Loading scores...
Tua Tagovailoa
Getty Images
National Championship Preview

Alabama-Clemson Sneak Peek

by Thor Nystrom

2019 College Football National Championship


8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN

Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, California)

Alabama (No. 1 S&P+) -5.5 vs. Clemson (No. 2 S&P+)

Total: 61


What You Should Know


Welcome to the tetralogy! Alabama-Clemson IV. What have you.


This is the fourth consecutive year these Goliaths have met in the Playoff, and the third time in four years they’ve met in the natty. In Round 1 last year, Alabama dominated from the jump, winning 24-6 in a game that was even more one-sided on the field than it was on the scoreboard.

The year before, the 2016 season, QB Deshaun Watson­ led Clemson to the title by rallying past Alabama on an epic last-second touchdown pass to ageless slot WR Hunter Renfrow. Watson and crew were avenging the 2015 title game, when Alabama used a 95-yard Kenyan Drake kick-return touchdown in the fourth quarter to come out on the right side of a raucous, back-and-forth affair (Jake Coker was Alabama’s quarterback back then). 


Clemson covered both previous title games, including the one they lost, while Alabama easily covered the number in the semifinal matchup last year. I’d love to be able to glean something from what we’ve seen on the field in those three games that will have predictive value for Monday’s game. But reader, let me shoot straight with you: I’m not able to do that.


These teams are too different — in both personnel and schema — from the incarnations we’ve seen in the recent past. The first two go-arounds, Clemson was led by Watson, a program-changing tour de force. Last year’s team wasted a good defense with a young offense run by a limited dual-threat quarterback (Kelly Bryant). There is very little we can even take from last year’s game, which pitted Bryant against Jalen Hurts (another limited dual-threat). Each offense has gotten a gallon of nitrous oxide poured into its engines since then.


To Dabo Swinney’s eternal credit, he understood early — perhaps even as early as last January — that Bryant’s limitations weren't going to cut it in the inevitable re-re-rematch against Alabama. So, in late September, he benched Bryant for five-star true freshman QB Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 or No. 2 overall prospect in the last cycle (Georgia QB Justin Fields, now in the process of transferring, was considered the 1B to Lawrence’s 1A at the top of the 2018 class).


Bryant responded by publicly divorcing the program for the purposes of extending his collegiate career. Swinney did Bryant a great service in making the change before Bryant had appeared in his fifth game of the season. Due to the NCAA’s new redshirt rule, Bryant was able to use 2018 as a redshirt campaign.


Bryant ended up taking advantage of another new-ish rule, the grad transfer one, in transferring to Missouri, where he’ll take over for Drew Lock next season. Bryant’s prompt exit ironically turned into a coup for Clemson, which no longer had to worry about a discontented veteran peering over the youngster’s shoulder and playing locker room House of Cards political games. It was the perfect breakup, really. Once Swinney ripped off the bandaid, Bryant said his piece, bounced, and a new normal of Clemson football began.


Alabama’s quarterback transition occurred after halftime of last year’s title game win over Georgia, when Tua Tagovailoa entered for a benched Hurts to spur a furious comeback victory. To Hurts’ credit, he accepted the demotion with class (only voicing appropriate frustration publicly that I can recall once, before the season). 


But Hurts’ situation was slightly different from Bryant’s, in that it didn't benefit him to pull the ripcord immediately — Hurts would have had to sit out this season had he transferred. With Tagovailoa returning for at least one more year, Hurts is expected to transfer as a graduate this winter. But thank goodness he stuck around this fall!


Hurts came on for an injured Tua in the SEC title game rematch against Georgia last month and poetically led the Crimson Tide to a second half comeback victory. He then got a little run in the playoff game against Oklahoma last week in sub-packages. With Tagovailoa’s ankle issues — and Alabama’s subsequent desire to keep him out of harms way — you can expect to see a few Hurts cameos again on Monday night, primarily in short-yardage and goal line formations that call for quarterback runs. 


