Second-ranked Alabama is the favorite to defeat top-ranked Clemson and win what could be its fourth national title in seven years when the two teams meet on January 11 in Phoenix. Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban has guided his team to three national championships – 2009, 2011, 2012 – and 97 victories in that seven-year span. Clemson has not played for a national title in 34 years. The 1981 Tigers went 12-0 and beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to claim the school’s only national championship. Can head coach Dabo Swinney’s squad pull the upset? Not likely and here’s why.
- Derrick Henry
The Heisman Trophy winner is a force. At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Henry is physically imposing and can damage the psyche of any opponent. He rushed for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns this season and was responsible for 36.1 percent of the Crimson Tide offensive production this year. While the Michigan State defense limited Henry in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Henry still had 75 yards and two touchdown runs. If Henry carries the ball 30 times, Clemson is in trouble.
- Alabama defense
Saban is known for his brilliant defensive mind, and it shows. Year in and year out, the Tide are among the best defenses in the country. Alabama leads the nation in rush defense giving opponents just 74 yards per game. In the semifinal against Michigan State, the Spartans managed just 29 rushing yards, an average of just 1.1 yards per carry. The Alabama defensive line features a cast of future NFL stars like defensive end Jonathan Allen, who combined with linebacker Reggie Ragland for four sacks and six tackles for loss against Michigan State. Clemson has to find a way to move the football against a defense that gives up just 258 yards per game.
- Coaching staff experience
Saban himself is 4-0 in national championship games, 3-0 at Alabama and 1-0 while the head coach at LSU in 2003. The Tide head coach is widely considered the best of the best and has coached his share of big games. It’s not just Saban though. His assistants, beginning with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart the new head coach at Georgia, have seen their fair share of big games as well. Smart, who will take over the Bulldogs program after the national title game, has been with Saban since 2007. Special teams coordinator Bobby Williams was with Saban at Michigan State and has been at Alabama since 2008. Running backs coach Burton Burns and strength coach Scott Cochran, like Smart, have been with Saban for nine years at Alabama.
- The play of Jake Coker
Coker transferred to Alabama after backing up Jameis Winston at Florida State. He was beaten out by senior Blake Sims last year before becoming the starter this season. He started the year slowly and ended up not starting the game against Ole Miss, the Tide’s only loss of the season. In that game, Coker came off the bench to lead a furious comeback from a 30-10 deficit only to end up on the short end of a 43-37 loss. Since that game, Coker has improved steadily, and his performance against Michigan State in the semifinal may have been his best. He completed 25-of-30 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns. It was his play, as well as that of the defense; that helped Alabama dominate the Spartans in a 38-0 win. Michigan State had taken away Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and the Tide running game. Clemson may try and do the same, but they will still have to deal with Coker.
- Line play
The defensive line was already mentioned, and they are a big reason why Alabama leads the nation in rush defense. A’Shawn Robinson is an absolute freak. At 6-4, 312 pounds, Robinson possesses amazing athletic ability. In their win over LSU earlier this year, he jumped over a Tigers lineman and blocked an extra point. He, along with the previously mentioned Allen, is a likely first-round NFL draft choice. But, the offensive line is just as good. Center Ryan Kelly won the Rimington Award as college football’s best offensive lineman and leads a group that paved the way for Henry to win the Heisman. The Alabama offensive line is also a big reason why the Tide is fifth in the nation in time of possession (33:52). Should Alabama control the ball like that next Monday night, Clemson will have a hard time keeping pace.
If those five reasons are not enough to convince you that Alabama will win this year’s national championship, consider this bonus reason. The Crimson Tide will have more practice time than Clemson. Classes for the spring semester resume at Clemson on Wednesday, January 6. That means, according to NCAA rules, that the Tigers are limited to just 20 hours of practice and meetings per week. That is four hours per day for five days.
Alabama does not start classes again until January 13. Since the Crimson Tide is not in session, there are no limits to the amount of time that the team can spend together on the practice field or in meetings. This could be a huge advantage for Saban and Alabama…just as it was a year ago when Ohio State had more practice time before it defeated Oregon for the national championship.