Just as the new year is upon us, so is a national championship game that will help transform college football for years to come. Nick Saban’s Alabama versus Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers. Swinney’s team will arrive to the game early next week still undefeated, a perfect 14-0.
In the modern era of college football, no team has completed a season with 15 wins. The college football playoff adds two games for the champion to an already rigorous schedule of 12 games, not to mention a conference championship in most cases.
College football is approaching the NFL’s lengthy schedule of 16 games, at least for the teams competing in this year’s playoff. And if it moves to an eight-team playoff, which I think it will at some point in the future, the season will become even longer for championship teams.
But despite this lengthy schedule, both teams seem to be in top form. This year brings yet another special matchup, two Heisman Trophy finalists in the final game of the season.
In its semifinal game, Alabama did what was expected. The Crimson Tide trounced Michigan State’s incapable Connor Cook, shutting out the Spartans 38-0 in what has been the worst rout in the college football playoff to date.
Derrick Henry was not his usual self with only 75 yards on the ground and two scores to show for his 20 carries. But he was going up against perhaps the best rushing defense in the country, outside of Alabama.
The real spark from the Tide’s offense came from senior QB Jake Coker. He threw for 286 yards and two TDs, fairly pedestrian numbers until you look at the completions. Coker went 25 for 30 on the game — 83 percent completions.
I expect Coker to play a big role in the national championship. Pay attention to that statistic, 83 percent completion percentage. Nick Saban’s quarterbacks have been nothing but efficient in previous seasons and this one is no exception. In order to win, Coker will need to be as efficient as ever.
Now for Clemson.
The Tigers have a unique weapon in Deshaun Watson. He threw for only 187 yards against the Oklahoma Sooners, but what carried his team was his exceptional ability to avoid tackles on the ground.
Watson rushed for 145 yards and a touchdown in the Tigers’ semifinal win over Oklahoma. The ability to run the football will be Watson’s greatest asset going into this championship game.
Alabama has not faced a quarterback this season with the running ability Watson possesses. Unlike Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, Watson is fast and elusive. What I think will be a lethal combination for Alabama’s defense.
Outside of Watson’s quarterbacking abilities, the greatest weapon for these Tigers is their defense. While most were paying attention to the quarterbacking duel between Baker Mayfield and Watson, Samaje Perine, one of the most skilled running backs in college football (and the single game rushing record holder) was held to a mere 58 yards.
If Clemson can repeat this performance against Heisman Derrick Henry, it will more than likely gain an insurmountable advantage in this ballgame.
It’s a poetic matchup. Reminiscent of the one played in Pasadena a decade ago between the Longhorns and the Trojans. Heisman-winning running back versus the Heisman finalist quarterback with something to prove.
My money is on the quarterback and the overlooked Clemson defense. There is always something to be said about the intangible qualities of a team. The makeup of a champion. It’s not something you can read in a box score.
It’s the determination and resolve of a national champion, the swagger on and off the field. Clemson has it and Alabama does not. That will be the difference.