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Bowl Predictions

National Championship Preview

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET


College Football Playoff National Championship:

No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide (13-1) -7 No. 1 Clemson Tigers (14-0)


Site: Glendale, Ariz.

Date: Jan. 11

Time/TV: 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN



Straight Up:  

Against the Spread:






Thor Nystrom’s analysis:


We’ve been moving towards this specific matchup since the beginning of October, when Alabama put the embarrassing Ole Miss loss behind it and began thrashing quality SEC teams while Clemson ascended to frontrunner status by edging Notre Dame and throttling Miami so badly that a head coach was fired.


From October on -- throwing out the Charleston Southern exhibition -- Alabama’s adjusted S&P+ scoring margin has been greater than 8.0 points every single game. The Tide beat Georgia by 28, Arkansas by 13, Texas A&M by 18, Tennessee by five (the adjusted scoring margin was 8.4, so the game wasn’t as close as it looked on the scoreboard; to be fair, the expected margin of the Kyle Allen-meltdown game against A&M was 8.6), LSU by 14, Mississippi State by 25, Auburn by 16, Florida by 14 and Michigan State by 38. That’s a murderer’s row of opponents that Alabama regarded as Baylor's non-conference schedule. Playing only teams S&P+ ranks between No. 9 (LSU) and No. 41 (A&M) each week, Alabama won those nine games by an average of 17.9 points a game.


So yes, it’s entirely fair that they’ve been installed as touchdown favorites over the No. 1 ranked, undefeated Tigers. Monday will mark the 81st time in 82 games that Alabama has been favored and the second straight game No. 1 Clemson has been catching points. I'm not sure the designation matters much. Since the BCS era began in 1999, the underdog has won seven of 17 (41.2 percent) title games outright. And as loyal reader Eric Monaco emailed in, the spread did not come into play in 36 of 40 (90 percent) bowl games this year (New Mexico, Ohio, Tulsa and Arizona State were the four teams that covered but didn't win outright). Point being: Only take the points here if you think Clemson has a legitimate chance to spring the outright upset.


Since the beginning of October, Clemson collected four highly impressive wins—over Notre Dame, Florida State, North Carolina and Oklahoma—and a series of victories over patsies graded between No. 35 (NC State) and No. 91 (what up, Wake?) by S&P. The Tigers played down to Syracuse (No. 70) and South Carolina (No. 87), winning each game by a lower adjusted S&P+ scoring margin than ‘Bama has posted in any game since September. We know Clemson isn’t going to similarly overlook Alabama, but it is still a bit puzzling that an elite team snoozed through sparring cans it ought to have knocked out in minutes.


You know how these teams got here. Alabama punked Michigan State to earn its ticket to Arizona, allowing only 239 yards in a shutout. Clemson dominated a better team in Oklahoma in a 20-point shellacking where at least 10 points were left on the board. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney offered a fascinating stat from that game: Tiger walk-ons outscored the entire Sooner team, with K Greg Huegel and WR Hunter Renfrow combining for 19 points to Oklahoma’s 17. Alabama's victory elicited more fear, but the performances were equally impressive.


Alabama’s strategy is straightforward. The Crimson Tide boast the undisputed best defense in the nation, a strong special teams unit, the nation’s best coaching staff and a Heisman-winning running back fronting a conservative offense. The Tide won’t burn you for big plays (No. 80 S&P+ explosiveness), but they will leverage their specific strengths into advantageous in-game scenarios at every turn. And boy does that get frustrating for the opponent. Of specific concern for Clemson is the field position game, which Alabama figures to dominate (per S&P, Alabama’s offensive and defensive field positions rank Nos. 5 and 26, respectively, while Clemson grades Nos. 100 and 96 in those categories). There is little need for offensive explosion—and the risk that requires—when you’re constantly giving your offense short fields and you boast a generational defense.


