We have only had a true national championship game in college football since the 1990s and never have we had a rematch of a previous season’s title game. Not in the Bowl Coalition era, not in the Bowl Alliance, not in the Bowl Championship Series. But in just Year No. 3 of the College Football Playoff we are treated to a rematch of last January’s spectacular Alabama-Clemson title matchup. This also is the first time since 2005 that the teams ranked No. 1 and no. 2 in the preseason AP poll both ended the year in the national championship. The Tide are favoured on Sports Interaction’s college football odds to win their fifth title since 2009.
Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Clemson Tigers
Point spread:Crimson Tide -6.5
Date: Monday, Jan. 9, 8 p.m. ET
Location: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa
Alabama Crimson Tide
Despite all those championships, the Tide (14-0) have actually finished unbeaten just once under Coach Nick Saban and that was in 2009, the year of his first championship in Tuscaloosa. Saban also won a title at LSU so he’s going for No. 6 all-time, which would tie the legendary Bear Bryant.
Frankly, Alabama, which has won 26 games in a row, was really only challenged twice this year: Sept. 17 in a 48-43 victory at Ole Miss and Nov. 5 in a 10-0 win at No. 13 LSU. The Tide beat Pac-12 champion Washington 24-7 in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve. The Huskies scored first and then that historically great Alabama defense shut them down. Washington had just 194 yards. How good has that top-ranked Tide defense been all season? It has scored almost as many touchdowns (11) as it has allowed (15). Ryan Anderson had a 26-yard interception return for a score late in the third quarter against the Huskies for a 17-7 lead.
Then the clinching score was on a 68-yard TD run from Bo Scarbrough. He was the game’s offensive MVP with 180 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Yet many Alabama fans were not happy with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s play-calling in the game. If you take out what Scarbrough did, Alabama averaged 3.2 yards on the 45 plays in which Scarbrough didn’t touch the ball. The Tide punted eight times.
But what happened Monday was stunning: Saban announced that Kiffin was going to move on to his new head coaching job at Florida Atlantic immediately instead of staying on through the end of the season. It’s unprecedented to essentially fire a coordinator a week before a championship game. Last year, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was hired at Georgia but he stayed on through the national championship game. Clearly there was some behind-the-scenes drama going on with Saban and Kiffin.
So, former Washington and USC head coach Steve Sarkisian will take over as coordinator as he was going to be promoted to do following Kiffin’s departure. Saban is really going to have egg on his face if this backfires and the Tide lose.
Clemson (13-1) is looking for its first national championship since the 1981 season. The Tigers didn’t play like potential champions at times this season with close calls against Auburn, Troy, NC State, Virginia Tech and a loss to Pittsburgh. But they saved their best effort for the Fiesta Bowl semifinal vs. No. 3 Ohio State, blasting the favoured Buckeyes 31-0. The Tigers allowed just 215 yards and nine first downs in handing Ohio State its first shutout loss since 1993 and Urban Meyer his worst loss ever.
Offensively, quarterback Deshaun Watson, a two-time Heisman finalist who already has said he’s going to declare for the NFL draft, threw for 259 yards and a touchdown (he did have two picks) and rushed 15 times for 57 yards and two scores. Wayne Gallman added 85 yards and a TD on the ground and to receiver Mike Williams caught six passes for 96 yards. Williams wasn’t available last year against Alabama due to injury but he’s expected to be a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
The Clemson offense is surely the best Alabama has seen this season, and it all starts with the spectacular Watson. Don’t think one player can win a championship against a heavy favourite? Just remember what Texas quarterback Vince Young did to No. 1 USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
Watson did all he could last year in the loss against Alabama as he threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 73 yards. The Tigers led the Tide 24-21 in the fourth quarter. But after Alabama tied it on a 33-yard field goal with about 10 minutes left, Saban called a surprising onside kick. The Tide recovered and soon after took the lead for good on an O.J. Howard 51-yard TD catch. The final was 45-40. I assure you the Tigers will account for Howard this time as he had five catches for 208 yards and two scores.
National Championship Game Prediction
This is just the third time in the Poll Era (1936) that the same Top-5 teams meet in bowl games in consecutive years. Last season, Clemson was trying to become the first 15-0 FBS team in history and this year it’s the Tide trying for it. If two college teams are closely matched, I’ll lean the one with the more experienced quarterback. And that’s Watson over Tide freshman Jalen Hurts, who wasn’t great vs. Washington. Take the points here but use the 7.5-point alternate line (-128). Go under the total.