This is not an off-the-rack football team. Confidence was tailored to fit and Clemson wears it well.
Nobody cowers in Alabama’s shadow. This team believes it can beat Alabama. No bragging, just fact. And after 14 games, there’s no reason to doubt it.
All the major questions were answered weeks ago. The offensive line with five new starters including a first-year left tackle. The defense with nine new starters. The walk-on kicker and punter. The injury-prone quarterback. Check, check, check and double check.
And though this wasn’t the team Dabo Swinney began with last spring, Clemson passed all the tests – internally and competitively – and crashed the playoff party. They want to display the 26½-inch, 24-karat gold, bronze and stainless steel piece of hardware that resembles the oculus at the entrance to the West End Zone at Clemson’s stadium.
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After all the snarky remarks about the ACC schedule, Clemson defeated five teams with at least 10 wins and eight FBS teams with winning records. Only Alabama beat more. Clemson has the nation’s longest winning streak (17) and hasn’t lost to an unranked team in four seasons.
In successive weeks, Clemson handled Louisville, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, winning the first two with big defensive stops late in the game. Florida State, N.C. State and North Carolina fell despite red flags. Oklahoma in the national semifinal wasn’t much different than Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl a year earlier.
And for the first time since 1988, Clemson defeated South Carolina, won the ACC title and won a bowl game in the same season.
There were concerns that turning over the offense to Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott might be a problem. Chad Morris’ team at SMU beat only North Texas and Tulane. Just saying.
Clemson improved its offensive numbers by eight points and 100 yards over the previous season, including an 80-yard bump in rushing, and allowed nearly half as many sacks – 14 to 27 – though it helped having an agile, sneaky fast and healthy Deshaun Watson for an entire season.
Watson epitomized the dual-threat quarterback, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns, passing for 3,699 yards and 31 touchdowns. Those are numbers for the record books, and numbers that get you to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
Clemson last lost when Watson left the 2014 game at Georgia Tech after 18 plays with a torn ACL. Otherwise, he has not lost a game he started.
Alabama doesn’t lose much more frequently, and it’s primarily because of its defense and run game.
This season, Alabama limited opponents to 13.4 points and 259 yards a game – second only to Boston College – and a national-best 71 yards rushing. The Crimson Tide, with a deep and experienced front seven, also leads the nation in sacks.
One of the myths entering this game is that Alabama struggles against running quarterbacks. It comes from numbers the previous three seasons by Nick Marshall of Auburn, Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Dak Prescott of Mississippi State.
But Alabama has not faced a quarterback of Watson’s skill and talent this season. Middle Tennessee State’s Brent Stockstill, son of the former longtime Clemson assistant, rushed for 29. Chad Kelly of Ole Miss had 21. Josh Dobbs of Tennessee had 19.
Watson’s preparation and instincts will receive the sternest tests, but his knack for performing on the biggest stage shouldn’t be challenged.
Once you understand the challenges defensively, the key to controlling Alabama is managing running back Derrick Henry, the Heisman Trophy winner.
Clemson weathered 1,000-yard rushers Dalvin Cook, Elijah Hood, Samaje Perine, C.J. Prosise and Joe Yearby. Henry is a different storm. In successive games against Florida and Auburn, he carried 46 and 44 times. Against LSU he had 38 carries for 210 yards.
When Michigan State limited him to 75 yards on 20 carries, quarterback Jake Coker had a career game, completing 25 of 30 for 286 yards. Clemson’s defense mirrors Alabama’s. The Tigers are sixth in total defense, second in completion percentage, seventh in passing efficiency and 10th in yards per play.
An injury to end Shaq Lawson might be troubling, but Kevin Dodd picked up his game against Oklahoma. A finalist for the Hendricks, Nagurski and Lombardi awards, Lawson led the nation in tackles for loss. He sustained a knee injury early against the Sooners, but Clemson sold out to stop the run and also sacked Baker Mayfield five times.
Cook snapped off a long touchdown run to start the game with Florida State, but was tethered for the remainder of the game. Don’t be shocked if Henry meets a similar fate.
As the game progresses, follow the statistical indicators that point to Clemson’s success under Swinney. His teams are 67-5 when they outgain opponents, 42-4 when winning the turnover margin, 61-4 with more first downs, 33-1 when rushing for at least 200 yards, 50-0 the last five years when leading after three quarters.
Turnovers have been an irritant. Clemson has committed more turnovers than its opponent in six games. While it’s not a preferred position, it is a testament to Clemson’s resilience.
And it’s another reason not to doubt this team.
A receiver on Alabama’s 1992 national championship team, Swinney could enter that fraternity of men who coached and played on national champions: Bud Wilkinson, Frank Leahy, Bear Bryant and Jimmy Johnson.
Swinney pointed out that Alabama has a family of national championship trophies. Clemson has “a lonely trophy sitting down there in that case.”
Don’t be surprised if Clemson beats Alabama by 10 points and he leaves Glendale, Ariz., with the hardware.