The inaugural College Football Playoff was a smashing success a year ago because the unpredictable outcome — No. 4 Ohio State scoring upsets of No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Oregon to take the title — proved the need for a playoff to settle things on the field.
Form held in the semifinals of CFP II as No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama advanced to the championship game Jan. 11 in Glendale, Arizona, with blowout victories. The Tigers (14-0) dominated Oklahoma, 37-17, in the Orange Bowl before the Crimson Tide (13-1) shut out Michigan State, 38-0, in the Cotton Bowl.
But even though the chalk held in terms of the selection committee’s seedings, there is no shortage of intrigue for a title game that is a study in contrasting styles between Clemson’s dynamic spread offense, led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, against ’Bama’s overwhelming defense and Heisman Trophy-winning running back, Derrick Henry.
And the selection committee’s idea of the chalk differs greatly from the view of Las Vegas oddsmakers, who favored the Sooners over Clemson in the Orange Bowl and have established Alabama as a strong 6 1⁄2-point favorite in the title game. No doubt, that will add fuel for a Tigers team that has been battling an inferiority complex at a school where big-game losses are described as “Clemsoning.”
As Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said after reaching the title game: “Our team has shown heart, had guts all year long. You know, I told them, ‘You ain’t favored to win the damn game, but we ain’t no underdog.’ Everybody out there, nobody believes in this team except these guys.”
Maintaining that belief will be a challenge after the Tigers watch video of Alabama’s Cotton Bowl win. Michigan State managed only 29 rushing yards on 26 carries. After picking himself off the turf, Spartans quarterback Connor Cook was caught on camera saying of Alabama’s pass rush, “They’re everywhere.”
The beating the Crimson Tide laid on the one-dimensional Spartans overshadowed how Clemson controlled the line of scrimmage on offense and defense against an Oklahoma team that came into the Orange Bowl riding a seven- game winning streak in which it averaged 52 points and 593 yards. Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield could have said the same thing Cook did about ’Bama’s defense, except he didn’t speak postgame while being checked for concussion symptoms.
Clemson played most of the game without defensive end Shaq Lawson, the national leader in tackles for loss, who suffered a sprained MCL. His status for the title game is uncertain, but Swinney said, “I don’t think it’s too serious.” Even without Lawson, the Tigers held OU to 67 yards rushing.
It’s possible they can match what Michigan State did in limiting Henry to 75 yards rushing on 20 carries, and they are far better equipped than the Spartans were to contain the passing of quarterback Jake Coker to Calvin Ridley. Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander is one of the top shutdown cornerbacks in the country. The Sooners had to move top wide receiver Sterling Shepard to slot to free him from Alexander.
The Tigers also might have the antidote to Alabama’s defense in Watson, who rushed for 145 yards and passed for 187 against OU, a combination that opened lanes for Wayne Gallman to rush for 150 yards.
The Tide has struggled in recent years against dual-threat quarterbacks such as Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Auburn’s Nick Marshall. The deep passing of Ohio State’s Cardale Jones beat them in the Sugar Bowl last season, and Chad Kelly did the same thing to lead Ole Miss over Alabama this season in Tuscaloosa.
It would be a mistake to think Watson will suffer the same fate as Cook against Alabama’s defense. Many believe he will be the top quarterback in the 2017 NFL Draft, potentially No. 1 overall.
A Clemson win to become college football’s first 15-0 team might surprise Las Vegas, but the bet here is that the “underdog” Tigers will survive a close one with their No. 1 rating intact.