5 Bold Predictions for 2016 National Championship Game
So it’s come down to this. The second College Football Playoff has a very attractive national title game: No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 1 Clemson.
This game features no shortage of storylines, from Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney taking on his alma mater to Alabama head coach Nick Saban trying to win his fifth national championship to a battle of Heisman Trophy supremacy between winner Derrick Henry and third-place finisher Deshaun Watson.
This duel in the desert features a high-powered Clemson offense that averages 38.4 points per game, No. 16 nationally, against a tough, talented Alabama defense that yields just 13.4 points per game, No. 1 nationally. With a win, Clemson can become the first FBS team to ever finish a season 15-0, but it won’t be easy against the Crimson Tide.
How will the national championship game unfold? Who’ll be left standing at night’s end? Here are five bold predictions about what will happen.
Alabama RB Derrick Henry Will Get His vs. Clemson's Run Defense
Alabama junior tailback Derrick Henry was a centerpiece of the Crimson Tide offense this season, and a darn good one. Henry took full advantage of his turn in the backfield spotlight, carrying the ball an eye-popping 359 times for 2,061 yards and 25 touchdowns. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry with his blend of power and speed, helping him edge past Watson and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey in the Heisman voting.
Henry finished very strong, blowing past 200 rushing yards four times in the final seven games of the regular season while carrying a combined 90 times in wins over Auburn and Florida. Clemson held Oklahoma to 67 rushing yards on 33 carries in the Orange Bowl, but both of the Sooners’ standout tailbacks, Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, were limited by injuries. (Mixon left the game following a hard hit, and Perine suffered a pair of injuries to his ankle.)
Clemson ranks No. 18 nationally in rush defense, allowing 124.4 yards per game, and the Tigers do have a talented defensive line. But All-American defensive end Shaq Lawson, who left the semifinal with a sprained left knee, could be limited. (He is expected to suit up, per ESPN.com's Heather Dinich.) The Tigers have also shown some vulnerability against the run, allowing 242 rushing yards to Syracuse and 181 to South Carolina.
Henry will rush for at least 150 yards against the Tigers defense and keep Alabama in the game.
Alabama Will Make a Big Special Teams Play
When Cyrus Jones returned a Michigan State punt 57 yards for a touchdown and gave Alabama a 24-0 lead, the Cotton Bowl was all but over. Jones has been a major playmaker for Alabama this season; it was his fourth punt return score of 2015.
Clemson has been shaky at best on punt and kick coverage. While the Tigers haven’t allowed much on punt returns (85 yards, no scores this season), they have allowed two kick return scores. Here’s predicting the Crimson Tide will break free for a crucial return touchdown.
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson Will Make Noise Against the Alabama Defense
Following a slow five-game start, Deshaun Watson showed why he was considered a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, emerging as the nation’s top quarterback. Heading into the national title game, Watson has 3,699 passing yards and 31 touchdowns against 12 interceptions and also rushed for 1,032 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Alabama coach Nick Saban had high praise for Watson, per Fox Sports's Michael Wayne Bratton:
He does a great job of executing their offense. Tremendous dual-threat in terms of being a very good passer and rushing for over 1,000 yards this year. Really is a very good rhythm passer as well as a guy who can sustain plays and extend plays because of his athleticism and ability to scramble. Really as fine a dual-threat quarterback as we’ve played against for long, long time.
In the season’s second half, his dual-threat abilities have been particularly impressive. Watson has rushed for at least 100 yards in five of Clemson’s last six games, including a season-high 145 yards in the Orange Bowl.
Alabama has a strong defense; quarterbacks have accounted for just 14 total touchdowns in 14 games against the Crimson Tide front. But they haven’t seen a talent like Watson, who AL.com's Kevin Scarbinsky says must run for Clemson to win.
The Georgia native is only a sophomore, but he has uncommon poise and maturity. He had poor first halves in high-profile games against Florida State and Oklahoma but bounced back both times to lead Clemson to a comeback win.
The Tide’s front, led by standout defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, will give Watson trouble. But he’ll make plays with his legs that buy him time to do damage with his arm. Expect another 100-yard rushing game and at least two passing scores against Alabama.
Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander Will Quiet Alabama WR Calvin Ridley
Amari Cooper’s departure to the NFL raised questions about who would step forward as Alabama’s go-to receiver, but freshman wideout Calvin Ridley has answered those questions affirmatively. Ridley is clearly Jake Coker’s top target. The speedy deep threat has 83 receptions for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns.
Ridley has also been excellent when it mattered. He had eight catches for 102 yards in the SEC title game against Florida and eight receptions for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State.
But he faces a very stiff challenge in the Clemson secondary, particularly redshirt sophomore Mackensie Alexander. The 5'11", 195-pound defender declared himself to be the best corner in college football before the season began, per Aaron Brenner of the Post and Courier, and has completely backed it up, turning in an All-American effort. He’s draft-eligible, and it’d be a surprise if this weren’t Alexander's last collegiate game.
Expect Alexander, a confident, physical corner, to go out on a high by holding Ridley in check all night long.
Clemson Will Win the National Title
In late August 2008, Alabama and Clemson met in the season opener at the Georgia Dome. On that night, Alabama took the first major step on a return to glory under Nick Saban’s watch, demolishing a favored Clemson team and rolling to a 34-10 victory.
One season later, Alabama had its first national title since 1992, courtesy of Saban’s “process.” A few months after that embarrassment in Atlanta, Tommy Bowden’s decade-plus run as Clemson head coach was done. He was replaced by a then-unknown wide receivers coach named Dabo Swinney.
Seven-plus years later, Swinney has turned an underachieving program into a power. The Tigers have five consecutive seasons with 10-plus wins, and with one more victory, they can finish 15-0 and secure the program’s first national title since 1981.
Facing off against Swinney’s alma mater, Alabama, makes for a perfect finish. To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man, and with three national titles under Saban’s watch, the Tide is unquestionably “the man.” Despite a No. 1 ranking, Clemson is a 6.5-point underdog to Alabama, per Odds Shark.
The Tide has a strong defense and a capable offense keyed by Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, but it hasn’t faced a quarterback of sophomore Deshaun Watson’s caliber.
Expect the Clemson defense to make a key turnover or two, and the unflappable Watson will carry his share of the load—and then some. Clemson will hold off Alabama in a tight game and take its first national title in 34 years.