The National Football League was a dud this season. Ratings dropped 9% and the on-field action appeared like players were legally obligated to show up to games completely hungover for the first ten weeks of the season.
Due to the NFL’s lack of appeal, I really got to watch a lot more college football, which this year, was pretty incredible.
Since the dawning of the College Football Playoff, the top ten teams coming into the season were, for all intents and purposes, your only true contenders. While Alabama and Clemson did start out the season ranked #1 and #2 in the AP Top 25… and Ohio State was #6… there seemed to be a new team emerging as a huge playoff threat every week. Plus, when it was all said and done, Washington rose from #14 to #4 to make the playoffs.
We got to watch the rise of Lamar Jackson at Louisville, the amazing comeback victories coming week after week from the Tennessee Volunteers (one of my favorite watches this season), the unforeseen reemergence of Penn State… there was just a lot of great stuff.
Now, the season is almost over. There’s one game left to play.
Whether you like it or not, the #1 Alabama Crimson Tide and #2 Clemson Tigers NCAA Football Championship game is what we all deserve.
This game is a rematch from last season’s championship when Alabama snuck away with Nick Saban’s fifth National Championship. Meanwhile, if you flip the cards, that also prompted a brand-new magnifying glass placed on Clemson’s All-American quarterback, Deshaun Watson.
Alabama-Clemson has a lot to offer, as we’ve got many compelling factors in play both on and off the field.
Quarterbacks are unarguably the most important position in football, which if you’ve watched the Cleveland Browns play anytime in the last twenty years, you’ll learn pretty quickly. The Browns are going to be watching closely as Deshaun Watson takes the field against Alabama, but fans should be tuned to Alabama’s quarterback, freshman Jalen Hurts.
Watson and Hurts are very similar when it comes to quarterback style, but Watson has a reliability in his experience that Hurts won’t be able to attain (that’s not a knock on Hurts, he’s just younger)
In a 2016 campaign where Watson earned himself the Davey O’Brien award, the junior threw for 4,173 yards, 38 touchdowns, and completed 67.3% of his passes, which is damn good. He also ran for 586 yards and an additional 8 touchdowns, which is also damn good.
The knock to Watson, and it’s a major knock, are his 17 interceptions, which for a rumored top-10 draft pick, is really terrible. To go off of Brock Osweiler of the Houston Texans, an NFL quarterback who threw 16 interceptions, you shouldn’t throw more than a pick a game as a starting quarterback.
Deshaun Watson is three years of starts deep, so it’s… fitting (?) that the guy Alabama starts at quarterback is a true freshman who was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year (which is an insult to O.J. Howard, but we’ll get there).
If the plus/minus on Watson are his big play ability and in comparison with his high turnover liability, that flips when you look to Hurts.
Jalen Hurts threw for 2,649 yards, 22 touchdowns, and completed 64.7% of his passes. Fine. That is fine, Jalen. He’s got a comparable run game to Watson with 891 yards and 12 touchdowns (sure, Hurts has better numbers, but he has 40 more carries).
So, Watson is a better passer, but Hurts only has 9 INTs to Watson’s 17.
Hurts is a freshman. Watson is a junior. You would expect Watson to be a little less sloppy and vice versa. Watson will probably turn the ball over; it’s going to be about how he responds to the turnover that we need to watch. Hurts hasn’t been on this stage before and we just don’t know enough about him to predict how he’s going to play. The quarterbacks are going to be an incredibly intriguing part of this game.
Flipping sides of the ball, it’s wrong to talk about this Alabama team without talking about Jonathan Allen, which isn’t a hot take. Allen is projected to be a top-three NFL Draft selection in April and damn… he’s really good.
Allen is a senior who rushes the passer like a seven-year NFL veteran. He has 9.5 sacks, 15 tackles-for-loss, and 62 tackles, oh and a pick-six.
In the Washington game, Allen chased the Huskies’ Heisman-calibar quarterback Jake Browning around the field all day long, which lead to one of the most embarrassing College Football Playoff losses we’ve ever witnessed (don’t worry, Ohio State will get their’s too).
