Alabama vs. Clemson: Complete Guide to 2019 National Championship Game

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 4, 2019

Alabama vs. Clemson: Complete Guide to 2019 National Championship Game

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    The 2019 College Football Playoff went chalk in the semifinal round, leading to the third national title matchup in four years between the Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers.

    The two powerhouses will meet again Monday night in Santa Clara, California, for the right to call themselves champions. Both teams spent the season at the top of the rankings and proved their worth throughout the season as they won all of their games to this point.

    To help prepare you for this monumental showdown, we've assembled a comprehensive preview of the game. Everything including the meaningful statistics, top draft prospects, keys to stopping each team's talented quarterback, top storylines and, finally, a prediction for the final score.

Game Info and Key Stats

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    When: Monday, January 7 at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)

    Where: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California

    Line: Alabama -5.5, Over/Under 59.5, per OddsShark

         

    Key Stats

    This showdown has become a "throw out the stats" sort of game between two elite programs, but in case you're interested in them, this is what these teams have done for the past few months.

         

    Passing Offense

    Alabama: 69.4% comp, 325.6 YPG, 11.3 YPA, 50 TD, 6 INT, 202.7 passer rating

    Clemson: 64.7% comp, 274.1 YPG, 8.1 YPA, 34 TD, 8 INT, 152.7 passer rating

        

    Passing Defense

    Alabama: 51.7% comp, 187.6 YPG, 6.1 YPA, 19 TD, 14 INT, 110.7 passer rating

    Clemson: 52.6% comp, 182.1 YPG, 6.2 YPA, 11 TD, 10 INT, 108.6 passer rating

         

    Rushing Offense

    Alabama: 202.0 YPG, 5.3 YPC, 33 TD

    Clemson: 256.3 YPG, 6.7 YPC, 47 TD

         

    Rushing Defense
    Alabama: 120.3 YPG, 3.5 YPC, 9 TD
    Clemson: 92.6 YPG, 2.4 YPC, 8 TD

         

    Scoring

    Alabama: 47.7 PPG, 16.2 PA

    Clemson: 44.3 PPG, 12.9 PA

         

    Turnovers

    Alabama: 21 forced, 13 lost, plus-8 margin

    Clemson: 22 forced, 17 lost, plus-5 margin

         

    Miscellaneous

    Alabama: 24 total yards allowed on punt returns in 2018 (No. 5 nationally)

    Clemson: 53 touchdowns on 69 red-zone trips (76.8 touchdown percentage) (No. 5 nationally)

Key Storylines

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    There are three major storylines that encompass the current reality of the game and both programs, as well as the futures of each.

    Alabama and Clemson have quickly built quite the recent history over the last four years. Though Alabama beat Clemson 24-6 in last year's Sugar Bowl, this national championship game will be the tiebreaker between their 2016 and 2017 showdowns. Each game was decided in the waning moments, building up expectations that this could be another heart-stopping performance by these schools.

    Much has changed for each program even in the last year. Both teams replaced their starting quarterbacks on top of all the departed talent that jumped to the NFL. Yet Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney haven't missed a beat as they've maintained their stranglehold on college football.

    The theme of the game itself will be the battle of two physical and disciplined teams. Alabama and Clemson dominated their foes in the trenches in the semifinal round and kept their collective cool. Their opponents failed to display the same level of toughness and struggled to maintain composure when the deficit swelled.

    After the game ends, the overarching storyline will be about the youth of both teams. Neither will be losing its superstar quarterback, as Tua Tagovailoa is only a true sophomore and Trevor Lawrence a true freshman. But their playmakers are also in a similar situation.

    Alabama's Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, Jaylen Waddle and Devonta Smith are all at least one year away from NFL eligibility. The same is true for Clemson's Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, Justyn Ross and Travis Etienne. All of these offensive stars will be back for the 2019 season and some in 2020.

    It's incredible how well the schools have reloaded after losing what have become NFL stars.

Orange Bowl Star Trying to Stay Hot

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    It wasn't surprising the Crimson Tide took control of the Orange Bowl by bulldozing the Oklahoma defensive front, but the running back who dominated wasn't necessarily the one many expected. The Tide's third-leading rusher on the year, Josh Jacobs, pulverized Sooners defenders to the tune of 158 total yards on 19 touches.

    Jacobs entered the game with less than 500 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards on the year. Keeping such a talent in its back pocket for most of the year is a luxury that only Alabama and maybe two other teams in the country could boast. The powerful 5'10", 216-pound junior has a chance to continue rolling against a tremendous Clemson defensive front.

    Jacobs will have to use his creativity to find extra yards and be willing to drop his shoulder and create holes other times.

    If he can't, the Tide will turn to their other backs, Damien Harris and Najee Harris, or rely on their incredible passing game to produce.

Cotton Bowl Star Trying to Stay Hot

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    Like Alabama's Josh Jacobs, Justyn Ross' breakout in the Cotton Bowl was only a surprise because of the embarrassment of riches in front of him on the depth chart. On most teams, Ross would have easily been a No. 1 receiver despite being a true freshman.

    He accumulated 148 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions against a talented Notre Dame secondary. His ability to go up and over defenders displayed a skill set that few collegiate or NFL cornerbacks can consistently stop.

    Ross' 6'4" frame and immense leaping ability will go up against Alabama star freshman cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. Surtain Jr. uses his 6'2" length as well as any big corner in the nation, so Clemson may look to avoid that matchup whenever possible to create more advantageous situations.

