College Football Playoff : Alabama’s dominance over the course of the last decade has over simplified how difficult it is to win a national championship. There are so many different times in the season where something can go wrong — and trust me, Nick Saban has considered almost all of them — and to be able to end up on the right side of the funny bounces in this sport with an oblong ball time and time again is truly impressive.
Can Alabama win another national championship on Monday night — its third of the College Football Playoff era and sixth since 2009? Absolutely, that’s why the Tide are favored in the game. But how Alabama accomplishes its final goal is much tougher, facing the closest thing to its equal in Clemson.
Here are five keys to Alabama winning the title on Monday night.
1. Start fast: Take the same gameplan from the Oklahoma game and apply it to the title game. Tua Tagovailoa is clearly healthy and without issues after his minor surgery and when the Tide go up-tempo with that passing attack, it’s nearly unbeatable. Riding Tagovailoa will early allow Alabama to expose matchup advantages against Clemson’s secondary and make Brent Venables think twice about sending extra defenders on the blitz for fear of leaving a cornerback on an island against one of Alabama’s all-world receivers. Just ask the Sooners, all it takes is a quick slant gone wrong to find yourself in an early hole that even Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray was not able to overcome.
Starting fast would also put pressure on Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson offense, putting the Tigers into the rare position of having to overcome a deficit. Against the best teams on its schedule, Dabo Swinney and the coaching staff have been fine to win by “just one point” thanks to its ability to limit explosive plays. If Alabama hits a couple big offensive plays and scores both early and often, it will be a fast track to bringing yet another title back to Tuscaloosa.
2. Don’t stop yourself: Nick Saban had several opportunities to comment on the game after the Orange Bowl, and at nearly every stop he made a point to say that Alabama stopped itself. What he’s referring to, of course, are the handful of penalties and mental errors during the second and third quarter. The inability to execute at a high level without mistakes throughout that stretch allowed Oklahoma to creep back into the game, and those same mistakes could be even more costly if they come against the Tigers. You could factor the three-and-outs that littered the second half efforts of Alabama’s previous title game matchup against Clemson in 2016 as one of the top three reasons why the Tigers were able to come back into the game, trailing only the presence of Deshaun Waston and Mike Williams. Alabama’s coaches might not think they’re facing a similar threat with Lawrence and the dynamic wide receiver duo of 6-foot-4 Justyn Ross and 6-foot-4 Tee Higgins.
3. Quinnen Williams needs to be a superstar: One of the best storylines of the year has been the emergence of Williams as one of the best defensive lineman in the sport. Williams credits defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who joined the Alabama staff from Miami prior to the season, for much of his development, along with the example set by previous Alabama defensive linemen Jonathan Alllen, Da’Ron Payne and Dalvin Tomlinson. Williams leads the team in tackles for loss (18) and is one of three Alabama players to rank in the top seven among SEC players in sacks (8). The contributions from Williams don’t always show up in the stat sheet, but his force from the inside could throw Clemson’s freshman quarterback off his game and deliver the game-changing plays that will decide the national champion.
4. Limit the hits on Tagovailoa: Seems too obvious, right? Still it’s worth stating again. Clemson ranks No. 1 in the country in sacks (52) and No. 2 in the country in tackles for loss (129), and even without Dexter Lawrence there is no shortage of Tigers defenders that could inflict pain and damage if given a free shot at the superstar sophomore quarterback. Tagovailoa looked dangerously close to 100 percent against Oklahoma, but when we’re talking about a player who has nursed multiple lower body injuries through the season, you have to consider his health and status a concern in a game where the margins are this small.
5. Bottle up ACC Offensive Player of the Year Travis Etienne and Clemson’s ground game: There’s two reasons I have this listed near the bottom. First, every coach at any level of football would say that stopping the run is a major key to winning a championship game. Second, and maybe most significant, is that Alabama has been excellent against the run in its previous three meetings with Clemson. The Tigers, who led the nation this year in yards per carry, averaged 1.94 yards per attempt against the Tide in the College Football Playoff loss and just 2.17 yards per attempt in the title game win the year before that. Alabama has the pre-determined edge in this game based on the series history, so it’s crucial that the Tide maintain that advantage. The efforts to stop Clemson’s ground game seem particularly important for Alabama’s linebackers, who need to have a big game with starting linebacker Christian Miller still recovering from a hamstring injury in the game against Oklahoma