Nineteen national championships compared to just one, a 20-year head coach with four titles compared to an eight-year head coach without no titles, a bevy of potential pro prospects, a 12-3 all-time series advantage, and seven points from Las Vegas book makers are all reasons to believe the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide (13-1) will roll over the No. 1 Clemson Tigers (14-0) in Monday’s College Football Playoff title game.
Or, to put it another way, picking Nick Saban’s Tide to beat the Tigers seems like a sure bet given each program’s recent and not-so-recent histories.
But Clemson and head coach Dabo Swinney are on the verge of the program’s second national championship, and there are at least three good reasons why the Tigers can pull off the upset at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
The lofty, eye-popping stats (3,699 passing yards, 31 TDs, 1,032 rushing yards, 12 TDs) and his third-place Heisman Trophy finish don’t even begin to explain Watson's potential to dominate a game.
The gifted sophomore has excellent vision, and the ability to bait defenses with his quick feet and then make the pay down field with a bomb down the sideline. But Watson’s also an intelligent, methodical player, completing 68.2 percent of his passes this season and his 12 interceptions off 444 pass attempts makes for a minuscule 2.7-percent interception rate.
He’s also saved some of his best performances for the country’s best teams. When Oklahoma tried to take away his receivers, the Sooners couldn’t stop Watson in the CFP semifinal as he took off for 145 rushing yards and one touchdown for his fifth 100-yard ground game of the season.
Boston College did the opposite back on Oct. 17, hoping to contain Watson in the pocket by limiting his effectiveness on the ground. Instead, he fired off 41 passes, completing 27 for 420 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-17 victory.
Watson’s incredible play lays claim to just half of the Tigers’ claws. Junior defensive end Shaq Lawson (10.5 sacks, 23.5 tackles-for-a-loss), sophomore cornerback Mackensie Alexander (five pass breakups, five passes defensed), and junior safety Jayron Kearse (6.5 tackles-for-a-loss, one interception, six pass breakups, seven passes defensed) lead a well-rounded and orchestrated defense that ranks No. 18 in the country with 20.2 points allowed per game and has the same ranking against the run (124.4 ypg, 3.59 ypa).
Clemson just dominated the high-octane Sooners, who have far more weapons than the Tide, holding them to 378 total offensive yards, a 5-for-13 third-down conversion rate, forcing two turnovers, and just 17 points, tying their season-low.
Lawson’s battling a knee injury he suffered against the Sooners, though he’s expected to play against Alabama and was seen practicing on Tuesday.
Swinney and Saban know talent alone won’t win a national title, but rather coaching up that talent and making sure players know how to put themselves in position to use the considerable skills at key moments makes all the difference between a big win or a disappointing loss.
The Tigers wrapped up the ACC title and stand undefeated because they know how to execute in key moments. There was junior linebacker Ben Boulware and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins stunting Notre Dame quarterback Deshone Kizer’s two-point conversion attempt for a tie and overtime, returner Hunter Renfrow’s recovered on-side kick that thwarted North Carolina’s upset bid in the ACC championship, the sneaky offensive line remaining completely still to confuse Miami and allow Watson to pull off a 34-yard screen and touchdown play, and many others to suggest Clemson has what it takes to beat the Tide. This is team that should not be underestimated, even against a titan like Alabama.