There is no shortage of chatter in advance of the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship, a hotly anticipated contest between the No. 1 Clemson Tigers, looking to complete an undefeated season, and the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide, a perennial football powerhouse under head coach Nick Saban.
Take Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Never one to mince words, Alexander has talked up a big game in advance of Monday's championship tilt. For starters, he's hardly convinced Alabama should be favored over his undefeated squad.
"We are 14-0, and we were underdogs last week, it's all a brand thing," Alexander said, per AL.com's John Talty. "Everyone cares about the brand, the Alabama brand. I understand it's a lot of fans, and they've done it for a long time, but this is a new year, and it's our time."
Alexander's also more than ready to take on Alabama's top wide receiver, Calvin Ridley, per ESPN.com's Sam Khan Jr.: "Listen, I don't stroke nobody's ego. I go out there and handle my business. I feel like I'm the best and biggest man in the country, and I go out there and do it. I'm done talking about this. We do what we do. We face great players. They have great players. We faced great players all year."
Ridley, a freshman, is far and away the Crimson Tide's biggest receiving threat, with 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns on the season. Alabama is a power-running team predicated on Derrick Henry slowly eroding a defense while quarterback Jake Coker takes advantage of an over-committed and tired opposition. This is why neutralizing Ridley is one of the keys to the game for Clemson, per Newsday's Greg Logan:
Ridley has drawn comparisons to former Alabama star Amari Cooper, who was a first-round pick by Oakland in last spring’s NFL Draft. But Alexander, a redshirt sophomore with first-round talent who is eligible for this year’s draft, didn’t hesitate to compare himself to Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis when it comes to shutdown ability. And he meant Revis in his prime when the top wide receivers in the game disappeared on “Revis Island.”
Although Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Alexander won’t necessarily “shadow” Ridley the whole game, the Tigers’ defense is predicated on being able to leave their corners in single coverage so they can commit more numbers to the line of scrimmage.
Ensuring Alabama has the right blend of pass and run against Clemson's stellar defense falls upon offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who has worked wonders under Saban the past couple of years. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Barkley, who played at USC during Kiffin's tenure as head coach, says his former coach has given Alabama an added dimension with his play-calling acumen.
“I think he’s really given them a spark on offense with all the play action and the schemes that he’s brought,” Barkley said, per Duane Rankin of the Montgomery Advertiser. “I think he’s done a good job utilizing the athletes that Alabama has and made the most of it.”
A big part of the Tigers thwarting a Kiffin-devised offense depends on the health of defensive end Shaq Lawson, one of the best players in college football. Lawson suffered a knee injury in Clemson's national semifinal win over Oklahoma, but he's optimistic he will suit up on Monday.
"I have been doing pretty much everything I can to get strength back in my knee," Lawson said at the team media day, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. "I have been having a busy week with treatment. I am in the training room probably about two hours a day and getting two treatments per day."
The challenges for Clemson in this game extend far beyond containing Alabama's offense. Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson is going to need a big game both on the ground and through the air if Clemson is to win this game. Alabama's defense is nasty, to put it mildly.
“They want to go live, they want to hit people. You got to almost hold them back; you don’t want them to injure a scout team player or injure themselves. But they’re not worried about that,” defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said, per Steve Hummer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In order to live up to his eye-popping potential, he'll need a strong performance from his offensive line.
Alabama features a menacing front seven replete with NFL-caliber players like linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson. It makes sense that Clemson guard Eric Mac Lain is using the reputation of his opponents to fire up his teammates on the offensive line.
"I try to express that to the offensive line," Mac Lain said, per AL.com's Matt Zenitz. "If they have any aspirations of playing in the NFL, you have to do good against NFL prospects. I think we all realize that, and excited for the challenge."
Mac Lain's strategy for pumping up his teammates puts things in a long-term perspective, a reminder of the riches still unattainable for these talented athletes. That may sound overly serious and business-like, but it's nothing more than a little perspective.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has no problems with his team forsaking dour demeanors and having a little bit of fun. He insisted his team show joy in the buildup to the national championship, per Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde:
Well, is that against the rules? That question right there is what's wrong with society. I mean, it's like a big deal if somebody enjoys what they do. Like we're supposed to be miserable going through this. I don't understand that. I mean, there's no rule that says you can't have fun.
Saban isn't exactly known for sporting a fun-loving demeanor, but he has his own motivational tactics that at this point shouldn't really be disputed. Per Chuck Culpepper of the Washington Post, Saban spoke of truly appreciating what his team has accomplished up to this point:
Let me try to put it this way. You know, at the banquet this year, I gave a speech about "thank you." But there’s a second part to "thank you" that no one ever thinks about, that when I was a kid, I was thanking my coach and my teams for whatever, and my dad was picking me up after practice, and he said, "You thanked your coach. That was really nice. But there’s an IOU that goes with every 'thank you,' which is, you owe them your best." [With this team,] I thanked them for all their hard work, their togetherness, their competitive spirit, all that they were able to accomplish in winning the SEC championship.
Building up a sense of appreciation, trust and togetherness is key when the whole world is waiting for you to perform. It can be especially helpful for players in unfamiliar environments. For at least one Alabama player, Arizona has proven to be an alien backdrop for what is potentially the most important game he'll ever participate in.
"It's a little bit different from where I'm from," Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick said, per Talty. "I've never seen a cactus on the side of the road. I had never seen huge mountains before, either. It's pretty cool."
It's not just the scenery. Everything about the game will be different for the vast majority of these players. It's a different atmosphere, a different level of scrutiny. There is one game, a mere 60 minutes, for these players to make their mark in college football history.
The CFP is still a nascent adventure. History is to be made in Glendale, Arizona. A win at this early stage of the CFP—a system that seems quite likely to stick and would probably benefit from expansion—would be the achievement of a lifetime. Of course it's going to be different.