The 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship is set, and it is not much of a surprise. The No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide and No. 2 Clemson Tigers will meet at Levi's Stadium—home to the San Francisco 49ers—on January 7.
In the semifinals, Clemson took care of No. 3 Notre Dame with ease, while Alabama shut down No. 4 Oklahoma despite Heisman-winning quarterback Kyler Murray's best efforts.
The last time these two juggernauts met was in last season's semifinal. Alabama dominated Clemson to secure a 24-6 victory, which is also the last time the Tigers lost a game. However, Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence was still in high school for the matchup, and Alabama sophomore signal-caller—and Heisman finalist—Tua Tagovailoa was backing up Jalen Hurts.
Since the College Football Playoff's inception in 2014, this will be the third Alabama-Clemson championship matchup. The Crimson Tide won in 2016, and the Tigers took the title in 2017. Consider 2019 the rubber match.
Let's dive into what to expect.
According to OddsShark, Alabama is starting this week as a 6.5-point favorite, with the over/under sitting at 60. Both Alabama and Clemson covered in their semifinal games.
When healthy, Tagovailoa has been the best quarterback in the country this season. Throughout the regular season, the sophomore struggled with knee injuries and then suffered a high ankle sprain in the SEC Championship Game. Even so, he was able to play against Oklahoma on Saturday.
Tagovailoa threw for 318 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions on 24-of-27 passing. While that is impressive, it is worth noting that the Oklahoma defense is ranked 108th in total defense among all FBS programs.
Before exiting in the fourth quarter in the SEC title game against a Georgia team ranked 13th in total defense, Tagovailoa looked as vulnerable as he ever has. After throwing just two interceptions in the 12 games prior, Tagovailoa was picked twice by the Bulldogs and completed just 10 of 25 attempts.
The Clemson Tigers are ranked No. 4 in total defense and No. 1 in defensive efficiency, so Tagovailoa may have to improve on his showing against Georgia to lead his team to victory.
Trevor Lawrence is only 19 years old and didn't begin this season as Clemson's starter. Since taking over the job under center, he has played like anything but a true freshman. There was concern heading into the semifinal against Notre Dame that Lawrence would crumble.
Instead, he played his best game as a Tiger—completing 27 of 39 attempts for 327 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Head coach Dabo Swinney was pleased. "He's just so poised," Swinney said after the game, according to ESPN. "He just sees it. And he's got a gift of an arm."
It's Lawrence's poise and vision that allows for star wide receivers such as Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins to explode in a way so impressive that DeAndre Hopkins, one of the NFL's top receivers, shouts them out.
Should Lawrence show any signs of faltering against a vaunted Alabama defense, he has a reliable running back to shoulder some of the offensive responsibility in sophomore Travis Etienne, who set a Clemson record in 2018 for most rushing yards in a single season with 1,572.
Etienne has eight 100-plus-yard rushing games in 2018, including one 200-yard game.
Through the regular season, Alabama's rushing defense ranked No. 18 in the country, which means that Etienne should have at least a couple of opportunities to make a game-changing play.
The senior linebacker's nine sacks put him fourth in the SEC. Miller's pass-rushing is important, although he is part of a group effort that includes defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs, who is third on this list with 10 sacks.
What makes Miller an X-factor is his uncertain injury status heading into the championship game.
Miller left the semifinal against Notre Dame with a hamstring injury. ESPN's Chris Low reported Sunday that Miller is believed to have a hamstring pull instead of a hamstring tear, "making his return against Clemson more likely."
Should Miller play, how healthy he is will obviously play a factor. But even if he isn't at 100 percent, his presence on the field will do wonders in applying pressure on an inexperienced Lawrence.
As it stands, Clemson's star defensive end is suspended for failing a drug test prior to the semifinal. Lawrence has appealed his suspension and denied any wrongdoing.
When he has played this season, Lawrence has been incredible. At 6'4" and 340 pounds, the junior even has a rushing touchdown.
Clemson is appealing the suspension, but Lawrence likely won't suit up against Alabama. However, he is still a factor from the sideline, as his teammates made clear after they held Notre Dame to just three points that their performance was inspired by "Big Dex," per ESPN's David M. Hale.
"It was a next-man-up mentality," defensive end Austin Bryant said after making six tackles, with three for a loss. "Of course we miss Dex. He's a great player and a great personality to have on your defense when times get tough. But those guys stepped in and did an awesome job. I'm just really proud of them. Proud of Dex for cheering them on."
In Lawrence's place, senior Albert Huggins stepped in and contributed one solo tackle and one quarterback hurry, per Gabe Cavallaro of the Austin Independent Mail.
Overall, the last thing you want the No. 1 most efficient defense in the country to have is an additional chip on its shoulder.