Top 2019 NFL Draft Prospects

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    There are going to be a ton of future NFL players on display Monday night, but both teams are featuring key offensive talent that is ineligible for this year's draft. Some will have to wait a year or two for their inclusion on this list, but there are still plenty of big-time prospects to keep an eye on.

    Which ones will hear their names called in one of the first two rounds of the 2019 NFL draft weekend?

    Bleacher Report draft guru Matt Miller updated his positional rankings prior to the start of bowl season. There were seven Crimson Tide players and four Tigers on his top-50 list.

    • Quinnen Williams, DL, Alabama (No. 2)

    • Trayvon Mullen, CB, Clemson (No. 8)
    • Jonah Williams, OT, Alabama (No. 10)

    • Deionte Thompson, S, Alabama (No. 11)

    • Clelin Ferrell, EDGE, Clemson (No. 18)

    • Dexter Lawrence, DL, Clemson (No. 20)

    • Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama (No. 24)

    • Mack Wilson, LB, Alabama (No. 34)

    • Christian Wilkins, DL, Clemson (No. 41)

    • Irv Smith Jr., TE, Alabama (No. 43)

    • Damien Harris, RB, Alabama (No. 49)

    Alabama's Josh Jacobs and center Ross Pierschbacher project as Day 2 selections, with Jacobs a potential riser if he declares early. Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow and offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt figure to be off the board by Day 2 or early Day 3 as well.

How Can Alabama Stop Trevor Lawrence?

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    Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence entered college football with as much hype as any signal-caller in recent years, and he's delivered to the fullest extent. The playmaker has an electric arm capable of hitting tight passing windows and beating closing defenders just in time for a completion. The Tigers offense became much more balanced and dangerous after he was named the starter because of his ability to threaten defenses on all levels.

    Alabama must get into the backfield via unexpected pressure and force Lawrence to cough up the football. He finished the year with the fewest number of turnover-worthy throws in the nation, per Pro Football Focus.

    While nearly every quarterback is worse under pressure, the Tide specifically want to confuse Lawrence pre- and post-snap with their disciplined and advanced pattern-match tactics. Clemson's staff knows it well, but it'll take great improvisational plays from Lawrence to beat it, a la what Deshaun Watson did in 2016 and 2017.

    By slowing down his reads, the hope is a pass-rusher will hit Lawrence to create an interception or a fumble. A turnover or two could swing the outcome of the game.

How Can Clemson Stop Tua Tagovailoa?

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    As well as the Alabama defense has played this year, there's one clear area where Clemson has outproduced it. No team had more sacks this season than Clemson, and the Tigers ranked second in tackles for loss. They combined to make 181 tackles for loss and sacks on the year.

    Even if Dexter Lawrence misses the game as a result of a drug suspension, the Tigers are loaded on the defensive line with blue-chippers. Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Albert Huggins, Austin Bryant and Xavier Thomas form one of the best units we've seen in college football over the last decade. They possess next-level size, speed, strength and awareness.

    They're going to have to play their best game to disrupt Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa is incredibly accurate despite not having the strongest arm. The touch on his passes is reminiscent of Chad Pennington and Steve Young, two players who overcame some physical limitations with brilliance and precision.

    But every quarterback can be rattled. If Tagovailoa can get rid of the ball quickly or has more than a few seconds to throw, Alabama's offense is nearly unstoppable. So it's up to the Tigers front to make Tagovailoa hear footsteps and feel bodies all around him from the start of the game.

Key to the Game

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    There are a few major keys to winning this game. The Tigers must pressure Tua Tagovailoa early and often. The Crimson Tide must slow Travis Etienne and limit the chunk yards he can create so easily.

    The most important facet of this game, though, is whether Clemson can force turnovers on defense.
    The biggest weakness among the positional groups between these teams lies in the Tigers secondary. That's partially due to the talent at all the other positions on both sides of the field but also because Clemson's defensive backs have logged just seven interceptions and 31 passes defensed. It's a good coverage unit but not a playmaking group.

    While it's feasible Clemson will suffocate Tagovailoa and the passing game, Alabama's too good at creating scoring opportunities via the running game, special teams and defensive turnovers to figure the Tide won't score a few times. That's why Clemson must hurry Tagovailoa's process and take advantage of his average arm strength and inexperience, or his success could be the difference-maker.

Prediction

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    It was obvious these teams were the best in the country from the time Trevor Lawrence took over Clemson's starting quarterback job until Tua Tagovailoa's ankle injury against Georgia. Tagovailoa's surgical destruction of Oklahoma proved that his injury was a significant hindrance against the Bulldogs and these are still the two best teams.

    This is a tough game to predict. The Tigers are going to match Alabama's physicality in the trenches on both sides and have the offensive stars to push the young Crimson Tide secondary to its limits.

    On the other hand, Nick Saban's a tactical mastermind facing a freshman quarterback and young Tigers offense. Clemson hasn't played a team nearly as skilled as Alabama. The Tigers have the horses to run but must maintain that elite level of play on offense, defense and special teams.

    Can Clemson hold on and pull off the upset? Absolutely. It'll cover the 5.5-point line and give Alabama everything it can handle, even if I predict the Crimson Tide will pull through once again.

    Prediction: Alabama 23, Clemson 21