SANTA CLARA, CA (WIS) - They meet again.
For the third time in four years, Clemson and Alabama will meet for college football's top prize. The two teams have met in the College Football Playoff three times -- once in the Sugar Bowl. Both teams enter the contest with perfect records. With the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy on the line, both teams know this will be their toughest challenge of the year.
“Really excited about the opportunity to compete against the best team in the country on the highest stage,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. “This is what we all set out to do, 130 teams, and you have two teams that have an opportunity to compete on this stage, and we're thankful and blessed to have this moment.”
Clemson's offense will be led by freshman sensation Trevor Lawrence. Since earning the starting job, Lawrence has elevated the Tigers’ offensive productivity. In 10 starts, Lawrence has thrown for 2,333 yards and 18 touchdowns. During that time, the ACC Rookie of the Year has grown as a leader and as a quarterback by leaps and bounds.
“I do think that one of the things we constantly have to try to instill in our players is they still need to focus on development, not just on expectation, and the guys that are able to do that improve more quickly and become more ready to play,” said Alabama head coach Nick Saban. “I think Trevor Lawrence in particular has done a phenomenal job for his team this year in his ability to execute and certainly doesn't play like a freshman or look like a freshman, and if anybody ever watched him, they wouldn't think he was a freshman.”
Lawrence isn’t the only young player making major contributions for the Tigers. Sophomore running back Travis Etienne has seemingly been re-writing the Tigers’ record books all year long. The 5-10, 200-pound Etienne has 1,575 yards and a program record 22 touchdowns this season. Among the receivers, Tee Higgins leads the Clemson corps. At 6-foot-4 and weighing 210 pounds, Higgins has recorded a team-high 56 catches for 855 yards and 11 touchdowns. But Lawrence has a plethora of weapons at his disposal in the passing game including the 2017 national championship hero Hunter Renfrow, Amari Rodgers, and the explosive Justyn Ross.
“Really the mindset that we want to have as wide receivers is that we're going to win the game, if we make our plays,” said Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. “If we don't make our plays, we're putting the balance of the game in jeopardy. Really kind of taking that on our shoulders.”
If the Tigers are going to be successful, they’ll have to find holes in a very stout Alabama defense. The Tide are fifth in the nation in scoring defense, tied for fourth in defensive touchdowns, and fourth in the country in red zone defense. Still, Alabama knows they’ll have to find a way to shut down the entire Clemson offense to give themselves a shot at bringing home their sixth national title since 2009.
“This is an offense with versatility and the multiple different weapons they have out there,” said Alabama defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi. “We can't hone in and try to take away one individual. We need to be sharp on what we do and confident in our jobs and we need to focus on the fundamental approach, technique, great tackling, disrupting the ball. If we have that, we will have the best chance for success.”
The Crimson Tide are led in tackles by Dylan Moses. The sophomore enters the title game with 82 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. But Moses isn’t the only player who knows how to get into the opponents’ backfield. Senior defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs has a team-high 9.5 sacks while redshirt sophomore and All-SEC first-team selection Quinnen Williams leads Alabama with 17 tackles for loss. Like the Clemson offense, Alabama has several playmakers on the defensive side of the ball including former Spring Valley star Christian Miller.
Defensively for Clemson, the goal will be stopping Tua Tagovailoa and the Tide’s high-powered offense. Alabama is the second-ranked offense in the country averaging 47.7 points per game. Tagovailoa has been instrumental in the Tide’s success,
“It's a great challenge,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables when asked about stopping the Alabama quarterback. “Ask everybody else that's played him. We've just got to play well collectively and try to limit the explosiveness of what they do and play with discipline and rush lanes and things of that nature. So it's a great, great challenge.”
However, the challenge isn’t just stopping Tagovailoa. The Crimson Tide also have Damien Harris in the backfield, who has rushed for 819 yards and nine touchdowns. In the passing game, Tagovailoa will look for All-SEC first-teamer Jerry Jeudy. The sophomore has leads the way for the Tide with 63 catches and 1,176 yards for 13 touchdowns. But like Clemson, Alabama has several weapons the Tigers have to be wary of come Monday.
“All of their receivers. They line them up everywhere -- slot, inside, outside. They're fast. They're explosive. They play so hard,” said Venables. “I don't know how -- they don't rotate a ton of guys, but, man, they run their routes so hard and so explosive and catch the ball well. Run away from leverage, go and compete when the ball's in the air. They all play with a dog mentality, just they're going to get after you. Whether they're cracking you in the run game or running a cross country route, man, this is the best of the best that we're facing.”
Clemson’s defense is well-aware of the challenge that lies ahead on Monday and they hope to perform at a high level against the Tide as they have all year. The Tigers are the top scoring defense in the country surrendering an average of 12.9 points per game and second in the nation in total defense. With star defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence out because of his suspension, the Tigers will look to make the most of this moment for him.
“Dex has been a big part of our success, you know, his three years here,” said Tigers defensive lineman Christian Wilkins. “You know, he's been my best friend on the team. Obviously that's my brother, that's my right-hand man, so I am definitely going to play my best obviously. Try to do my best as well as I can.”
No. 2 Clemson takes on No. 1 Alabama on Monday at 8 p.m. The game can be seen on ESPN.