Sugar Bowl 2017: Updated Odds and Preview for Clemson vs. Alabama

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistDecember 4, 2017

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 02:  Kelly Bryant #2 of the Clemson Tigers scores a touchdown against the Miami Hurricanes in the first quarter during the ACC Football Championship at Bank of America Stadium on December 2, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

All the debate and fanfare is over. It's a rematch of last season's College Football Playoff National Championship to determine who will vie for the title once again this term, with the No. 1 Clemson Tigers taking on the No. 4 Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl.

It will mark the third consecutive postseason wherein the two powers have met. The series is tied at one apiece in that span, with Bama taking the title in 2016 and Clemson getting revenge in 2017.

Obviously the committee wanted to run the game back one more time.

It's not a bad deal for fans. The two championship games have been decided by a combined nine points, and this one figures to come down to the wire again if the spread is any indication.

Here's all the basic info needed to catch the game and the early odds, according to OddsShark.

          

Date: January 1, 2018

Time: 8:45 p.m. ET

TV: ABC

Odds: Alabama -1.5

           

How Alabama Can Win

TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 30:  Bo Scarbrough #9 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes away from Marquis Haynes #38 of the Mississippi Rebels at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 30, 2017 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No, the Crimson Tide didn't have their usual dominance. Close calls against the likes of Texas A&M, Mississippi State and the loss to Auburn don't inspire the same level of confidence the Tide usually have in big games. But the hallmarks of a classic Alabama team are still there.

Nick Saban's squad is still one of the top run defenses in the nation. The Tide allow just 2.76 yards per rush to opposing offenses and rank No. 1 in yards allowed per play at 4.04.

If there's a defense in the country that can put the brakes on Clemson—and even Oklahoma in a potential championship game—it's still Alabama.

What will be important, however, is what the Tide are able to get done on offense. In the loss to Auburn, the Tigers were able to force Alabama to run everything through quarterback Jalen Hurts.

The sophomore signal-caller is a playmaker, but he was forced to carry the ball 18 times. Running backs Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Josh Jacobs, meanwhile, combined for 18 carries.

If Bama is to win the game, it will need to feature those running backs more and simplify the offense. Clemson is strong against the run (3.12 yards allowed per carry), but those who have stuck to the run, such as Georgia Tech (43 carries), Syracuse (50 carries) and North Carolina State (34 carries), have all had varying success against the Tigers this season.

The game plan isn't as simple as "run the dang ball" for Bama, but it is a good rule of thumb. Establishing the running backs would lighten the load on Hurts and put the Tide defense in good position to stop a dynamic offense.

         

How Clemson Can Win

SYRACUSE, NY - OCTOBER 13:  Dexter Lawrence #90 of the Clemson Tigers runs towards the line during the game against the Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome on October 13, 2017 in Syracuse, New York. Syracuse defeats Clemson 27-24.  (Photo by Brett Carlsen
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

There's going to be a lot said and written in the buildup to this game about Clemson signal-caller Kelly Bryant being the key. Anytime Alabama has lost in this era, it has been on the back of a herculean effort from the opposing quarterback.

Deshaun Watson's performance last season is proof of that and something the Tigers will remember fondly.

But there's an even bigger key for Clemson, and that's the offensive line. Simply put, they have to be better than they have been this season. The Tigers have only been mediocre at protecting Bryant. They give up two sacks per game, which puts them at just 72nd in the country.

Much was made of the fact Bryant went out of the game when Clemson picked up its only loss of the season, against Syracuse. But that's the result of a team giving up four sacks in a game.

That same offensive line will be charged with blocking a defensive front that is 28th in the nation in sacks, with 31.

Fortunately, the Tigers have an even better front seven when it comes to getting after the quarterback. The Tigers rank No. 3 in the nation in sacks per game and No. 9 in tackles for loss.

If there's a front that can slow the Alabama run game and force Hurts to perform in 3rd-and-long, it's Clemson's.

             

Prediction

The fact this is the third meeting between these two teams in three years adds another layer of interest to this matchup. Saban noted the familiarity between the teams will play a role as they know each other well and know what each team is trying to do schematically.

"I think you can take some things technically from those games and maybe even a little strategically," Saban said, per Charlie Potter of 247Sports. "You always do sort of a what we did well and what we did poorly when you play a game, and you get those things out and kind of look at them and see how you can try to improve this time around."

Given that background would include two games in which Alabama was able to get its running backs going, that's a good sign.

Last year, the Tigers needed an incredible effort from Watson. There are obviously different parameters to this game, but the question is whether Bryant can put together a performance like that in this spotlight.

That could be the difference in a game that goes down to the wire, and Alabama has slightly better experience at the quarterback position in big games.

Prediction: Alabama 28, Clemson 24

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