If you were to make the case that the Clemson Tigers are going to beat the Alabama Crimson Tide on Monday night in the fifth annual College Football Playoff National Championship Game, this is how you would make it:
Start with Trevor Lawrence.
Clemson’s quarterback hasn’t been impervious to nervous moments. He was not extremely sharp late in the season at Boston College, when Clemson’s offense struggled for much of the night. He needed a little time to settle into the Cotton Bowl playoff semifinal against Notre Dame. Yet, he has not yet made the “big mistake” which one would expect at some point from a freshman. He adjusts. He keeps the ball out of harm’s way. He has the total trust of his teammates. He owns an NFL-caliber arm. He looks like a big-league, real-deal quarterback who will be a top-two NFL Draft pick if he continues on his current trajectory.
When Clemson defeated Alabama for the national title two years ago in Tampa, Deshaun Watson made lots of clutch throws against the Crimson Tide’s defense. If the Tigers repeat the feat on Monday, Lawrence will be at the center of the action. Travis Etienne might get some work done on the ground, but it remains true — it has always been true this decade — that if you want to beat Alabama’s defense under Nick Saban, you need to throw the ball, and throw it vertically for big plays. You can’t dink and dunk your way to big point totals against Bama. Lawrence, like Watson, can stretch the field. He can move around in the pocket to buy time. He can throw into tight windows. He can definitely carve up the Bama secondary if given the chance by his offensive line.
Lawrence is a winner. He is more than a game manager, and he showed that he is several notches more skilled than the man he defeated in the Cotton Bowl, Notre Dame’s Ian Book.
If you start with Lawrence, you then have to continue by mentioning Clemson’s receivers.
Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross were outstanding against Notre Dame, making contested catches for big plays and dominating at the catch point. They are fast and strong, and they don’t back down from a confrontation. There will probably be a time or two in this game when Clemson will need to win a 50-50 ball. Lawrence might feel extra pressure in the pocket, and he will put a ball in jeopardy trusting that his receivers will go up in the air and make the play. Higgins and Ross are more than good enough to help out their teammate. This passing game should be abl to do some damage to the Tide’s secondary.
A part of the Clemson formula for success is the continuity of its coaching staff.
Brent Venables stays at defensive coordinator each year instead of grabbing a head coaching job elsewhere. Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott are still there as co-offensive coordinators. All three men were around when the Tigers beat Bama two years ago for the national title. They all figure to have a good plan in their respective positions. Alabama is the program whose coaching staff changes. Two years ago, Lane Kiffin coached the Bama offense in the playoff semifinals but was cut loose before the title game. Steve Sarkisian coordinated the offense then, before going to the Atlanta Falcons. The offensive coordinator position has continued to turn over in each of the past two seasons at Alabama, with Brian Daboll doing the work in 2017 and Mike Locksley taking over in 2018. Dan Enos should be next in 2019. Alabama’s coordinators have been good, but that extra familiarity from the Clemson side could matter for the Tigers.
On defense, the Clemson outlook is more cloudy, due to the absence of Dexter Lawrence from the mix. That is obviously an important loss. However, the Tigers showed against Notre Dame that they could dominate without Lawrence.
Of course, Notre Dame is not Alabama. Of course, Alabama will make its share of plays. However, Clemson doesn’t need to dominate the Tide the way it smothered the Irish. Clemson has a great chance to win this game if it can keep Bama under 30 points. Christian Wilkins is a massive force on Clemson’s defensive line. If he and his teammates up front can hit Tua Tagovailoa and apply a thorough pounding to the quarterback throughout this game, it could pay dividends late in the fourth quarter. Tua might not run as well. He might bail out on some throws. Clemson’s defense is certainly physical enough that it could take a page from the Georgia Bulldogs’ playbook and cause Tua to misfire a few times – enough to make the difference on Monday night.
Two more reasons to think Clemson will win:
First, Dabo Swinney created the same architecture at CU which Nick Saban established in Tuscaloosa. Clemson knows how to develop players, build depth in recruiting, and basically keep the machine rolling. This isn’t Ohio State, where one can spot a conspicuous weakness on the roster. (This year it was the linebackers.) This isn’t Georgia, a team hampered by Jake Fromm’s inconsistency this season and an offensive line which sometimes got bullied, as shown against Texas and especially LSU. Clemson has belonged on Alabama’s level the past four years. No other program can say that.
Last but not least: Clemson is a complete team which will provide a complete challenge for Alabama. The Oklahoma Sooners had a magnificent offense but an atrocious defense. Alabama’s offense ran wild against OU. Clemson is strong on both sides of the ball. Alabama will have a tough time adjusting from the virtually nonexistent degree of resistance it faced against Oklahoma to the much more robust and hard-nosed Clemson roster, especially when Alabama has the ball. The Tide will score, but they won’t score 45 points as they did in the Orange Bowl against the Sooners… and they will have to work a lot harder for the points they do score.
Clemson is so different from – and so much better than – the Oklahoma team Alabama didn’t fully put away until late in the fourth quarter on Dec. 29. The gap between Clemson and OU shows why the Tigers are ready to not merely cover the spread, but win outright in Santa Clara, California.