Allen will impact this game. He just will. He might force a fumble, he might force Watson into a bad throw for an interception, or he just might cause nightmares for Clemson’s running game, which is ranked at 54th in the nation, so if shut down will leave an unreal Alabama defense to sit back and eat Watson passes.
Jonathan Allen is a beast and could very well earn himself the first overall selection, even though that means he’ll be subjected to Cleveland-based torture.
Clemson has their own beast on the line, but theirs is a 300 lbs tackle. You may have heard of him, J.T. Barrett has nightmares about him, ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Carlos Watkins.
The Tigers finished with the 15th-ranked defense, which is weird, because they weren’t talked about like 15th-ranked defense.
Carlos Watkins, who shouldn’t be confused with former Clemson, current Buffalo Bills receiver Sammy Watkins, has 10.5 sacks this season headed into the Championship.
He’s a really solid pass defender, but he’s actually a bigger factor in the run. Agains Ohio State, Watkins was able to stack-up Mike Weber Jr. at the line-of-scrimmage on a regular basis, which helped Clemson’s defense tune into the pass, which was also terrible.
While he’s not as large of a factor as Allen, if he can help hold Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough under 50 yards, I think Clemson has an incredible chance to stun Alabama.
One man on the field will not be shut down. It’s impossible. He’s always open, he’s huge, and he’s fast. O.J. Howard is the key to this game for the Crimson Tide above all other factors.
Howard was recruited to play basketball and football at Alabama, but I can’t find any stats for his basketball career, so it’s reasonable to wonder if he ever dribbled a ball at a single practice (something tells me Saban wasn’t going to let his 5-star tight end get posterized by Kentucky).
Howard is a senior, but for some reason, we haven’t heard his name much over the last four seasons. He’s got 41 catches for 489 yards and 2 TDs, which is completely bogus. Nick Saban, I’m onto you.
There is not a single reason why Jalen Hurts shouldn’t throw O.J. Howard the ball 15 times a game, but he doesn’t; no Alabama quarterback has completed more passes to Howard in a season than Hurts, but he still only had the 41 receptions.
I’m not convinced Nick Saban isn’t saving Howard to use as a not-as-secret-yet-still-s0mewhat-secret weapon to just feed in a game. This is Howard’s last game of college eligibility and I have a hell of a time thinking he’s not going to explode.
Last season against Clemson, Howard went off for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns against a formidable defense. I don’t think it matters that the Tigers have had a full year to plan; he’s going to burn them, and I think it’s going to happen quite a few times.
Clemson has a response to O.J. Howard.
Mike Williams is the best receiver in the college game, maybe only contested by Western Michigan’s Corey Davis.
Williams is open in the way only a top-caliber receiver can be open. He finds ways to make the middle of the field his stomping ground and will be a big play factor every time Watson drops back to pass.
He’s a redshirt junior with 1,267 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns, and he averages 14.1 yards a catch, which is pretty great.
What I like better from Williams? In 12 of 14 games this season, Williams has catches of at least 20 yards or more, which means Watson can rely on the the guy to survive rough, third-and-long situations.
Clemson is known for it’s new dominance, while Alabama is known for its classic survival as the game’s top program. Programs are only as successful as their coaches, which transcends into this game.
Dabo Sweeney and Nick Saban are the headlines of this game.
Nick Saban is going for a tie of the most titles for a coach in college football history with six; that record is held by former Alabama coach and sports icon Bear Bryant.
If Saban ties the record, he will unquestionably go down as the greatest college coach of all-time, which puts him ahead of some great company.
Sweeney, on the other hand, will be going for his first title ever, which is kind of unbelievable, because if you asked me on the street, I would probably have guessed he had at least one.
Clemson has become a top-ten program under Sweeney, but that trophy would finally cement them among the Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan, USC, etc., programs of the world.
I would be lying if I told you there’s a clear favorite in this game; I can’t decide who has the edge. For every reason I want to pick Clemson, I can think of another for Alabama.
Vegas likes Alabama -7, last year’s game granted Alabama the 45-40 victory over the Tigers, but who knows.
This should be a great cap to a great college football season.