Sugar Bowl 2018: Factors That Will Decide Alabama vs. Clemson Playoff

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistDecember 18, 2017

AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 25:  Jalen Hurts #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide throws a pass during the first quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

A postseason matchup between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers is beginning to look like an annual tradition in college football. After playing for the two most recent national championships, the two programs will meet again in the 2018 Sugar Bowl. 

The College Football Playoff semifinal is shaping up to be an exciting rematch. With Alabama winning the first championship game by just five points and Clemson winning the second by four, the stage is set for another close one. 

At least that's what Vegas appears to be expecting. According to OddsShark, the Crimson Tide roll into the game as 2.5-point favorites. 

Even though these teams are familiar, this year's matchup is one all its own. Here's a look at some of the key factors that could swing this game. 

             

How Healthy are Alabama's Linebackers?

Butch Dill/Associated Press

Not that anyone will feel bad for a team with depth like Alabama, but the Tide struggled with injuries at the linebacker position this year. 

Yes, you'll hear about how Bama can just replace one five-star player with another, but this was the rare case in which they had their depth tested and challenged. The Tide were forced to burn the redshirt of VanDarius Cowan and played a freshman defensive end in LaBryan Ray at outside linebacker. 

The health woes should be coming to an end in the Sugar Bowl, though. Christian Miller, Terrell Lewis and Mack Wilson all made their returns in the Iron Bowl. Miller and Lewis were coming back after missing 10 games while Wilson only missed two. 

While none of them had a huge impact on the game, it did offer them a chance to get back in the swing of things before their bowl game on New Year's Day. Head coach Nick Saban was pleased overall with what he saw from the trio. 

"They all made a contribution and I didn't see any glaring errors," the Alabama coach said, per Christopher Walsh of SEC Country. "I think everybody out there probably made a few mistakes, but I think it was very helpful that we had those guys back, and we were glad to have them back."

A full-strength Miller and Lewis on the outside could be a big help. The biggest difference between last year's Alabama defense and the slightly less terrifying version the team has this year is the pass rush. The Tide have just 31 sacks this season without much production from their outside linebacker position. 

Can Alabama's Offensive Line Block Clemson's Defensive Front?

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

It's a rare occasion when Alabama doesn't have the advantage in the trenches, but this is one of those times. The Clemson defensive line is quite simply the best in the nation and it isn't close. 

The Tigers are No. 1 in the nation in sacks and fourth in tackles for a loss. Defensive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant are in the top 30 in sacks and tackles for a loss. 

Then there's the defensive tackles. Dexter Lawrence is a 6'5" 340-pound behemoth in the middle who figures to be a high NFL draft pick when he's eligible and Christian Wilkins rounds out the four-man starting lineup in his third year of starting. 

The Tide offensive line is going to have its hands full. They are 51st in the country in sacks allowed the season, giving up 1.83 a game. 

Of course, the run blocking is better for Alabama's offensive line. They are fourth in the nation in tackles for a loss given up and average six yards per carry, good for sixth in the nation. 

It will be vital for the Tide to stay in front of the chains in the run game because that pass rush is likely to wreck the Alabama passing game unless the offensive line suddenly makes dramatic improvements against the best defensive line in the country. 

                 

Calvin Ridley

STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 11:  Calvin Ridley #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide tries to elude the tackle of Mark McLaurin #41 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs after a reception during the second half of an NCAA football game at Davis Wade Stadium on Novembe
Butch Dill/Getty Images

Neither of these teams have the most explosive passing attack in the country. Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant has 13 touchdowns to six interceptions on the season, while Jalen Hurts only throws the ball 18.5 times per game and has 15 touchdowns to one interception. 

Both teams are going to look to establish the run and ask their quarterback to manage the game. 

That means that if big plays are going to happen in the pass game, it's going to come down to receivers. 

Calvin Ridley is the most talented receiver in this game and should make a big impact. He gets almost all the targets in the Tide's offense. He has 55 receptions on the season, the next highest receiver on the team is running back Bo Scarbrough with 14 catches on the season. 

Not only does he lead the team in receptions, he's efficient too, as noted by Pro Football Focus' yards per route run metric:

With Alabama returning to more of a "run the dang ball" approach without Lane Kiffin this season, the passing game doesn't have to do much. When it does, the Tide will turn to Ridley to make a play. 

In a game that could be a low-scoring affair, Ridley could be the difference in another close game. 

Prediction: Alabama 23, Clemson 17

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