And then there were two - and two very familiar squads. For the second year in a row we see a national title game featuring Alabama favored by about a touchdown against Clemson. Last year Alabama won in a surprisingly crazy shootout, but Clemson covered the spread. Needless to say, the cover wasn't enough for the program and they are back for more.
There was no doubt at any point in the season that Alabama was on the path to this game. They belong. The path for Clemson was somewhat rockier, though, and it took a late charge to get them here. But they got here with a stunning statement. Their 31-0 dismantling of Ohio State was as impressive a win as you could imagine on this stage - at least since the 38-0 win over Michigan State the Tide rode into the title game last year. Clemson is the underdog, but they are the betting choice - about two-thirds of bets have been placed on them so far. If they want to move a step further than last year and win it all then these five keys to success will be crucial for them:
Maintain the momentum: Clemson has been an entirely different team in the four games since their loss to Pitt than they were before that. They are stronger, more determined, and much better. The September version of this squad would have been more at risk of losing 31-0 to Ohio State than the reverse. Now the Tigers need to make sure that that new, better version of them sticks around for one more game. That's all they need. Of course, that isn't always easy. The saying is that momentum doesn't exist, but of course that isn't true. It's just about how you look at it. What happened in the last game doesn't matter, but the swagger and confidence they are carrying now is very real and was very absent early on. If they don't come into this one feeling just as strong and dominant as they have been, and as they deserve to feel, then the game is over before it starts.
Get to Hurts early and often: Alabama beat up on Washington, but it wasn't because of true freshman QB Jalen Hurts. He completed just seven of 14 passes for 57 yards - a brutal 4.1 yards per attempt. The defense carried him on that day. This is a more experienced and likely better offense for Clemson, though, and Alabama can't afford a repeat of that performance from Hurts. Clemson needs to take their potent defensive line and make Hurts miserable from the outset - as they did against J.T. Barrett last week. If they can dominate the line they can set the tone and severely limit the Alabama offense. The Tide aren't exactly easy to score on in bulk, so the more they can keep it a low-scoring affair the better off they are.
Game of their lives for offensive line: The Clemson offensive line hasn't seen a front seven like this all season for a simple reason - because there is no equal in the country. It's not even close. It's terrifying. Last year Clemson was able to have a very strong offensive day against a strong Alabama defense, but this year the defense is dramatically better. Alabama will be looking to punish Watson and stifle everything he wants to do. Simply put, if the offensive line can't limit Alabama's ability to do that to a large extent then they will lose.
Keep their heads right: The Tigers have fueled their whole season with the idea of revenge - another shot at Alabama, and a different result this time. They want to prove that they measure up. That scares me. It's not that I don't think they do - though to be honest, I really don't. It's that I fear revenge as a major motivating factor. Now that they have gotten what they want it would be easy for them to come up too fired up, too motivated to prove how good they are and to show all they plan to do to Alabama at once. That would be a disaster. To beat this Alabama team you need to be highly focused, calm and methodical. Clemson needs to look ahead, not backwards, and they need to focus entirely and solely on this game. Nothing else matters.
Take weight off Watson: Last year Deshaun Watson tried to win the game alone. He had 478 total yards (405 passing and 73 on the ground) and four touchdowns. That's a magical performance, and yet it wasn't enough. Alabama still won. Watson has been strong lately, but we can't realistically expect him to come close to matching that performance. So, the team needs more, and they need to find it from more ways than just Watson's arm. If they can't effectively diversify their attack then they are going to have the same issues they had last time. Watson had two picks in the otherwise dominating performance against Ohio State, so it's not like he is coming in at the height of his performance, either.
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