Alabama vs. Clemson: B/R's Expert Picks for the 2019 National Championship Game

Bleacher Report College Football StaffFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2019

Alabama vs. Clemson: B/R's Expert Picks for the 2019 National Championship Game

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    Nick Saban and Tua Tagovailoa
    Nick Saban and Tua TagovailoaWilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    For the third time in four years, it'll be Alabama vs. Clemson for the college football national championship.

    So much for the College Football Playoff opening the door for more teams to have a chance to win it all, right?

    This is the final pairing most fans and analysts have been expecting since the preseason. And if it's anything like the first two games, Monday night is going to be a whole heck of a lot of fun.

    Bleacher Report's college football experts—Matt Hayes, David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Brad Shepard and Ian Wharton—had one last 2018-19 meeting of the minds to offer up predictions for the natty, including:

    • Which QB has the better day?
    • Will there be a touchdown scored on defense or special teams?
    • Can Alabama run the ball against Clemson's elite defense?
    • And, of course, what will the final score be?

    Our experts are on the case to let you know.

Which Quarterback Has the Better Game: Tua Tagovailoa or Trevor Lawrence?

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    Trevor Lawrence
    Trevor LawrenceJeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes (Twitter: @MattHayesCFB)

    This is a tough question only because it depends on more than just which quarterback plays well. The question should be: which offensive line will protect well enough? In that sense, the answer is Tagovailoa.

    Not by much, but Tagovailoa should get enough time to make some significant throws against a Clemson secondary that has had problems in coverage this season. The Tigers are solid at cornerback, but the Crimson Tide will win the matchupswith third, fourth and fifth receivers who will beat anything Clemson lines up against them.

                     

    David Kenyon (Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR)

    Early cop-out response: Both will have tremendous games. Clemson's secondary is often outstanding but has encountered a couple of rough outings, and Tagovailoa is undeniably the best quarterback the Tigers have faced all season. As for Lawrence, he's that good. It takes a special player to succeed opposite an Alabama defense, and the maturity of his game will be on full display.

                

    Adam Kramer (Twitter: @KegsnEggs)

    I love this question. I love it because we might be watching the first overall draft picks in the 2020 and 2021 NFL drafts. Heck, there might be a 30 for 30 about this game someday.

    But let's not get super weird just yet. I believe Tagovailoa will have the better overall game, largely because a) experience and b) he is surrounded by the better cast of players, though only slightly. I think both QBs should play well and help deliver a number of touchdowns. But Tagovailoa will be better.

           

    Kerry Miller (Twitter: @kerrancejames)

    As tempting as it is to go with c) Jalen Hurts, I'm going to say Tagovailoa wins this battle by a slim margin. It'll be a close contest because Clemson has held eight of its last 10 opponents without a single passing touchdown, while Alabama has allowed at least 300 yards and multiple touchdowns without any interceptions in each of its last two games. But Alabama will be more reliant on the pass than Clemson will, and Tagovailoa has been here before. Given how great he looked against Oklahoma, there's no need to worry about that ankle.

           

    Brad Shepard (Twitter: @Brad_Shepard)

    Lawrence is an emerging star, and the game is going to dictate that he throw the ball. But I just think Tua is the better quarterback at this stage of his career, and he has better players around him. That's not a knock on all the athletes Clemson has, either. But I'll give the slight nod to Alabama's signal-caller. I lean Tagovailoa because he doesn't make a lot of mistakes.

                

    Ian Wharton (Twitter: @NFLFilmStudy)

    I think both quarterbacks will have good games. Overall, I think Tagovailoa will have more on his plate against a strong Clemson defense than what Lawrence will be asked to do against an Alabama defense that seems vulnerable against the run. My prediction is Tagovailoa has the better volume stats, while Lawrence is more efficient.

Will Alabama Be Able to Run the Ball Against Clemson's Front Seven?

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    Josh Jacobs
    Josh JacobsWilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    It's going to be a lot like the SEC Championship Game. While it wasn't your typical overwhelming Alabama power run, there will be times when the Tide are productive in the run game. By the second half, Alabama will be able to convert critical short third downs by running between the tackles.

