Can Clemson steal the championship stage from big, bad Alabama?
TAMPA, Fla. — Actual conversation overheard Sunday afternoon at a downtown marina roughly five miles from Raymond James Stadium, site of Monday night’s championship rematch between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson:
Bill: “Hey, Biff.”
Biff: “Hey, Bill.”
Bill: “Do you know Biff, Bev?”
Biff: “Roll Tide.”
Bev: “Roll Tide.”
That, friends, is a slice of life inside the Alabama bubble, where a simple two-word phrase can have such a complexity of meaning. “Roll Tide” can seamlessly take the place of hello, goodbye, best of luck, I love you, I never want to see you again or — just one of many more examples — we’re gonna pound dadgum Clemson into the dirt.
To be sure, supporters of the Crimson Tide are a confident, no-nonsense lot. In many respects, they have come to reflect the nature of coach Nick Saban, who will be attempting to win his fifth national title in the last eight years at Alabama and his sixth overall (the first came at LSU in 2003).
“I don’t really feel any sense of relief,” Saban said at the final press conference before game day. “I’m sort of glad to be here.”
When the head coaches were finished taking questions from the assembled media, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney stood next to the championship trophy at the center of the dais, pulled out his phone and pretended to take a selfie. It was a charming moment, to be sure, though Saban missed it — his back was turned, as he’d instantly begun exiting the stage.
The question is: Any chance the touchdown-underdog Tigers celebrate with the trophy Monday night while the Tide — who’ve never lost a title game under Saban — cede the stage?
Ten things to watch for:
1. Dual-ing Deshaun Watson: No doubt, Clemson’s dazzling junior quarterback is a throw-first kind of guy — as in, over 4,000 yards through the air this season, not to mention the 400-plus he threw for last January in a 45-40 loss to the Tide.
But Watson also can run, especially as a scrambler, and it’ll be important that he do both against the best defense in the country. There has been an apparent rub this season between Watson’s running ability and his determination to put his pocket passing first.
“I’m a quarterback, that’s how I look at it,” he said. “I guess if you want to say I’m a dual threat and I can run the ball, I can pass the ball — I don’t really look at the label so much. I just try to be the best quarterback I can be.”
Watson’s best is potential-game-MVP good. That should be obvious to everyone by now.
2. Jalen Hurts vs. the moment: No matter how often, or how rarely, Alabama’s Hurts is allowed to pass the ball, the pressure on him to manage the game will be significant. No true freshman quarterback since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985 has led his team to a national title.
“In the classroom, I’m a sophomore,” said Hurts, who was an early enrollee, “so that feels pretty good to say. But, I mean, I guess I have some experience under my belt now. I’m not a little kid anymore.”
3. Steve Sarkisian vs. Brent Venables: It’s Sarkisian’s first game as Alabama’s offensive coordinator after Lane Kiffin hit the bricks for Florida Atlantic. Calling plays against the estimable Venables, who has been entrenched for five seasons as Clemson’s defensive coordinator, will be a real challenge. As good as Alabama is, it can’t remotely count on physically manhandling the Tigers.
4. The Bo show: Did anyone else watch young, huge, fast Tide back Bo Scarbrough rush for 180 yards (on only 19 carries) and two touchdowns against Washington on New Year’s Eve and wonder: Is this kid better than predecessor Derrick Henry?
“He’s got that big, physical presence that you can’t simulate on the scout team,” Venables said.
Yeah, no kidding.
5. Mike Williams’ impact: Clemson’s best, most productive receiver — whom some NFL scouts are trumpeting as the next Megatron — was injured and missed last season’s championship game. Considering how well Watson and the passing game fared without him, it’s exciting to think of what the Tigers offense might get done with a 6-3, 225-pound, Calvin Johnson-style athlete.
“He’s a big guy, fast guy,” Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said. “He really competes for the 50-50 balls. He goes and gets it. Looks like a power forward out there playing.”
6. Pass rushes: Alabama has 50 sacks, one off the national lead, with a trio of seniors — Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson — who at times look like they can dump a quarterback whenever they want to. Yet the Tigers are only one sack behind, with 49, and have perhaps this game’s most dangerous rusher in senior Carlos Watkins leading the charge.
Hurts will have (many) fewer dropbacks than Watson, so Clemson’s rushers will have to make their opportunities count. The Tide will try to pressure Watson (17 incerceptions) into key mistakes.
7. Defensive penetration: The battles up front will be gargantuan. Both defensive lines are top-shelf. If Clemson can disrupt the timing of Alabama’s running game, it could make all the difference. If Clemson can get highly accomplished running back Wayne Gallman going at all, it might be a surprise.
“Just got to contain those guys, all of them up front,” Tigers center Jay Guillermo said. “They have about a two-deep that’s pretty dadgum good at playing football.”
8. This year’s O.J. Howard: In last year’s game, Howard, the terrific Alabama tight end, exploded with a stunning 205 yards on five catches, two of them for long touchdowns. Who’ll be the unexpected offensive hero this time around?
It could be a Clemson pass-catcher other than Williams — Artavis Scott, perhaps, or Deon Cain or Jordan Leggett. It could be any number of guys on the Tide, such as running back Damien Harris or even Hurts in the passing game. Come to think of it, it could be O.J. Howard. He’s still around and still one of the most talented tight ends in college football.
9. Back-breaking plays: The Tide had two of them in the teams’ first meeting. One was a successful onside kick in the fourth quarter — an incredibly bold call by Saban after his team had tied the game at 24-all with over 10 minutes to play. Later, Kenyan Drake’s 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown made it a two-score game.
Will Alabama’s defense score in the rematch? Saban’s defense has put touchdowns on the boards a hard-to-believe 11 times in 14 games. Clemson could really swing things with a defensive (or special-teams) score of its own.
10. The sideline vibes: There are media in Tampa who’ve gotten the impression that Swinney and his players are too loose for their own good. There are media in Tampa who’ve gotten the impression that Saban and his players are too tight for their own good.
Important note: None of us knows what we’re talking about in this regard.
Yet it bears watching, on both sides. What would Saban look like with a championship slipping from his grasp? Maybe we’ll find out. The pick is Clemson, 34-31.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.