Clemson's biggest advantages and weaknesses going into the CFP Championship
With another year under his belt, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is set to take fire after a long, grueling season. Unlike Alabama, Clemson's wins were hard-fought, with Louisville, N.C. State and Florida State being grinder games where victory was far from assured, even before mentioning their shocking one-point loss to Pitt in November. The stumble seemed to stun the Tigers for a spell, but by the time they got to their College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State, head coach Dabo Swinney had the team right back into the grove for a 31-0 shutout of the Buckeyes.
We've given you the reasons why the 2017 College Football Playoff Championship between Alabama and Clemson isn't just a rematch of the 2016 title bout along with who has the coaching edge between the Crimson Tide's Nick Saban and Clemson's Dabo Swinney, now it's time to get to the tail of the tape. What edge does Clemson have in the title game (and how Alabama can steal it back).
(Want to read the Alabama side of this? Don't worry, we've got you covered.)
College Football Playoff Championship
Clemson #2 (13-1, ACC) vs Alabama #1 (14-0, SEC)
Location: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa
Time: Monday, Jan. 9, 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT
The biggest advantages for Clemson against Alabama
Daniel Tran: You won’t see many Deshaun Watsons in college football. He is the rare talent where his arm might be as good as his legs. Watson threw for 4,173 yards and 38 touchdowns, adding 586 yards on the ground. His rushing totals are down from last year, but that is probably to save him the extra wear and tear before entering into NFL Draft. Alabama has had some trouble corralling true dual threat quarterbacks and Deshaun Watson might be their biggest challenge yet.
It also helps Watson that he one of the best receiving groups in the country. Mike Williams was absent from most of the last years campaign including the national championship game due to a neck injury, but came back this year with 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns. Running routes with him are Artavis Scott and former walk-on Hunter Renfrow who are more than capable of winning their matchups if Williams is covered.
If Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts has to throw this game, he needs to think twice. Clemson may have a heralded offense, but its defense is also outstanding at taking the ball away, intercepting 20 passes this year, including two last week against Ohio State. Hurts didn’t get a lot of work throwing last week because he didn’t need to, but he will need to exercise caution against this group of ball hawkers if Nick Saban calls his number.
Shiloh Carder: Deshaun Watson. He's a huge advantage because that's the one thing that Clemson unequivocally has better than Alabama. He'll be the best quarterback the Tide have seen all season and his dual-threat ability is difficult to game plan. There's nothing that Watson hasn't seen (including a Nick Saban defense) and he wants this badly. The whole team has wanted this badly. It's rare that a team loses a championship game and come all the way back to compete in it the following year. Quite a feat.
Clemson's defense may not be talked about much since Alabama's gets most of the shine, but it's a damn fine unit in its own right. They held Ohio State's vaunted rushing attack to just 86 yards on 23 carries – 64 of those yards came on just one run. If Steve Sarkisian can't fix Lane Kiffin's passing attack, he won't be able to rely on just running all over that Clemson front.
Finally, Watson has a great group of receivers to throw it to. Mike Williams is a freak and should be the focal point for the defense. However, five Tigers caught at least four TD passes this season and they love to spread defenses out and create one-on-one matchups. Even if you can cover it, Watson can beat you with his legs.
Sam Greszes: The Clemson receiving corps is just impressive. Mike Williams has already racked up 1,267 yards on the year, and he, Jordan Leggett, and Deon Cain are all averaging over 14 yards per catch. Put that together with a rare talent like quarterback Deshaun Watson is a huge gain for Clemson. Watson's a better quarterback than young Jalen Hurts, plain and simple.
Speaking of the Alabama quarterback, Clemson's defensive line can play. Clemson ranks 5th in the nation in team sacks, and getting after Jalen Hurts early and often could set the tone for the rest of the game, tipping the scales in Clemson's favor.
Biggest weaknesses for Clemson
Daniel Tran: Clemson’s biggest strength may be its weakness as well. Deshaun Watson has the arm and the legs of a star, but he was a little wild at times against Ohio State. He threw two interceptions against the Buckeyes. Fortunately for the Tigers, Ohio State messed up enough to get shutout, 31-0. Against Alabama however, he needs to be on top of his game or the Clemson is sunk.
Depth at the running back position is also a problem for the Tigers. Wayne Gallman is a 1000-yard rusher this year, and Watson is good runner, but the next best rusher on Clemson, Tavien Feaster, has 221 rushing yards. If Gallman goes down, more will be put on Watson’s shoulders.
Sam Greszes: Interceptions. Despite blanking Ohio State, Deshaun Watson threw two picks. Against a hungry Alabama defense that is quick to score, that can't happen again in the title game.
They also are weak with their third down efficiency. Sure, they didn't really need them, but Clemson converted on less than half of their third-down attempts. Winning the possession battle will be key for Clemson here, so they'll need to be better at keeping drives alive or risk being beaten once again.
Shiloh Carder: Clemson turns it over and commits penalties which is toxic against a defense like Alabama's and a coach like Saban. In the Fiesta Bowl, Clemson turned it over twice in their first five drives but Ohio State never capitalized – Alabama lives to pounce on opportunities like this.
Clemson also has lost the element of surprise. While it is good that they've seen Alabama before and will be prepared, the opposite is also true. You can bet that Nick Saban has been preparing to play Clemson in this spot all season long. Ohio State was stunned by the Tigers' defense and by Watson's ability but Alabama is well aware of their talent and won't be caught flat-footed.
Honestly, there's no blueprint written to beat this Alabama team. They're undefeated and haven't been seriously challenged late in games. Clemson has not only been beaten this year, but they've had their fair share of close calls. All of which Nick Saban has been dissecting.
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