No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama only have one loss between them this season. So asking opposing coaches how to beat the Tigers and Crimson Tide is a difficult question.
There are two things everyone can agree upon about the College Football Playoff national championship on Monday night in Glendale, Ariz.:
▪ Beating Alabama’s defense will take a special performance.
▪ Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is capable of such a performance.
Here’s a look at some of the key matchups that will help determine which team wins the national championship.
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson vs. Alabama OLB/DEs Dillon Lee, Denzel Devall, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams
The Heisman Trophy finalist is the type of dual threat that can flummox even the best defenses, and his mobility will be crucial to breaking down the seemingly impenetrable wall that is Alabama’s front seven. Trying to move Alabama’s big and sturdy linemen such as All-America A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen off the line scrimmage consistently is just not happening.
“The more you can spread them out the better opportunity you have of creating a seam in the defense to run the ball,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.
Don’t expect a ton of north-south power running by Clemson. The Tigers are more likely to attack at the edges of Alabama’s defense.
“You’ve got to have some imagination and some smoke-and-mirror mentality for sure,” said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, whose team handed Alabama its only loss this season.
As the games have become more important for Clemson, Watson has been used as a ball carrier more. He has surpassed 20 carries in each of the last three games, including a season-high 24 for a season-best 145 yards in the Orange Bowl victory against Oklahoma.
Alabama WR Calvin Ridley vs. Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander
The freshman Ridley is Alabama’s next great receiver, following Julio Jones and Amari Cooper. Against Michigan State, the Tide took advantage of a secondary that had no match for Ridley (eight catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns).
Alexander doesn’t get quite as much publicity as some of the nation’s other shutdown corners, but make no mistake: He is as talented as any of them.
“He’s good enough to say let’s not mess with it on that side,” said former Syracuse coach Scott Shafer, who is now the defensive coordinator at Maryland.
That explains why Alexander had no interceptions this season. The other corner, Cordrea Tankersley, led the team with five picks and is no slouch, either. Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables leans on his cover guys.
Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is excellent at creating advantageous matchups for play-makers. It will be interesting to see if Kiffin attempts to get Ridley away from Alexander.
Alabama RB Derrick Henry vs. Clemson LBs Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson and S Jayron Kearse
After going away from its Heisman Trophy winner to beat Michigan State, expect Kiffin to lean on Henry in the national championship game. Clemson would be better off in a high-scoring game, with lots of possessions for its up-tempo offense. Alabama wants to avoid that.
“Ball control. Manage field position. Put your defense in as many good spots as you can,” Cubelic said.
The Tigers also have a talented and tough defensive line, led by defensive end Shaq Lawson. Plus, their top-notch corners allow Venables to get safeties, like the 220-pound Kearse, involved in stopping the run.
Clemson has been susceptible to long runs. The Tigers have allowed 22 runs of 20-plus yards, tied for 83rd in FBS. Those are often the result of over pursuing, sloppy tackling and taking bad angles. The Tigers can’t let a 5-yard run by Henry turn into a 35-yarder.
Clemson TE Jordan Leggett vs. Alabama DBs Eddie Jackson and Geno Mattias-Smith
Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart moved Jackson and Smith, smaller defensive backs with cornerback skills, to safety so the Tide could better match up with spread offenses. Basically, Alabama will be in a nickel defense with five defensive backs most of the game against Clemson.
Leggett, at 6-foot-5, 255-pounds, is a matchup problem and Clemson likes to send him down the middle on run-pass option plays. He caught 35 passes and led the team with seven touchdown receptions.