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Alabama vs. Clemson — Your College Football Championship Preview

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The nation’s top two teams square off Monday night with the national championship on the line.

CFP National Championship Game Presented by AT&T

January 11, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

No. 1 Clemson (14–0) vs. No. 1 Alabama (131)

How They Got Here

Top-ranked Clemson comes in as the only undefeated team in college football, after winning their second ACC title in 24 years. They advanced to the championship game with a 37-17 victory over No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

Since an early season loss to Ole Miss, No. 2 Alabama has been a juggernaut, steamrolling 11 straight opponents by an average of more than 23 points per game. The Crimson Tide come in off a 38-0 Cotton Bowl rout of No. 3 Michigan State.

When Alabama Has the Ball

When the Crimson Tide takes the field, you know exactly what you’re going to get–all the Derrick Henry you can handle. The bruising Heisman winner leads the nation in rushing yards (2,061) and touchdowns (25), breaking Herschel Walker’s SEC single-season rushing record and becoming the first SEC player to rush for 2,000-plus yards in a season in the process.

But while Henry carries the load, the Alabama offense is not as one-dimensional as you might think. Quarterback Jake Coker has been very efficient in managing the offense (73.5 completion percentage and only two interceptions in his last eight games) when needed. When Michigan State sold out to stop Henry, holding him to “only” 75 yards and two touchdowns, Coker had his best game of the year, going 25-of-30 for 286 yards and two touchdowns.

The status of Clemson’s All-American defensive end Shaq Lawson is still up in the air after he was knocked of the Orange Bowl with a knee injury. But, if he can go, this will be arguably the best defense Coker and the Tide have faced this year. The Tigers rank sixth nationally in total defense and have to be feeling good after stymieing a potent Oklahoma offense. If Clemson can slow down Henry, the defense is good enough to cause problems for Coker.

When Clemson Has the Ball

Tiger quarterback Deshaun Watson finished third in the Heisman race after proving to be one of the nation’s best dual-threat quarterbacks. The sophomore has thrown for 279 or more yards in six of his last seven games, tossing 16 touchdowns and just five interceptions over that span. However, in that same time, he has also rushed for 700 yards and nine scores.

With Watson as the catalyst of the Tiger run game, Clemson torched Oklahoma for 312 rushing yards and three touchdowns. But they’ll likely find tougher going against Alabama, which has given up just six rushing touchdowns all season and has held eight of its last nine opponents to less than 2.5 yards per carry.

It is difficult to overstate the challenge that Watson and the Tigers are about to face. Alabama leads the nation in scoring defense, rushing defense and turnovers, is second in total defense, and is ninth in pass defense. Moreover, the Crimson Tide defenders are coming in with a boatload of confidence after dominating wins over Florida and Michigan State.

Keys to the Game

Clemson’s defense had a great game in the Orange Bowl, holding the Oklahoma running game to just 67 yards on 33 carries. But, in the six games prior to that, they gave up 10 rushing touchdowns and an average of more than 4.9 yards per carry. Look for Alabama to feed Derrick Henry the ball early and often, daring Clemson to load up against the run. Although Coker is underrated as a passer, the Tigers would much rather take their chances with him in the pass game than let Henry run wild.

For the Tigers, it is vital that they have at least some success on the ground. While it is unlikely Clemson will be able to run the ball at will, they will have to be able pick up some first downs on the ground to avoid becoming one-dimensional and to keep the Alabama defense honest. If Clemson can get the Crimson Tide back on their heels, it could open some big plays by Watson through the air and in the quarterback run game.

Clemson is playing for its first national title since 1981 while this would be the Crimson Tide’s fourth championship in seven years.

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