The Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers made it abundantly clear they are the two best teams in college football on December 31. Now they'll decide who is truly the best in college football in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game on Monday.
For the Crimson Tide, this is the culmination of a tear that came after some were giving their eulogy for the Alabama dynasty. For Clemson, this is the final opportunity to earn the respect its fought for all season. Even when the Tigers were the only undefeated team left in the field, they still weren't the unanimous No. 1 team in the country, according to the AP and Coaches Polls.
Now, they get a chance to take those votes on the field. It's an epic matchup and the best game that college football could provide. Here's a look at all the information you'll need to catch the action:
When: Monday, January 11, at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Spread: Alabama (-7), per Odds Shark
Key for Clemson: Get Wayne Gallman Going
If you've read anything about his game, it's likely that quarterback Deshaun Watson is the key for the Clemson offense. It's usually followed by the narrative that Alabama has traditionally struggled with some mobile quarterbacks with losses in recent years to teams that had Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton and (to a lesser extent) Chad Kelly.
There might be some truth to that narrative, but Clemson's offense can't rely on Deshaun Watson to go out and beat the Tide defense alone. Finding a way to get running back Wayne Gallman going will be just as important.
The running back tends to be the unsung hero of the Tigers offense. While Watson gets the glory and Heisman Trophy votes for carving up defenses, Gallman has put up 1,482 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
That production isn't just a product of great blocking and Watson either. According to CFB Film Room, Gallman has forced missed tackles at a similar rate to Alabama Heisman winner Derrick Henry:
CFB Film Room @CFBFilmRoom
Here's a stat you weren't expecting: Derrick Henry has 82 missed tackles on 359 carries Wayne Gallman has 82 missed tackles on 269 carries1/7/2016, 8:46:01 PM
The Clemson running back's teammates see some of Henry in his running style as well. "He runs aggressive, runs hard, fights for every yard he gets,” Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson said of Gallman, per David M. Hale of ESPN.com. “He’s determined not to be stopped, just like Henry.”
Gallman will have his work cut out for him to experience success against the Tide. Head coach Nick Saban's defensive front is the best in the nation at stopping the run, and finding daylight will be harder than ever. Gallman is on a trajectory to rise to the occasion, though.
His numbers are better than ever on a per-game basis as the championship game approaches:
|Wayne Gallman Stats by Month|
Some of Gallman's best games have come when the Tigers have played their biggest games of the season. If he can break off a few runs in this one, it's going to take some pressure off Watson and divide the defense on option plays.
Key for Alabama: Allow Jake Coker to Throw the Ball Downfield
The attention surrounding the Tide's offense has been the exact opposite of Clemson. Alabama's offense is all about running back Derrick Henry, while quarterback Jake Coker is reduced to mere minion.
But that certainly wasn't the case in the 38-0 Cotton Bowl victory over Michigan State that got Alabama to this spot.
The Spartans front was able to limit Henry to 75 yards on 20 carries, but it was all for naught. Jake Coker went ahead and beat the Spartans secondary for 286 yards on 25-of-30 passing.
Simply put, if Coker has another night like that one, this game won't be close. The Tigers have the ability to slow down Alabama's running game like the Spartans did. Clemson's stout front has given up just 3.59 yards per carry.
If Alabama is able to stretch the secondary vertically, it becomes more difficult for the safeties to aid in stopping the run.
Perhaps even more important than Coker is Alabama receiver Calvin Ridley, though. He was a big part of Coker's success and has been a boon for the offense since the team's loss to Ole Miss. From ESPN.com's Cotton Bowl research notes:
Jake Coker continued to rely on true freshman Calvin Ridley, who broke Amari Cooper's school record for the most receiving yards by a freshman. Coker completed 8-of-10 passes and both of his touchdowns targeting Ridley Thursday. Ridley has led the Crimson Tide receivers in targets in 10 of 11 games following Alabama's loss to Ole Miss.
Ridley will see one of his most difficult matchups of the season against Clemson's Mackensie Alexander. Bleacher Report Lead NFL Draft Analyst Matt Miller has Alexander ranked as his No. 3 cornerback in the draft class.
That doesn't spell doom for the dynamic freshman, though. He already took on Miller's No. 1 corner in Vernon Hargreaves III when he played against Florida and came away with eight receptions for 102 yards.
Ridley vs. Alexander is one of the most intriguing individual matchups in this game. Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin can't be afraid to test that early and often to lighten the load on Henry and the offensive line.
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The Tide come into this game as a touchdown favorite. After watching them dismantle the Spartans, it's easy to understand why.
But this Clemson team is far more complete than Michigan State. The Spartans came into the game averaging fewer than four yards per carry on the ground and were marginal in defending the pass all season. Both flaws were exposed in a big way.
Looking at Clemson statistically, there aren't many holes. They average 4.99 yards per carry on the ground, have a more than capable passer in Deshaun Watson and rank 13th in the nation in yards allowed per pass attempt.
The Tigers have the talent to make sure this game is competitive.
What makes this game compelling is the fact that both teams are so complete. Neither team really has a weakness to speak of, and when that's the case, it comes down to winning the battle up front and minimizing mistakes.
No one is better at doing those two things than Alabama.
Getting Gallman going will be crucial for Clemson. However, the Tide have made running games nearly obsolete over the final stretch of the season. They're giving up just 2.3 yards per carry on the season and only get stronger as the game goes on. Teams average just 1.89 yards per attempt in the fourth quarter.
The Alabama offensive line will have its work cut out for it. Shaq Lawson and the Clemson defensive front are among the best defensive lines in the country, but there's a reason Alabama's hosses won the first Joe Moore Award given to the country's best offensive line. They are the best at what they do.
Expect Alabama to have the slight edge in the trenches and on the scoreboard.
Prediction: Alabama 23, Clemson 20
All statistics used courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.
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