1. Protect Deshaun Watson
Clemson’s offensive line has played well for the most part this season, but it will face by far its toughest test of the year on Monday. Jonathan Allen and company are relentless pressuring the quarterback. The Crimson Tide are sixth in the country in tackles for loss with 112, and they do not have to blitz a whole lot to wreak havoc. If Alabama can get pressure with three or four rushers, it could be a long night for Clemson.
2. Slow down Alabama’s rushing attack
The Crimson Tide have three running backs averaging at least 6.6 yards per carry in Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Josh Jacobs. Scarbrough was the star in Alabama’s semifinal win over Washington, rushing 19 times for 180 yards and two touchdowns. He’s a bigger back and Clemson will need to meet him at or near the line of scrimmage because once he gets going he is a load to bring down. Quarterback Jalen Hurts is also dangerous in the run game with 891 yards and 12 touchdowns.
3. Cover the backs and tight ends
When Clemson’s defense has struggled this season, its linebackers have allowed running backs and tight ends to run free. That was the biggest reason for the Tigers’ 43-42 loss to Pitt, and it nearly cost them in other close games. Clemson’s linebackers will be key to slowing down Alabama’s running game, but they can’t get sucked in and allow O.J. Howard and company to get behind them. Howard had 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns last year against the Tigers.
4. Protect the football
Alabama is one of the best teams in the nation at forcing mistakes, with 27 turnovers gained entering the national title game. Clemson is near the bottom of the country in turnovers lost with 26, which is tied for No. 117 out of 128 teams. The Tigers have been better at protecting the football down the stretch with only five turnovers in their past four games after having 21 in their first 10. That trend will need to continue tonight for Clemson to come out on top.
5. Win the special teams battle
While Clemson’s defense feels like it cost the Tigers last year’s national title, the special teams unit certainly did not help. Alabama turned the game around with an on-side kick early in the fourth quarter before returning a kickoff for a touchdown later in the period. Alabama has dangerous returners and enters the game with four special teams touchdowns on the year. Greg Huegel will need to get his kickoffs into the end zone and make his field goals for the Tigers to win a game that should be lower scoring than last year’s 45-40 shootout.
Who: Clemson (13-1) vs. Alabama (14-0)
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Line: Alabama by 6 1/2