Little need, of course, until winging it becomes necessary to win. Alabama reminds me of Wladimir Klitschko, the dominant Ukrainian heavyweight boxing champion who went a decade without losing before recently falling to Tyson Fury, an eccentric 6-foot-9 person you would not take seriously at a dinner party. Fury has eclectic -- I'm being nice -- social views and an eclectic, twitchy boxing style. He gains access to opponent's mental mainframes via trash talking, rewires them to his liking -- he was smiling at Klitschko and mocking him throughout the bout -- and throws flurries while you wonder what the hell he's going to do next. Klitschko had won 22 straight bouts with a conservative, defense-first approach that almost always allowed him to dictate exactly what was going to happen next. His reign ended because he was unable to divorce himself from that methodology even when it became apparent that he'd need to do so to give himself a chance. Klitschko, for 10 years a brilliant tactician, was dismantled into a confused, coy, stubborn, clinch-happy mess by an opponent who flat refused to fight as he wanted him to.


Alabama similarly melted down against Ole Miss when the Rebels refused to stay in the pocket and go swing-for-swing with them. Fortunately for Swinney, an Alabama alumnus (he played on the 1992 championship team), his team possesses the required traits to potentially spring an upset. Firstly, the Tigers have one of the nation’s best dual-threat quarterbacks, an absolute must if you want to move the ball consistently against Alabama’s defense, which cannot be beaten in a phone booth. QB Deshaun Watson (3,699 passing yards, 31 passing touchdowns, 68.2 percent completion rate, 1,032 rushing yards, 12 rushing scores), already getting buzz as the potential No. 1 pick next spring, is chiefly responsible for Clemson’s No. 3 S&P+ passing grade and No. 19 rushing rank. 


"As for right now, as a sophomore, I don't know if there's many people better to be able to do the things he can do with the football," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. An informal Sports Illustrated poll of coaches, scouts and decision-makers ended in "consensus" that Watson was a prime 2017 top-10 draft candidate. "The premium for that position will put him in that conversation," one veteran scout told SI.com. "He's big and fast and mechanically very good. He's over the top with his release. He throws with velocity and touch and throws a very good deep ball."


Michigan State had no other choice but to go strength-on-strength against Alabama. As Wladimir Klitschko's previous opponents understand, it is impossible to beat champions at their own games. You must take the battle into the jungle and ambush them there. The Tigers have the requisite athleticism and flair for ad-libbing that at least gives hope for sustained offensive drives, with underrated RB Wayne Gallman (1,482 yards; No. 15 in PFF's RB grades) hopefully faring better against 'Bama's front seven than MSU’s hapless backfield options to lessen the burden on Watson.


Because of Watson’s wizardry, there is zero chance for Alabama to pitch another shutout here. His ability to escape and direct the offense outside of the pocket—both on designed plays and ones that have broken down—will force Tide defenders into space, where physical strength is mitigated and athleticism and quick thinking reign. Recall Johnny Manziel and Cardale Jones’ work against Alabama in recent years to get an idea of how that works. Chad Kelly, who was Watson’s backup for about 10 minutes before transferring to Ole Miss, was the last mobile quarterback to get into Alabama's head. To be fair, this Tide defense is superior in every way to the units of recent past, and Alabama wouldn’t have coughed up the Mississippi game had they not committed five turnovers and forgotten how to run their special teams units. But it's also true that Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs and MSU’s Dak Prescott had success running on the Tide.


Another antidote to Alabama’s vaunted defense in recent years has been a heavy dose of run-pass options (i.e. plays where the QB can hand off, run himself or throw), which Mississippi used heavily in its upset. As runners, Watson and Gallman will force defenders up while the run-pass option directed by Watson—with its quick slants, bubble screens and posts—promises to move them right back. Alabama is going to have to devote a spy to Watson, which means Clemson, before the game has even started, has removed from one defensive stud his individuality. You can’t beat Alabama at the first level but you can certainly do so in the second and third, especially when pre-snap motion is used to yank defenders out of the box and position them where it suits your needs. The Tigers are capable—but obviously not guaranteed—of doing so consistently.


