monday night.
Battle for College Football Dynasty
The 2018-19 season marks the fourth straight year that Clemson and Alabama will face off in the College Football Playoff, and their third time playing in the National Championship. These two programs have solidified themselves as the teams to beat and, as seen with the results from the two semifinal games, no one has come close to beating them. The only challenge remaining for these two teams is knocking off the other. Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide have had a strong grip on the title of “Dynasty” in the College Football world with four championships since 2009. The Tigers are looking to contest that status. With a win, the Tigers will cap their fourth straight College Football Playoff appearance with their second championship in three seasons. With top high school recruits signing with both the Tigers and the Tide, both programs look like they’re at the top for good. The question will be, can one of these two teams pull away from the other? Both have proved capable of pulling away from everyone else. Monday night’s game will go a long way toward answering that question.