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NCAA Championship game a test of wills for Bama, Clemson

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Sports Editor

When the four team playoff system was implemented two years ago, no one anticipated that a re-match from the previous year would happen as quickly. In fact, there has never been a national championship re-match in NCAA history.
Well, it has happened and fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers could not be happier.
The Tide come into the game as the defending champions and have won four of the eight national titles, all of them under the direction of head coach Nick Saban. Alabama seeks their eighteenth championship in school history.
Clemson has won one championship, that title coming in 1981. The Tigers, led by head coach Dabo Swinney, are attempting to win their second title in as many years, having lost to Alabama in last year’s championship game.
Last season’s title game was an offensive shootout, with the Crimson Tide out-dueling the Tigers 45-40. In that game, both teams combined for 40 points in the final quarter, with Alabama scoring 24 of those points.
This year feels a whole lot different. The Crimson Tide comes into the game with staggering defensive numbers. Alabama is ranked No. 1 in the country in several categories on the defensive side of the ball.
First and foremost, the Crimson Tide hold their opponents to an average of 11.43 points per game. They also lead the country in total defense (244 yard per game), opponent’s yards per play (3.77) and opponent’s rush yards per attempt (2.0). Alabama is also first in opponent’s red zone scores with an average of 1.21 scores per red zone appearances.
If Clemson is going to have any chance at winning the title this year, they will have to deal with an Alabama defense that has pretty much shut everyone down this entire season.
The Crimson Tide have the personnel and depth to lock their opponents down by playing man-to- man on the corners, leaving nine other players in the box to deal with the run. And, as the stats bear out, the Tide are monsters against the run.
One consolation for Clemson is that they have a potent offense. The Tigers average 40 points per game and 503 yards per game; including 328 yards per game passing. More importantly, Clemson is No. 3 in the country in third down conversions, which is needed to sustain drives and keep possession of the football.
One of the biggest keys of the game will be the play of each team’s quarterback. Clemson has a proven leader in
Deshaun Watson. The junior signal caller has thrown for 4,173 yards and 38 touchdowns this season. He has also rushed for 586 yards on the year, down from 1,105 yards last season.
Yet, the veteran also has thrown for 17 interceptions, leaving him vulnerable to the mighty Crimson Tide defense.
Alabama has scored 15 non-offensive touchdowns this year. If Watson is to be successful against the aggressive Crimson Tide defense two things must happen: the offensive line must protect and Watson must not give Alabama extra possessions by turning the ball over.
On the flip side, the Crimson Tide has Jalen Hurts, a true freshman that has not faced the atmosphere and pressure of a national championship game.
Hurts’ numbers do not flash a bright as Watson’s, but the young athlete has done what was necessary to win games. Hurts is a manager of the offense, making sure he does not make the big mistakes and using his running ability to keep opposing defenses honest.
To make things even more difficult for the freshman quarterback, the only offensive coordinator he has known will not be calling plays for this ever important game, as Lane Kiffin has moved on to see about the logistics of his new job as Florida Atlantic’s new coach.
Instead, Hurts will have to rely on Steve Sarkisian, the quality control coach hired by Saban this season. Sarkisian will be calling the plays from the sideline for the first time this year.
How Hurts adjusts to that huge change and the pressure of the biggest of his life will determine how well the Alabama offense performs.
Special teams will play an ever important part of the game also. In stacking up the two squads in terms of special teams, the advantage would have to be in the favor of Alabama.
One area of special teams that the Crimson Tide have a definite edge in is punting. Alabama averages 47.4 yards per punt, while the Tigers only average 38.12 yards per punt. This could be enormous in terms of field position.
In the end it will be an interesting game again this year. Look for who gains the advantage in terms of field position early in the game.
If Alabama can force some quick three and out possessions from Clemson and begins to use their running game to wear down the Tigers in the first half, the Tide could slowly impose their will, causing some unnecessary risk taking by Clemson.
My prediction for the game: Alabama 27, Clemson 17.

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