Sports Capital Journalism Program
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Sports Capital Journalism Program students Frank Gogola and Zach Wagner have spent the last several days covering the Clemson and Alabama beats, respectively.
Now, the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T is at hand and a champion — either No. 1 Clemson (14-0) or No. 2 Alabama (13-1) — will be crowned. The game is scheduled to start at 8:30 p.m. eastern time from University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, and will be broadcast on ESPN.
Gogola and Wagner offers insights and predictions for their respective teams in the second edition of the playoff.
Frank Gogola: Why Clemson will win
No disrespect to Alabama running back and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, but Clemson will have the most dynamic player on the field Monday in quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson is just the third Football Bowl Subdivision quarterback to amass at least 3,500 passing yards and at least 1,000 rushing yards in the same season. He’s a playmaker who can hit the short, intermediate and deep throws accurately as well as use his mobility and elusiveness when he runs.
Offensively, Clemson has the ability to wear down Alabama with its tempo and pace. Yes, Alabama’s front seven is deep, but the up-tempo offense can keep the Crimson Tide off balance. It can also prevent Alabama from making substitutions, which can be problematic with Clemson using different formations from one package. The Tigers’ ability to run with both Watson and Wayne Gallman, Clemson’s single-season rushing leader, should keep the duo fresh longer.
Defensively, the Tigers are solid. They just get overshadowed by Alabama. Clemson allows 301.6 yards per game (to Alabama’s 256.8), holds opponents to 20 points per game (to Alabama 13.4) and sacks opposing quarterbacks 3.07 times per game (to Alabama’s 3.57).
If defensive end Shaq Lawson returns and plays at even 75-80 percent he can be a disruptive force against Alabama’s offensive line. He leads the Tigers with 23.5 tackles for loss (which is tops in the FBS) and 10.5 sacks. Clemson certainly has talent across its front seven with Lawson, Kevin Dodd, B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware; the Tigers just aren’t as deep as Alabama.
The Clemson secondary has the upper hand when Alabama goes to the air. Mackensie Alexander, the always-confident cornerback, cuts off the side of field he is defending. He shut down Notre Dame’s Will Fuller (two catches, 37 yards), and Monday he can be expected to cover Alabama wideout Calvin Ridley. Add in players like Jayron Kearse, T.J. Green and Cordrea Tankersley, and Clemson has the ability to shut down Jake Coker and Alabama’s passing game.
Lastly, the Tigers don’t have a ton of pressure on them. Yes, they haven’t won a national championship since 1981, but they’re the underdogs. Plus, they’re here playing in the final game of the bowl season one year earlier than most predicted. Alabama, on the other hand, is the favorite and has its dynasty’s status on the line. The Crimson Tide are seeking their fourth title in seven years while Saban is seeking his fifth title, having won one at LSU.
Frank Gogola: Why Clemson will lose
Clemson may be on a 17-game winning streak, but the Tigers have stumbled through their last few games. They eked out a five-point win over South Carolina in the season finale and needed an offside flag on an onside kick to go their way to hang on against North Carolina in the ACC Championship game. In the Orange Bowl, they got off to a slow start, trailing Oklahoma 17-16 at the half before coming to life in the third quarter.
A similar slow start may doom the Tigers against Alabama and its stout defense. Alabama leads the FBS in rushing defense (70.8 yards per game) with a combination of mobile run stoppers and edge pass rushers. If Clemson can’t keep Watson upright or create running lanes, its offense may be firing blanks unless Watson is lights out in the passing game.
The Crimson Tide have made a habit of meeting their opponents in the backfield, posting an FBS-best 3.57 sacks per game. The Tigers hadn’t allowed a sack in four games before Oklahoma got Watson twice in the Orange Bowl. Alabama continually rotates players in and out on the defensive line, and there’s little drop-off between Alabama’s first and second stringers, according to Clemson coaches.
Offensively, Watson looked fairly pedestrian in the passing game against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. He posted a season-low passer efficiency rating (106.5) as he completed 16 of 31 pass attempts for 187 yards and one touchdown while being picked off once. However, Clemson was able to run for 312 yards, 295 of which came between Watson and Wayne Gallman.
Rushing yards will come at a premium against Alabama’s front seven. The most rushing yards the Crimson Tide have allowed to a quarterback this season was 29 to Middle Tennessee’s Brent Stockstill in the second game. They held mobile quarterbacks Joshua Dobbs (19) and Dak Prescott (14) to a combined 33 rushing yards. If Watson and Gallman have just an average rushing game that may be a huge boost to the Tigers’ chances.