Spreading the formation—another thing Sparty doesn’t do—is another prerequisite to flustering Alabama’s defense. Unfortunately, five-star true freshman WR Deon Cain (34 receptions for 582 yards and five touchdowns) remains suspended and No. 1 receiver Mike Williams (neck) remains injured. Clemson retains a pair of strong veteran WRs in Charone Peake and Artavis Scott along with a glorified jumbo-sized receiver in move TE Jordan Leggett, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound athlete. They will be joined on the field at times by freshmen WRs Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud, neither of whom are Cain but both of whom can make plays, as Renfrow proved to Oklahoma (4-59-1). 


Defending that group will be one of the scariest collegiate defenses I've ever seen. The Tide’s No. 1 S&P+ rush defense is menacing up the middle, with LBs Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster freed to run around because nose guard Jarran Reed is mucking up the interior. The Crimson Tide may be even better on the outside, where defensive ends A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen create all sorts of havoc and the outside linebacking troika of Denzel Devall, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams is extremely athletic. Is it any wonder that the Tide finished No. 1 in rushing defense (2.3 yards allowed per carry) and sacks per game (3.57)?


Clemson will try to block that group with five first-year starters, though All-ACC guard Eric Mac Lain and All-ACC center Jay Guillermo certainly didn’t look like neophytes this fall. The Tigers allowed only 16 sacks this year, ranking No. 19 in the FBS. Watson's mobility helps quite a bit in that regard, of course. "He's the best quarterback in America this year that I've seen," said an opposing defensive coach. "He can throw from the pocket and throw deep. He can throw it on the move. He's a really good runner, be it a designed run or just extending the play. He's as scary a quarterback for a defensive coach as there is." While the Tigers' line acquitted itself well in pass protection, College Football Focus did not grade the group's run blocking favorably this fall. That's problematic against Alabama's front, which will reliably stand up Clemson's blockers and negate downfield push. Leggett is also a poor run blocker, though the coaching staff is smart enough not to ask him to be a sixth lineman much.


I'm not as terrified by that mismatch -- and it's a big mismatch -- as most because Clemson is not LSU or Michigan State. It isn't going to line up in a pro set and run a heavy dose of conventional Iso or counters for Gallman. Robinson, Allen and company cannot simply shed and penetrate with abandon, as they did in turning one night of Leonard Fournette's life into a waking nightmare, because Clemson has the type of offense that uses aggression against you. Think about it like this: Rocky Marciano never lost a boxing match. But it would have been quite easy for a martial artist skilled in aikido (which preaches flowing with the opponent's motion instead of opposing it and using an attacker's leverage against them) and jiu jitsu (predicated upon beating larger opponents by capitalizing on over-extension, getting into advantageous positions and attacking limbs and throats) to beat Marciano in hand-to-hand combat. The Tigers don't require great run blocking to move the ball on the ground. If Clemson's offensive line implodes on Monday, Alabama will likely win, perhaps handily. Fortunately, mere competency will suffice. Hurricanes knock over trees. They don't knock over grass.


It’s not as scary to pass on the Tide as run, but it’s close, because the edge rushers are coming and the secondary features four starters who began as cornerbacks. That group, however, does struggle in one key facet. Alabama ranked No. 51 in vertical yards per completion allowed (26.0), so opportunities will be there for Peake and company downfield if they break clean and Watson (No. 11 in vertical YPC with a Power 5-leading 16 TDs and 44.6 percent completions on 20-plus yard throws) buys time. The Tide’s NFL-lite defensive personnel make them less susceptible to mobility, spread formations and tempo than in the past, but those areas remain the only possible avenues to attack them.


Because of the matchup, Clemson’s defense (No. 4 by S&P+) isn’t getting the hype it deserves leading up to kickoff. That group isn’t quite as good as Alabama’s, but it’s within shouting distance and similarly doesn’t have a pronounced weakness (Nos. 7 and 4 ranked run and pass defense, respectively). Like Klitschko, the Tide don't have the offensive chesspieces or scheme versatility to change it up on the fly when struggling to move the ball. But like Klitschko, the offense is a perfect compliment to an elite defense when everything is going well (as it usually is).


