Is Crimson Tide still the nation's best?

Is Crimson Tide still the nation's best?

January 01, 2019 3:01 AM
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The stage is set. No. 1 vs. No. 2.

And that’s the way it should be, though Georgia fans might argue that their Bulldogs would have given Clemson a better game than Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.

But we’ll never know. Instead, we get Clemson, the No. 2-ranked team in the country, facing Alabama, the nation’s top team. They’ll have to travel to the West Coast to settle it as Monday’s national championship game will be played in the Bay Area at Levi’s Stadium.

Even before the Crimson Tide put the bow on its 45-34 victory over Oklahoma last Saturday in the Orange Bowl, the oddsmakers installed Alabama as a 6.5-point favorite. In some places it went to -7 before quickly dropping down to -6, and, in some cases, -5.5.

We’ve asked out three college football handicappers – Richard Saber, Joe D’Amico and Ian Cameron – to weigh in on Monday’s title game in what you might call a “Roundtable discussion.” Each of them were asked four questions about the final game of the college football season. To date, they are a collective 33-10-1 against the spread in picking Bowl games this season and D’Amico was 10-1 going into Monday’s New Year’s Eve action.

For the sake of uniformity, we will use one betting number – Alabama -6 with the total at 59.5 – in asking our Three Wise Men to make their picks at the end.

Q: What excites you about Alabama-Clemson this time around?

D’Amico: This is the third time in four years these two teams are facing one another for the National Championship. Alabama won the 2015 matchup, while Clemson took the 2016 meeting. In both cases, the No. 2 ranked team bested the No. 1 squad, with both Title games being settled by less than the current point spread of six.

This National Championship game excites me more than others in recent memory because unlike other Title contests (it seems most years), this contest matches up the two best teams in the nation, without question. Naysayers, coaches, other teams and sports commentators cannot argue that any other teams belong here.

Saber: This is the Clash of the Titans. Perseus vs. Kraken. You have two fast, talented teams led by two fantastic coaches, a legend in the making taking on a legend sitting on the mountain top. 

On the field both sides are led by outstanding, experienced QB’s. Can the underdog combo outmaneuver the favorite? the underdog combo outmaneuver the favorite?

Cameron: Some people may be getting bored of the same old thing with this being the third time in four years that Alabama will face Clemson for the national championship and the fourth straight year the Crimson Tide and Tigers will face each other in the playoffs. But not me. I like that this has truly become a rivalry.

The two teams split the first two national championship meetings in 2016 and 2017 making this a “rubber match” of sorts. Both of these programs have been the gold standard in College Football over the past decade. Both have tremendous coaches in Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney who are consistent winners both on the field and on the recruiting trail.

What excites me about this matchup is that the two offenses are going to have their say in this game. Defense has been the calling card for many years with both teams but for the first time, I feel that both Alabama and Clemson have legitimate star QB’s who both have big-time futures at the next level. These are dynamic offenses and extremely talented QB’s and that makes this game very exciting in my mind.

Q: Everyone will be fixating on Alabama coach Nick Saban and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Does that work to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s advantage?

D’Amico: It seems like most of the press lately is surrounding Tua. Please understand that Clemson must prepare for not just Tagovailoa, but also Jalen Hurts. These are two very different QB’s, resulting in two very different offenses altogether.

This definitely benefits the Crimson Tide. For Dabo Swinney, he must split his defensive practices, preparing for both play-callers, instead of just focusing on one QB, like they normally would.

Cameron: Dabo Swinney needs to be fixated on Alabama’s offense and their tremendous QB if you ask me. The Clemson defense was magnificent in shutting down Notre Dame in the semifinals holding the Fighting Irish to a paltry three points and 248 total yards and the Tigers proved why they have the 5th-ranked defense in the country in total yards.

But the Alabama offensive attack will be a much tougher challenge and a more sophisticated offense to prepare for. Alabama scored 24, 31 and 45 points against Clemson in the three previous head-to-head playoff encounters since 2016 and this Crimson Tide offense appears to be the best of the bunch.

