College Football Playoff: Five keys for Clemson to win the national championship
The Tigers came close to toppling the Tide last year, and have the chance to stop them in 2017
TAMPA, Fla. -- Deshaun Watson lives for the big moments. He's got another one again when Alabama-Clemson II takes place Monday night for the national championship.
"Anytime it's a big game, Deshaun is at his best," Clemson quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter said. "He's at his best a lot, but when it's a championship-type game, he's at another level."
For the past year, Nick Saban has often raved about Watson as the best player in college football. Saban saw how Watson almost single-handedly beat the Crimson Tide last year. Now, Alabama has an even more opportunistic defense that can score points quickly.
Clemson came very close last year to winning only its second national title. But the Tigers didn't finish. To beat Alabama, you have to knock them out. The Tigers have the quarterback capable of doing that. Here are five keys for how Clemson can win.
1. Protect the ball: Clemson has turnover problems, having lost 26 this year for a plus-one margin. The Tigers are the only team to ever win a national semifinal or championship game in the CFP/BCS era while entering the game without a positive turnover margin. They beat Oklahoma and Ohio State in the past two semifinals without being on the positive end.
Clemson absolutely can't give away turnovers to Alabama, which feasts on turning mistakes into touchdowns. Alabama has a nation-high 11 defensive touchdowns from nine different players this season. That caused Clemson coaches to wonder how much video of those scores they should show their players.
"We had that conversation: Do we want to show it to them?" Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. "Somebody in the room said, 'They've watched it every week on SportsCenter.' Every single week they've had a defensive touchdown, it seemed like. Our guys know. They understand that's important."
The magic number is one turnover or less for Clemson. In the seven games the Tigers have had zero or one turnover, they've outscored their opponent by an average of 36.5 points. In the seven games with two or more turnovers, Clemson has only won by 8.3 points.
The past 18 national champions have an average turnover margin of plus-12. Alabama is at plus-eight right now. The Tigers' plus-one puts them in dicey territory, especially if they're not clean against Alabama.
On the flip side, given the Crimson Tide's struggles throwing the ball lately, they've got to create some turnovers for a shorter field or scores to win. Watson, who has thrown 17 interceptions, must take care of the ball.
2. Win one-on-one matchups outside: Alabama is going to play tight man coverage and press and jam at the line of scrimmage to disrupt Clemson's talented receivers. How Clemson's receivers handle that initial point of contact after the snap will dictate how small of a passing window Watson has to throw.
Clemson receivers often run routes in front of defensive backs, who are positioned way off. Most college teams don't have the personnel to match up with Clemson. Alabama does.
"If they can man us up on the outside, it will be a long night," Scott said.
But Clemson has two X-factors: Watson's legs/mind and wide receiver Mike Williams. Alabama is faster and probably better suited to defend Watson this year, but he's the best college quarterback for a reason. Watson's ability to run the ball and get in and out of bad plays means Alabama will be focusing a lot on him with its cornerbacks on an island a lot.
Enter Williams, who missed last year's game with a neck injury. He's an NFL first-round talent who can win one-on-one matchups, catch back-shoulder throws and create openings for so many other options on Clemson's offense, including Deion Cain, Artavis Scott, Jordan Leggett and Hunter Renfrow.
If there's a slight weakness on Alabama's defense, it's the secondary, where team leader Eddie Jackson is out for the year at safety. The Crimson Tide rank tied for 63rd nationally in pass plays of 20 yards or more, giving up about three per game. Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey, a future first-round pick, has only allowed 28 catches but did so at 16.3 yards per catch, according to Pro Football Focus. When he gets beat, it's often deep.
3. Keep Alabama's defense on the field: These are two of the best defenses at forcing three-and-outs. Alabama's defense gets a three-and-out on 48 percent of its drives (first nationally), compared to 43 percent for Clemson (third nationally).
If Alabama gets close to 48 percent of Clemson's drives being three-and-outs, the Crimson Tide will win convincingly. But Clemson has a patient offense that's willing to create manageable third-down situations for Watson because of his legs. When the Tigers' offense stays on the field, they get into a tempo that's difficult to stop and can wear down the opposing defense by the fourth quarter.
One of the key stats for Alabama's win over Clemson last season was the Crimson Tide going 9 for 18 on third down against a defense that ranked fourth in third-down conversions (28 percent). This year, the Tigers are sixth at 29 percent.
Big plays killed Clemson against Alabama, particularly when letting tight end O.J. Howard run loose with 208 yards on five catches. The Tigers were tied for 116th nationally last year in plays allowed of 40 or more yards; this year, they've given up nine fewer such plays and are tied for 58th.
"We had more guys in the back end last year who were less disciplined," Clemson cornerback Cordrea Tankersley said. "We had great players, but they just didn't finish. We're definitely better this year. We have more discipline."
4. Shore up special teams: Clemson vows not to let special teams mistakes hurt its chances again vs. Alabama, which recovered a huge onside kick and scored on a kickoff return in the fourth quarter last year. The Tigers ranked 115th in kickoff coverage last year due in part to a younger and more immature roster.
"We're a healthier team (this season), but more importantly, we've got more functional football players," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We're competitively built differently from a depth standpoint than we were last year."
Clemson coaches spent the offseason heavily studying their special teams' deficiencies, including using outside analysts. Players suggested the biggest change is more of them are enthusiastic about being on special teams this year as a key way to help the team.
This year, Clemson is 48th in kickoff return coverage, even better than Alabama (79th). The Tigers are also higher ranked than Alabama in punt return coverage and kickoff returns. Alabama is dramatically better on punt returns and punting, where the Crimson Tide's punts go about 11 yards longer than Clemson's on each attempt.
What if the game comes down to a kick? Alabama's Adam Griffith makes 74.1 percent of his field goals and Clemson's Greg Huegel converts 73.7 percent. That ranks them in the middle nationally.
5. Make Alabama play from behind. Only one team has really put Alabama into an uncomfortable position this season: Ole Miss. The Rebels jumped out to a 24-3 lead, but they quickly let Alabama back into it by allowing touchdowns on special teams and defense.
If Clemson can get off to a fast start, the pressure goes squarely onto Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts and new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. How would a true freshman and new play-caller react if they're staring at a double-digit deficit?
Clemson wants to force Hurts to be a passer. Look for Alabama to give him quicker throws to make him more comfortable and get the ball more into the hands of its elite receivers. The Tigers have a defensive line very capable of giving Alabama's offensive line problems. Third-and-long situations would be Clemson's best friend.
Clemson is 78-5 under Swinney when leading going into the fourth quarter. One of those losses was last year to Alabama, ending Clemson's streak of 51 straight wins in that scenario. How would this year's Alabama team handle a fourth-quarter deficit given how often it's been comfortably ahead in the fourth quarter this season?
Prediction: Clemson 20, Alabama 17
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