TAMPA, Fla. — The roles have been cast ever since last year’s national championship game, when Alabama held off Clemson, 45-40, to capture its fourth title in seven seasons.
The 2016 season has done little to change the idea that Alabama still is the dynastic favorite and Clemson again is the tempting underdog in Monday night’s championship game at Raymond James Stadium.
Alabama (14-0) has barely been tested, beating eight ranked opponents and having only one game — nearly four months ago against Ole Miss — decided by fewer than 10 points. Clemson (13-1) has had six wins by a touchdown or less, pulling out close games until a surprisingly dominant 31-0 semifinal win over Ohio State.
“I think we’re better than we were last year,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We were a really good team. I don’t think we finished well last year. We won, but we were a team on fumes, I felt like, toward the end of the season . . . We’re just better prepared, I think, to hopefully play our best four quarters Monday night.”
Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns in last year’s championship loss. The Tigers led early in the fourth quarter but were unable to keep up in a final period that had a combined 40 points scored.
“Deshaun Watson, I’ve said this all week long, is probably the most dynamic player in college football, maybe the best player in college football relative to what he does for his team,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Saturday. “A combination of his ability to pass the ball accurately, execute their offense in the passing game, as well as his physical ability to run the ball and add runs to their whole system of very good players.”
A year ago, as Alabama prepared to face Clemson the first time, Jalen Hurts had just arrived on campus as an early enrollee, and his first task as a college football player was to simulate Watson on the scout team. A year later, he’s the first freshman to start at quarterback for Saban and is trying to beat the quarterback he once lined up as, showing how much experience can be gained in a single season.
“We’d like for Jalen to execute the offense and take what the defense gives, and Clemson has a very good defense, a very good front,” Saban said. “They do a lot of stuff to pressure you. He’s going to have to do a good job of understanding and executing what we need for him to do to have a chance to be successful.”
Alabama’s defense remains as dominant as ever, having held nine opponents to 10 or fewer points this season, including a shutout win against LSU in which the offense didn’t score until the fourth quarter. The defense could have four players taken in the first 20 picks of the NFL Draft — defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, cornerback Marlon Humphrey and linebackers Reuben Foster and Tim Williams. Tackle Cam Robinson and tight end O.J. Howard also are potential first-rounders.
Clemson should have two first-rounders in Watson and top receiver Mike Williams, who missed last year’s game — and nearly all of last season — with a neck injury suffered in the opener. He’s back healthy and represents the kind of big, physical receiver that could create problems for Alabama’s secondary.
“I’m really happy for Mike,” Swinney said. “I always tell people that God never says ‘Oops,’ and it was disappointing for him last year to have to sit and watch . . . I think he’s a lot better player than he would have been this time last year. He has a deeper appreciation for his opportunity to play. Hopefully the confetti will rain down on him when it’s over.”