When Alabama goes to the run, Clemson will have to deal with Henry. The 6-foot-3, 242-pound junior ran for 2,061 yards and 25 touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman Trophy. Elusive yet overpowering, he’ll be hard to slow down, nearly impossible to completely stop.
Lastly, Clemson will be tested by one of the best return men in the country: punt returner Cyrus Jones. Jones has been lethal, returning four punts for touchdowns in 14 games. He has averaged 12.6 yards per punt return on 41 returns with a season- and career-long of 72 yards. Clemson has allowed two special teams touchdowns this season, both on kickoff returns. All it takes is one missed assignment on any type of return to flip the game’s momentum.
Prediction: Alabama 27, Clemson 16
Zach Wagner: Why Alabama will win
The numbers back it up. Not only are the Crimson Tide ranked number one nationally in defending the run as well as in total scoring defense, but they are quietly in the top one-third of teams in total offensive efficiency. A lot of that has to do with the play of Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, but don’t forget about senior quarterback Jake Coker. All he’s done over his previous two games is throw for 669 yards and five touchdowns, while completing 72.6 percent of his passes.
When Coker is on his game, Alabama becomes an even greater problem. Coker did not start in the team’s only loss of the season to Ole Miss.
Clemson’s defense is very good. The Tigers rank in the top 25 in 11 categories, including completion percentage and first downs allowed per game. However, one game offers evidence for the Alabama faithful that Derrick Henry will have a big day. Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, who some would argue has been one of the three best running backs in the nation, rushed for 194 yards on 21 attempts and a touchdown against this dominating Clemson defense.
The units that could play a major role in Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship are Alabama’s special teams. While the defense gets all of the accolades, special teams have often played decisive roles for the Tide. Especially senior Cyrus Jones, who leads the nation with four punt return touchdowns, an Alabama record.
As he displayed in the semifinal victory over Michigan State, Jones in the open field is every opposing special teams coordinator’s worst nightmare. His total of 518 yards on punt returns this season leads the nation and ranks second in Alabama history.
Alabama field goal kicker Adam Griffith converted 73 percent of his field goal attempts this season, the best percentage in his three years at Alabama.
Zach Wagner: Why Alabama will lose
In Alabama’s semifinal victory over Michigan State, Henry was kept in check, gaining a modest total of 75 rushing yards on just 20 attempts. Alabama did not need a Heisman-type performance to earn a decisive victory, because of Coker’s passing, with season highs of 25 completions and 286 yards in his greatest moment at Alabama.
However, it’s no secret that Coker had his ups and downs earlier in the season. Coker struggled to find any sort of rhythm against Arkansas, throwing two very ugly interceptions. His defense bought him some time to get his act together, as he would find his comfort zone by the middle of the fourth quarter to help seal the 27-14 victory.
But what happens if Alabama defense bends even in the slightest?
Whether it was Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, Cardale Jones of Ohio State, or Auburn’s Nick Marshall and Cam Newton, quarterbacks possessing the ability to pass and run effectively have created problems for Alabama defenses in recent seasons. The quarterback standing between the Tide and a fourth championship in seven seasons represents the epitome of what a dual-threat signal caller should look like.
Deshaun Watson has the ability to create in space as Manziel did when a 2012 victory over Alabama at Tuscaloosa clinched a Heisman Trophy. Watson can also run by people on the perimeter like Marshall, and occasionally run over an opponent like Newton.
Oh, and at times he displays next-level accuracy.
On the surface, it seems as if Watson was born to ruin Nick Saban’s potential dynasty.
He’s the third quarterback in FBS history to pass for 3,500 yards and rush for 1,000 yards. His ability to run the ball has opened things up for Wayne Gallman, who has a school-record 1,482 yards rushing.
That’s how Clemson beats Alabama. Watson’s playmaking ability spreads out the Alabama defense, giving others on the Clemson offense the chance to shine. Finding himself in unfamiliar territory, Coker struggles to bring the Tide from behind. And as Tiger fans celebrate the school’s first national championship moment since the 1982 Orange Bowl, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney begins the conversation about how everyone will doubt the Tigers’ chances of repeating as champs next year in Tampa.
Prediction: Alabama 31, Clemson 10