The only thing that will work in Dabo’s advantage here is having a defense capable of getting to the QB. Clemson is No. 1 in the country in sacks per game and that defensive front needs to get pressure on Tua Tagovailoa if Clemson is going to give itself its best chance to win this game.

Saber: That said, ‘Bama hasn’t exactly had to run a gauntlet of extra stout defenses. Expect Clemson to throw some twists and turns on defense at Tua the likes of he has never seen. Will he be able to adapt on the fly under these bright lights ?

Q: What individual matchup in this game intrigues you the most?

D’Amico: The most-intriguing matchup here, is not on the field. To me, the key matchup is between the head coaches. Dabo Swinney took over the Tigers in 2008. And by the 2011 season, Clemson became a true force. Swinney has a lifetime overall record of 115-30.

Between Toledo, Michigan State, LSU, and Alabama, Nick Saban owns a career college mark of 232-62, winning six National Titles. They are both stellar coaches with squads that are overflowing with talent. Both are excellent at making halftime adjustments as well. The most exciting matchup is which will prepare his team better, and which will “outcoach” the other.

Cameron: The matchups on both sides of the football in this game are both intriguing to me but for my money, the most intriguing matchup is the Alabama passing attack vs. the Clemson secondary. I remain a believer that the Tigers have a deficiency in terms of their pass defense. Clemson has an elite defensive line but their secondary can be exploited to a certain degree. 

Alabama might have the QB and the ability through the air to do just that with Tagovailoa throwing the football to talented receivers Jerry Jeudy, Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs III and a good TE in Irv Smith. That’s a lot of weapons to test a Clemson secondary that didn’t face too many elite passing attacks during the course of the season.

Saber: At Indy and Daytona, everyone has a fast car, it’s the driver and the pit crew who make the difference between victory and defeat. Same here. Both sides are loaded with talent and speed. Like Kasparov and Karpov, the outcome of this showdown will hinge on the minds between the headsets, this game comes down to Saban vs. Swinney.

Q: O.K., so who wins, and why?

Saber: From a wagering perspective, Clemson opened as a +6.5-point underdog and even +7 in some spots which looked to this bettor to be the deal of the bowl season.

The game has since dropped a notch to Alabama -6 which we still feel is a great take in a situation which I feel Clemson can win this game on the square.

Frankly, I think it comes down to being Dabo’s time to shine, and he’s going to have his underdog squad playing with the eye of the Tiger. I’m taking the points but I’m not sure I’ll need them. CLEMSON.

Cameron: I’m going to make the case for Clemson. I think they have a chance to win this game straight up.

We saw Alabama’s defense have legitimate problems at times with Kyler Murray and the Oklahoma offense in their semifinal win as the game went on with the Crimson Tide allowing 471 total yards. Clemson has great balance offensively with QB Trevor Lawrence to WR playmakers Hunter Renfrow, Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers to go with RB Travis Etienne in the backfield.

Lawrence is a freshman QB, but he clearly showed the world in the dominant performance against Notre Dame that he isn’t scared of the big stage. I believe we will see both offenses have their share of success in this game similar to the last meeting in the national title game between these two programs which was a 35-31 Clemson win. The Over was 2-0 in the two prior national title games between Alabama and Clemson and I expect this game to follow suit. CLEMSON and OVER.

D’Amico: Neither team seems to be affected by this past week’s suspensions. And don’t overthink the fact that Clemson shut down the Notre Dame offense while Alabama allowed Oklahoma to put up 34 points. The Irish were overvalued, while the Sooners’ “O” can score on anyone.

On paper, the Tigers possess better stats and rankings, but the Tide have played better competition. I don’t have all the information I need to make an informed and educated decision. I need to wait on an “official” injury report, any more possible suspensions  and to see how the general public reacts to the opening line.

So, I will say this... if the line goes up, take the ‘dog. If the line goes down, side with the favorite. I feel this game will be decided by three to nine points, so there might even be a shot at middling the game. Having said all that, with the line where it is right now, I put a small lean on CLEMSON.