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Alabama vs. Clemson: Odds and Score Prediction for Sugar Bowl 2018

Joe Tansey@JTansey90Featured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2018

SYRACUSE, NY - OCTOBER 13:  Hunter Renfrow #13 of the Clemson Tigers carries the ball during the first half 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/Getty Images)
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The decision-maker in Hollywood would love to have as much drama in a trilogy as Clemson and Alabama have. 

The third installment of the College Football Playoff rivalry between the two powers of college football takes place on New Year's Day at the Sugar Bowl. 

The Tigers rolled through the ACC on the way to the No. 1 seed in the playoff, while the Crimson Tide experienced a long wait during the first weekend of December before they were selected as the No. 4 seed. 

Alabama won the first edition of the showdown in the 2016 national championship, and Clemson came out on top in the 2017 national championship, setting up a rubber match on New Year's Day with a spot in the title game on the line.

           

Date: Monday, January 1, 2018

Time: 8:45 p.m. ET 

TV: ESPN 

Live Stream: Watch ESPN 

Odds: Alabama (-3); Over/Under: 47.5

                

Alabama Hoping to Contain Hunter Renfrow

Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow probably still haunts the dreams of Crimson Tide fans almost a year removed from his incredible performance in the national championship. 

The junior caught 10 passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns in Clemson's 35-31 triumph last season, and he's going to pose the same threat on Monday. Alabama head coach Nick Saban is more than aware of Renfrow's presence, per ESPN's Chris Low: 

Chris Low @ClowESPN

Nick Saban on Hunter Renfrow: “He’s a pain in the you know what, nothing different from last year to this year.”

Since lighting up the Alabama defense in the title game, Renfrow has failed to reach 80 receiving yards in a game. The most catches the junior hauled in this season was nine against Auburn on September 9. His highest yardage total came on November 25, when he picked up 75 against South Carolina. 

Although he may not be putting up meteoric numbers, Renfrow does have a familiarity with Alabama's defensive scheme, and with some inexperience littered across the field, the wide receiver's knowledge will be valuable. 

If the Tigers were wise, they'd send Renfrow across the field to attack the depleted Alabama linebacker corps. if Renfrow is able to attract attention from the middle of the Crimson Tide defense, it will give more space for the Clemson running backs to burst into space as the Tigers try to establish the running game. 

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Renfrow won't be the only weapon quarterback Kelly Bryant will target, but he'll be the most important asset as the game goes on. If Alabama can limit Renfrow's impact on the game, the Tide may be headed to their third straight national championship. 

                        

Crimson Tide Looking to Overcome Defensive Injuries 

The monthlong layoff didn't help Alabama's situation at linebacker. 

Dylan Moses, who was starting in place of the injured Shaun Dion Hamilton, went down during Sugar Bowl preparations. With the Crimson Tide struggling to stay healthy at the position, sophomore Mack Wilson, who missed three games himself in November, will be the defensive signal-caller for the first time on Monday, per Michael Casagrande of AL.com: 

Michael Casagrande @ByCasagrande

Worth noting Mack Wilson will be calling defensive plays for the first time in the Sugar Bowl.

Wilson and Rashaan Evans will be tasked with patching together the holes at linebacker. At some schools, the backup linebackers might struggle in a pressure-packed situation, but Alabama's depth chart is littered with talent. 

Evans is third on the team in tackles with 57, and he's recorded 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. Wilson has 22 tackles and three interceptions in the nine games he's featured in.

TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 30:  Shea Patterson #20 of the Mississippi Rebels rushes away from Rashaan Evans #32 of the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 30, 2017 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Clemson will be aware of the absences at linebacker and might have a go at the heart of the Alabama defense early whether it's through short passes to Renfrow or with running backs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne in the ground game. 

Even with all the apparent disadvantages going against them, the Tide come in with the No. 1 defense in the nation. The unit has given up 11.5 points per game and held opponents to 94.1 rushing yards per contest. 

Alabama doesn't have to match those numbers, but if the linebackers can team up with the rest of the front seven to smother the Clemson running backs, it will put all the pressure on Bryant, who might not be able to perform like Deshaun Watson did a year ago.  

                            

How Will Kelly Bryant Perform Under Pressure? 

Bryant is not Watson and we shouldn't expect him to play like the Houston Texans quarterback on every play, but he does have the chance to show moments of brilliance that can spur the Tigers to victory. 

The junior signal-caller improved as the season went on, as he finished the regular season with three straight 200-yard performances. 

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

The one concern surrounding Bryant is his passing numbers against AP Top 25 opposition. Bryant only threw for four touchdowns and was picked off once while being sacked on 14 occasions in six games versus ranked teams. 

Bryant has made up for those poor passing numbers with seven touchdowns to go along with 274 yards on the ground in the set of contests against ranked opponents. 

If Alabama can seal up the holes in the middle of the field and stop the Clemson running game in its tracks, Bryant will be forced to find success against the Alabama secondary. 

Bryant is relishing the challenge of facing the talented Alabama defense as an underdog. Although the Tigers haven't been the underdog on many occasions this season, the quarterback is embracing the role for the Sugar Bowl, per Matt Connolly of The State: 

Matt Connolly @MattatTheState

Kelly Bryant "We've pretty much been the underdog in every big game we've played this season." NOTE: Clemson has been favored every game this year entering the playoff. It's been favored by 10+ points 8 straight games.

As long as Bryant can find success early in the contest, Clemson should be able to develop a rhythm, but if the Tigers are disrupted by Alabama's pressure throughout the first half, the Tigers could be playing from behind in the second half. 

               

Prediction 

Even with all of their injuries on defense, the Crimson Tide are favored to return to the national championship. 

But if there's one team that can knock Alabama off its game, it's Clemson. Expect a close contest, but look for Bryant and Renfrow to hook up in the second half and propel the Tigers into the CFP National Championship. 

Clemson 24, Alabama 21  

               

Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

All statistics obtained from ESPN.com and Sports Reference

Odds obtained from OddsShark.com.

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