QB Jake Coker (73 percent completions in his last 10 for only 1,703 yards and nine scores) is exactly what Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin asked him to be, a game manager who doesn’t give the ball away (43.3 percent of Coker’s attempts don’t travel past the line of scrimmage, ala Brett Hundley from last year; don’t buy the talk that Coker is coming on as an NFL prospect because of the inflated accuracy percentage). Coker’s main target is five-star true freshman WR Calvin Ridley, who has already snapped Amari Cooper’s school freshman receiving record with 1,031 yards. The talented Mr. Ripley is joined by ArDarius Stewart, a No. 2 on Peake’s level (Ridley is obviously superior to Scott), and TE O.J. Howard, whom Alabama often bafflingly relegates to blocking duties despite his five-star pedigree, NFL game and 78.6 percent catch rate (for comparison, Ridley sits at 72.2, Stewart at 64.2 and Clemson’s TE Leggett at 66.0). Clemson's linebackers have at times struggled in coverage this year, so it'd be nice to see Howard at long last unleashed, but that doesn't appear likely to happen heading in.


Alabama’s offense, of course, is funneled through RB Derrick Henry, who set the SEC single-season rushing record with 2,061 yards. In tandem with NFL-grade backup RB Kenyan Drake, the run-heavy scheme hopes to wear down Clemson's vicious front to keep it off Coker in the second half. El Tractorcito galloped to his Heisman trophy behind three All-SEC offensive linemen; center Ryan Kelly (first), tackle Cam Robinson (first) and guard Dominick Jackson (second).


As we’ve written before, the only way to stop Alabama is by stopping Henry, and the only way to stop Henry is by chopping out his legs at the line of scrimmage. If you fail to both penetrate and dive bomb Henry -- you must do both -- you’ll look up to see him flattening safeties and outrunning linebackers downfield. Clemson is perfectly designed to do just that because the defensive front is on par with Alabama’s. All-ACC first-teamer DE Shaq Lawson (23.5 TFL), expected to return from a knee injury suffered against the Sooners, is a constant headache and a future first-rounder. He’s joined by fellow star DE Kevin Dodd and strong DTs D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins. That front helped the Tigers finish No. 7 with 3.07 sacks per game. More importantly for our purposes, Clemson ranked No. 1 in rushes that went for zero or negative yards, doing so on a staggering 36.7 percent of run attempts (with a low mark of 36.4 percent in games against Notre Dame, Florida State and Oklahoma, it’s important to note). 


You have to figure first-round CB Mackensie Alexander will more or less take away Ridley. Alexander may be joined in the NFL next year by secondary mates CB Cordrea Tankersley and S Jayron Kearse. It’s promising for Tiger fans that Alabama won’t throw deep and Clemson ranks in the top-30 against passes five-or-fewer-yards downfield. If Clemson can slow Henry enough to get Alabama into third-and-longs, good things will happen. And the advanced metrics agree that they can do just that, with S&P+ grading Clemson as the No. 2 defense in getting run stuffs against Alabama’s No. 34 offense at avoiding such fates. The Tigers boast the No. 10 third down S&P defense against ‘Bama’s No. 64 third down offense and the No. 17 S&P passing downs sack rate defense against Alabama’s No. 78 offense at preventing that. Alabama’s offense can bog down because of the lack of a difference-making quarterback; the team ranked last in the FBS in 10-plus play drives that ended in touchdowns. The Tigers ranked No. 8 in redzone S&P+ defense to Alabama’s No. 46 offense.


Alabama comes in with a big special teams advantage (Clemson’s K Huegel is sensational, but the coverage units are spotty and Alabama PR Cyrus Jones could make them pay with his fifth punt return for a touchdown of the season). The Tide also have a coaching advantage, not only because of Saban’s X’s-and-O’s voodoo but because draconian NCAA rules granted Alabama more practice time heading in due to Clemson’s semester having already commenced.


