Alabama-Clemson Preview: ‘Mirror image’ Tide, Tigers tangle again

Love it or hate it, you can’t knock it: No. 1 Alabama is playing No. 2 Clemson for college football’s national championship.

The Monday night showdown at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., will mark the fourth consecutive season in which these powerhouses have met in the College Football Playoff — the third time with the title on the line.

While some might be fatigued by the familiarity, fact is the Crimson Tide and Tigers have been this season’s two best, most complete teams. Only one, though, will finish 15-0.

“This is the way it should be,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

Alabama junior left tackle Jonah Williams said: “I’m not really surprised. In football if you have better players who are better coached, you’re going to win.”

Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban certainly has done a lot of winning. He has six national titles — five at Alabama in the past nine seasons — to go with a 2003 ring from LSU. With one more championship, he would break a tie with Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for most by a coach in the poll era.

Tide led by explosive ‘O’

Tua Tagovailoa
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The current Crimson Tide offense is, by far, the best Saban has had in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama’s average of 47.7 points per game has a lot to do with sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, this season’s new starter after he achieved instant-legend status by coming off bench at halftime to rally Alabama past Georgia in overtime in last season’s national championship game.

Tagovailoa, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, has thrown 41 touchdown passes with only four interceptions. After needing ankle surgery following the Southeastern Conference title game, he returned to complete 24 of 27 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns in last week’s College Football Playoff semifinal win over Oklahoma. Now, he will have to navigate the aggressive schemes of Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy leads the Tide’s talented group of pass-catchers, while Josh Jacobs, of late, has led a time-share at tailback, showing power and elusiveness as a runner and after the catch.

“He’s really played well for us all year long, especially in these last few games,” Saban said of Jacobs. “Our offensive staff has done a really good job of utilizing his talents.”

Can freshman lead Tigers to title?

Trevor Lawrence
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Tagovailoa’s quarterback counterpart is the real X-factor in this matchup — true freshman Trevor Lawrence. Swinney inserted the former five-star recruit into the starting lineup in the fifth game of the season in part because of matchups like this.

Lawrence’s strong arm and ability to hit the deep ball potentially could loosen an Alabama defense in ways that former starter Kelly Bryant could not do last season against the Tide.

“He’s got a rare confidence and focus,” Swinney said of Lawrence. “Just has always been really locked in on himself and who he is and not worried about things he doesn’t control.”

Another Alabama all-star defensive front, led by Outland Trophy winner Quinnen Williams, will try to rattle Lawrence, who has looked unflappable. Part of that is because of his supporting cast, which includes all kinds of speed at receiver, including Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, as well as running back Travis Etienne (1,572 yards, 8.27 per carry, 22 TDs). Clemson averages 44.3 points per game.

And Alabama can’t forget about Tigers senior Hunter Renfrow, who caught a touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson with one second left to beat Alabama 35-31 for the national title in January 2017. The Tide won 45-40 a year earlier, and Alabama controlled last season’s semifinal matchup, 24-6.

Clemson, as it was last week in a 30-3 win over Notre Dame, will be without junior defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, a likely NFL first-round pick who is suspended after testing positive for a trace amount of a banned substance.

Alabama might be missing outside linebacker Christian Miller, who sustained a hamstring injury in the Dec. 29 Orange Bowl against the Sooners, a 45-34 Crimson Tide win.

As Round 4 of this heavyweight fight is set to begin, Swinney sees the difference potentially being “two or three plays.”

“I think both teams are kind of mirror images of each other — really good defenses, dynamic quarterbacks, very talented running backs and explosive skill, and just kind of built in the trenches,” Swinney said. “We’re so similar.”

–Field Level Media

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