Clemson arrives in California having traveled on the express highway, with fewer detours and potential pitfalls than Alabama was asked to deal with. Prior to the dominant 30-3 win over Notre Dame (S&P+ No. 7) in the Cotton Bowl, Clemson’s best wins were over Texas A&M (No. 18), NC State (No. 31), Syracuse (No. 36) and South Carolina (No. 38). Bryant was the starter for the A&M game. 


The best defense Lawrence had beaten prior to the Irish was Boston College, barely a top-30 S&P+ defense. But Lawrence proved, in slicing up Notre Dame, that he’s ready for the bright lights against elite defenses. Clemson has played the S&P+ No. 59 schedule. Alabama faced the No. 6 S&P+ schedule. 


You can read the discrepancy one of two ways in your handicap. You can either argue that Clemson has only beaten one top-notch opponent with Lawrence under center, and thus still shoulders a burden of proof, or you could argue that Clemson is a team of similar talent to Alabama that didn't accrue nearly the wear on its tires that Alabama did to get here.


The Crimson Tide enter off a 45-34 win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, a game in which the Tide raced out to a 28-0 lead but then toggled the offensive aggression meter to conservative as Oklahoma’s offense finally woke from its first quarter slumber. Either way, a double-digit win over a top-five team is a double-digit win over a top-five team.


Lowdown on the Line


As is their custom, BetOnline posted the first spread for this game. They didn’t even wait for the end of the Alabama-Oklahoma game, releasing an Alabama -9 line in the second quarter with low-limits. Pro bettors immediately devoured that line. By the time the clock stuck 0:00 on Alabama’s win, that line had been steamed down to Alabama -6. 


When the other books opened the game over the next 24 hours, most did so with either Alabama -5.5 or -6 lines. It is, as I type this sentence on Thursday morning, now Alabama -5.5 across the market. All of that makes sense. Any number seven or above was an objective gift. 


This is the 54th consecutive game that the Tide have been favored in — Alabama was last an underdog against Georgia in the 2015 regular season — including each of the past three playoff matchups against Clemson. Clemson isn’t used to being an underdog, either, but they’ve performed well in the role recently.


Since the start of the 2016 season, Clemson has been an underdog four times — a one-point home ‘dog to Louisville in Lamar Jackson’s Heisman season (Clemson won outright 42-36), a one-point underdog to Ohio State in Round 1 of the 2016 playoff (Clemson won outright 31-0),  and, of course, the last two playoff games with Alabama. 


We’re working with a very small sample size, and short numbers to boot, but Clemson’s 3-1 SU and ATS records as an underdog the past three seasons is a nice datapoint for our upcoming handicap. Each school went 8-6 against the number this fall. Neither team has been an underdog this season, but, of course, that’s about to change for the Tigers.


I began my Alabama-Oklahoma writeup with this: “The same caveat must be made before we get into any Alabama handicap: To bet the Tide, you must pay a tax. Not a mythical tax. A real one based on objective numbers. Here, we aren’t getting the same amount of line value on the ‘dog as we did in the SEC title game with Georgia (an easy Bulldogs cover), but I’m still showing a solid 4.5 points of line value on Oklahoma.” Oklahoma, of course, went on to cover.


I’ve bet against Alabama in each of the past two games and cashed twice. I didn't step in front of the Crimson Tide because I don’t respect them — I very much do. I stepped in front of the Crimson Tide because the public respects them too much — for value-shopping grinders like myself, there wasn’t much of a choice. 


My full handicap of this game will drop on Saturday. But until then, I’ll leave you with this: My model set the adjusted line of this game at Alabama -1.5 vs. Clemson. Once again, there’s significant line value on the underdog — if you’ve got the guts to step on the tracks as the Alabama train rolls through. 


I’ll let you know this weekend if I found the courage.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is NBC Sports Edge’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!