From where I’m sitting, however, Clemson’s offensive advantage is bigger than Alabama’s defensive edge. More than that, though, this Tigers team almost seems to have been constructed with the Tide in mind, the Tyson Fury to Alabama's Wladimir Klitschko. To pull off the stunner, Watson will have to be the best player on the field Monday and Clemson’s defense will have to slow Henry enough to get Alabama’s offense into the third-and-long situations it abhors. Any way you slice it, this is a very close matchup, far closer than the spread would have you believe. The brash Tigers, with their pizza parties, hatred of the term "Clemsoning," aggressive, penetrating defensive playmakers and wunderkind, now-you-see-him-now-you-don't quarterback, may just unleash the Fury on Monday evening. For Alabama to avoid Klitschko's fate, they must be prepared for a war unlike any they fought in 2015.


Josh Norris’ favorite prospects:


Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander (#2) - I’ve had a running internal discussion over the last few years about the concept of minimums. Eliminating prospects that do not fit specific thresholds. While this means teams will miss out on a number of prospects who turn out to be good players despite missing those minimums, it also means a smaller pool of players to evaluate. And a smaller pool of players to evaluate hopefully leads to more accurate evaluations. This article summed up one team’s process quite well.


Why do I bring this up? Because in a league that is valuing length and height and corner more than ever before, Alexander stands under 5’10”. The Tigers corner is expected to enter the upcoming NFL draft. Some have even suggested Alexander should and/or will be the first prospect selected at the position. I loved Jason Verrett from a few years ago, a corner who is the same height as Alexander. But I was confident in Verrett’s projection because of how he played the catch point. He might have been the best contested catch corner in that draft. I don’t see enough teams ranking Alexander as the top corner for him to be selected as such. That’s not to say I dislike Alexander. Far from it.


Alabama RB Derrick Henry (#2) - I’m not calling Henry a perfect prospect, but I think some evaluators and tweeters are going a bit far when highlighting flaws in his game. Singling out negatives in a player’s game is good practice and does not mean said evaluator “hates” a prospect, but Henry is not a fullback.

Derrick Henry is an outstanding athlete. However, on his first few steps he certainly is not quick or agile. Worst case scenario would be Henry landing behind a terrible offensive line that gets pushed back or allows consistent disruption. I think Henry will have success, inside and outside, behind an adequate or better line. Best case? Derrick Henry given free releases to the second level with a team like the Cowboys. Henry at full speed is a scary sight, as he will run by or through defenders. I don’t think it takes him long to get there, but his first two steps are certainly laborious. Henry creates on his own and maximizes the yards blocked for him. Brandon Jacobs was a very good ball carrier before being slowed down by injuries. Think of Henry in the Jacobs, Chris Brown mold.


Other notable draft prospects: 

Clemson RB Wayne Gallman (#9), Clemson TE Jordan Leggett (#16), Clemson DE Shaq Lawson (#90), Clemson DE Kevin Dodd (#98), Clemson S Jayron Kearse (#1), Clemson CB Cordrea Tankersley (#25), OLB/S Travis Blanks (#11).


Alabama DL A'Shawn Robinson (#86), Alabama DT Jarran Reed (#90), Alabama DE Jonathan Allen (#93), Alabama LB Reggie Ragland (#19), Alabama TE O.J. Howard (#88), Alabama C Ryan Kelly (#70), Alabama RB Kenyan Drake (#17), Alabama QB Jacob Coker (#14), Alabama LB Reuben Foster (#10), Alabama edge rusher Tim Williams (#56), DB Eddie Jackson (#4), CB Cyrus Jones (#5), Alabama DB Geno Matias-Smith (#24), Alabama T Dominick Jackson (#76).


Best non draft-eligible prospects:

Clemson QB Deshaun Watson (#4), Alabama WR Calvin Ridley (#3), Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick (#29), Alabama T Cameron Robinson (#74)




2015 Bowl Record: Straight-Up: 25-15 (62.5%); Against the Spread: 22-16-2 (57.9%)


2015 Overall RecordStraight-Up: 120-63 (65.6%); Against the Spread: 90-88-5 (50.6%)


 2014 RecordStraight-Up: 118-72 (62.1%); Against the Spread: 99-90-1 (52.4%)


Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!