College Football Championship 2016: Critical Matchups in Alabama vs. Clemson

Danny WebsterAnalyst IIIJanuary 4, 2016

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) throws oranges to the crowd after his team won the Orange Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game against  Oklahoma, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Clemson defeated Oklahoma 37-17. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)
Joe Skipper/Associated Press

This is how the national championship should be decided. The two best teams in the country all year long will duke it out next Monday for the right to call themselves champions.

The Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide will meet inside University of Phoenix Stadium in the ultimate matchup. Alabama's stout defense, which completely dominated Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, faces the best quarterback in the nation in Deshaun Watson.

It's also the battle of Watson, who received little to no respect in the Heisman Trophy voting, against the winner of the Heisman Trophy, Tide running back Derrick Henry.

So many stories, so much to dissect. Check out these need-to-know matchups as the hours continue to tick down for the national title game.


Deshaun Watson vs. Alabama's Defense

Watson did not play well, passing-wise, in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma. His 51.6 completion percentage against the Sooners was his lowest since the Oct. 3 win at home against Notre Dame.

The key word is "win." Just like the Tigers found a way to win that night against the Fighting Irish, Clemson found a way to shut down Oklahoma and dominate for the final 30 minutes of that game.

That way, if curious, was Watson showing off his value and versatility. Watson ran for a season-high 145 yards on 24 carries, as well as a touchdown, to offset his 16-of-31 passing performance. It was the same way Clemson beat Notre Dame three months ago. When Watson struggled with his passing, he ran for 93 yards and a touchdown.

Oklahoma contained Watson well enough in the passing game, but once he and tailback Wayne Gallman established a near-to-perfect read-option game, the Sooners were in trouble.

Alabama's defense is an entirely different monster compared to Oklahoma, though. This is a Crimson Tide defense that silenced the Connor Cook-led Michigan State offense to 239 total yards of offense, with 210 of those coming from Cook.

The task for the Tide defense is to do the exact same thing it did to the Spartans: keep them off the field. Alabama held Michigan State to 4-of-16 on third down, which allowed Jake Coker to take advantage of a gassed Spartans defense and complete 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns.

Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart compared his 2015 defense to the one in 2011 that carried Bama to a national championship, but as Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel notes, Alabama hasn't faced a quarterback like Watson:

“Statistically, that team was probably better with the numbers, but this team has faced more talented offenses,” said the soon-to-be Georgia head coach. “It’s comparable to that team. It’s deep.”

But its biggest test of the season by far awaits in the final game.

No. 1 Clemson, now 14-0, put on its own dominant performance in an Orange Bowl rout of Big 12 champion Oklahoma. The Tigers present one specific challenge this Tide defense has yet to face — an elite, dual-threat quarterback in Deshaun Watson.

While Watson didn't throw well against Oklahoma, it's the dual-threat ability that will be the true test for Alabama. Matt Hayes of Sporting News details just how much of an issue dual-threat quarterbacks have been for Alabama:

In a game that clearly will focus on quarterbacks, Watson is the type of dual-threat player that has given Alabama’s aggressive, man-under defense problems over the years. From Tim Tebow to Cam Newton to Johnny Manziel to Cardale Jones to this year with Chad Kelly, dual-threat quarterbacks have success breaking down the Tide defensive schemes.

It’s not just pace of the game or dictating tempo, it’s the ability of the dual-threat quarterback force Alabama to cover in space and account for the quarterback run. He threw for 187 yards against Oklahoma, and rushed for 145, and constantly pressured the Sooners’ defense to make difficult decisions defending the run and pass.

If the Tide can contain Watson and limit his big-play ability, they'll be in control of this game.


Which Defense Will Make More Plays?

Having already gone into much detail about Alabama's defense, this is more tailored to what Michigan State did to Alabama's running game.

The Heisman Trophy winner was contained, just as expected.

Michigan State's run defense did all it could to make Coker beat them. Henry was held to only 75 yards on 20 carries, and it was only a 10-point game at halftime. Had the Spartans gotten enough offensively, it could've been a much closer game.

So, here's the challenge for Clemson's defense: Do what Michigan State did, but do it better. 

The Tigers' run defense is just as good, if not better, than the Spartans'. Clemson held Oklahoma to a combined 67 yards on 33 carries in the Orange Bowl. Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, Oklahoma's running attack that carried the Sooners during their late charge for the Big 12 title, combined for 18 carries for 62 yards. Clemson made Baker Mayfield beat them, and while he got his 311 yards and completed 63 percent of his passes, Mayfield was picked off twice in the second half.

If this becomes a defensive battle like Alabama would want it to be, Clemson needs to be opportune and cause turnovers. It was a 17-16 Oklahoma lead at halftime before the Tigers scored 21 unanswered points in the second half, but it was due in part to Clemson forcing Mayfield into some avoidable mistakes.

Clemson has allowed 3.6 yards per carry this season, and the bulk of those yards came against opponents that are run-first teams. Alabama's balance will present a tough challenge for the Tigers, but that's why it's important for Watson and the offense to play their best game of the year.