Tide Will Roll Out
By The Rex Factor
Two teams have emerged ahead of all the others in college football, and they’ll meet Monday night at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona to decide the National Champion. Once-beaten Alabama just shut out Big 10 champion Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl to earn its trip to Phoenix, while Clemson remained unbeaten by blasting Oklahoma 37-17 in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers have the chance to finish as the first team in the history of college football to record a 15-0 record.
Certainly, a case can be made for Alabama. The Crimson Tide had one slip-up against the nation’s toughest schedule, a turnover-filled fiasco at home against Ole Miss. Since then, first-year starting quarterback Jake Coker has played as efficiently as any Bama quarterback in many years. Running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy based on a season where he broke the SEC’s record for yards – ahead of one-named legends like Bo and Herschel.
Saban’s ability to effectively pilot similar Bama teams to this level – and succeed three times – has many folks eager to lay the tariff and count on another effective and methodical beatdown.
But that won’t happen.
Chad Kelly threw for 341 yards and three scores in Tuscaloosa back on Sept. 19 as the Rebels held off a furious Alabama rally. Kelly also transferred out of Clemson to Ole Miss because he was never going to beat out Deshaun Watson at quarterback. Watson is now 17-0 in college games where he has started and finished healthy. The sophomore has many weapons at his disposal and has piloted the Tiger attack to at least 500 yards in 10 straight games. Clemson scored at least 20 in every game and more than 40 six times.
Watson is a dual-threat quarterback, having ran for 100 or more yards in five of his last six games. His average in that span is 108 yards per game and 5.9 yards per carry. He is the kind of quarterback that has given Saban and his defense fits in recent seasons. Ole Miss, Auburn and Ohio State are among foes since late November of last season that had run/pass option quarterbacks and each flourished against outgoing defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s tactics. The Tigers also like to play at a very fast pace, which also gives Bama fits because they are unable to substitute liberally up front (5-star players for more 5-star players).
Running back Wayne Gallman, also a sophomore, has 54 carries for 337 yards in his last two games, wins over North Carolina and Oklahoma. The O-Line is more physical than earlier Tiger teams under eighth-year coach Dabo Swinney.
On the other side, the Clemson D-Line is fantastic. It is very athletic and disruptive, and the secondary is probably the best in the nation. Oklahoma’s rushing attack ranked near the top of the nation, yet the Tigers allowed OU to just 2.0 yards per carry in the Orange Bowl. Samaje Perine averaged 162 yards in the last three Sooner victories, yet had just 58 yards on 15 carries in the Orange Bowl. OU quarterback Baker Mayfield tossed two interceptions after throwing just five all season.
Clemson is 4-0 against ranked teams, but all four of those teams finished the season in the top 10 of the CFB Playoff Ratings. On the other hand, Alabama had beaten no one inside the top 11 until the Michigan State game.
Even then, the 38-0 final score is somewhat misleading (taking away the fact that MSU was always going to struggle to score). The Tide picked off a pass in the end zone that would have cut the halftime lead to three, and the first two second half touchdowns came after a very questionable replay and on a 57-yard punt return.
Make no mistake; anyone was going to struggle with Alabama in that game. Saban’s group is the only school in the four-team playoff that also qualified last season, and Ohio State emasculated the Tide in the Sugar Bowl, rushing for 281 yards in the 42-35 win. Things were almost certainly going to be different in terms of preparation this season; Saban rarely loses with extra prep time but neither does Urban Meyer. The extra prep time that Bama had for MSU doesn’t necessarily exist here, as these teams will have just 10 days rest before meeting in the desert.
Swinney has also done a more than respectable job in his last four bowl games going back to 2012; the Tigers have won all of them outright as an underdog – and against LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma. They’re not beating Kentucky in the Music City Bowl here. Swinney is 46-7 in his last 53 games and won’t be overmatched here. He’s an Alabama native, a former Crimson Tide receiver and assistant coach.
Interestingly enough, most of Clemson’s most revered head coaches are from Alabama and all played football for the Tide (Frank Howard, Charley Pell, Hootie Ingram and Danny Ford are the other four I found without doing too much work in addition to Swinney). His staff also has three assistants who were once assistants at Bama. Dabo won’t be intimidated; neither will his team. That’s half the battle when playing Alabama in these types of spots. Dabo said it best earlier this week when asked about his chances.
“It ain’t rocket science. We’re either good enough or we’re not,” Swinney said on a teleconference.
You’re good enough, coach. You’re good enough.
Prediction: Clemson 36, Alabama 19
The play: Clemson +7 big, for 6u
The Rex Factor has been handicapping college football for more than 20 years and considers it to be his strongest sport consistently, year-in and year-out. Before becoming a professional handicapper, he has covered football teams as a sportswriter in four different conferences.
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