                     

    David Kenyon

    Not consistently, but better than when these teams first met in the national championship three years ago. Alabama will take advantage of Dexter Lawrence's absence at moments, but Albert Huggins has plenty of quality inside for Clemson. Look for about 4.5 yards per carry, which would be Clemson's highest average allowed and Alabama's fourth-lowest gained.

                

    Adam Kramer

    I don't believe this will be a night where Alabama tallies a deluge of rushing yardage, but Alabama will find some success running the ball with all three backs splitting carries.

    What I think you're more likely to see, however, is the Crimson Tide using Josh Jacobs in the passing game. At the moment, there might not be a more versatile back in college football. Look for the Tide to use him in a variety of ways, testing the Clemson tackling downfield, especially if the defensive line plays as advertised.

           

    Kerry Miller

    Alabama has previously faced two defenses that rank in the top 10 in yards allowed per carry, and the Crimson Tide struggled to establish the run in those battles with Texas A&M and Mississippi State. They did eventually amass more than 100 yards and two rushing touchdowns in each of those contests, but they averaged fewer than four yards per carry. I expect a similar result against the Clemson defense, which led the nation in YPC. Alabama will finish with around 120 rushing yards, but it'll need to run the ball almost 40 times to get there.

           

    Brad Shepard

    It doesn't matter how good the defense is...Jacobs can run against anybody. For the first time in Saban's tenure, though, the Crimson Tide pass to set up the run, and that's what will open things up. They also have enough bodies that Jacobs just churns out those yards and salts away minutes late in the game. So, yes, Alabama will be able to run the ball, but the Tide aren't going to dominate that front. Look for 135 or so yards.

                

    Ian Wharton

    This will be the biggest factor for which team emerges as the winner. If Alabama can even hold its own with the rushing attack, it's going to be tough for Clemson to hedge to slow the passing game. I don't think Alabama will be able to get over four yards per carry despite its talent and Lawrence being out, and that's going to lead to a tight outcome.

Which Player Will Have the Most Receiving Yards, and How Many Will He Get?

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    Jerry Jeudy
    Jerry JeudyJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    To me, it's more about impact. Hunter Renfrow has played in the three previous games in this now four-game spectacle, and he knows how to get open against the Tide defense. He's far from the best receiver on the fieldthough Clemson coach Dabo Swinney swears he'll have a long career in the NFL (think Wes Welker)but he will get open, and he will make critical catches. As for who has the most receiving yards, though, it'll be Jerry Jeudy: the best receiver on the field.

                     

    David Kenyon

    Justyn Ross played the hero role in Clemson's semifinal, racking up 148 yards and two touchdowns. If that happens again, Saban might break four headsets in the process. I'll instead lean on the Tigers' other key wideout, Tee Higgins. He has put together three 100-yard showings, and there's no better time for a fourth.

                

    Adam Kramer

    I will first say this: Four years from now, I would be shocked if there aren't at least three wideouts from this game that are first-round picks. The talent is that impressive, and you could answer this question with four or five different names and feel good about your answer.

    But I'll go with perhaps the most obvious name: Jerry Jeudy. I believe he's the most talented wideout on the field, which says a lot when you look at all the players Clemson and Alabama have to offer. He's also a creator, and I could see Tagovailoa allowing Jeudy to create on short, safe throws early on. And create he shall.

           

    Kerry Miller

    Alabama has five different options averaging better than 17 yards per catch, so give me...(throws dart)...tight end Irv Smith Jr. with 125 yards and a touchdown.

    And why not? O.J. Howard had the two best games of his college career against Clemson in the 2016 and 2017 national championships, so there's a good chance Saban will try to exploit that tight end loophole he has apparently found in Brent Venables' defense. Smith hasn't done much in Alabama's last three games, but he could reserve his spot as the No. 1 tight end in this year's draft with a nice showing against the Tigers.

           

    Brad Shepard

    Higgins. This is the type of game where Clemson is going to try to take the lid off the defense to score points against an Alabama secondary that has been vulnerable at times. It got lost in Alabama's huge lead against Oklahoma, but talented true freshman Patrick Surtain Jr. got exposed a little against the Sooners. He will here, too. This isn't the big, bad Alabama secondary we're used to seeing, and I think Higgins will have six grabs for 120 yards and a score.

                

    Ian Wharton

    There's an incredible amount of receiving talent on both sides of the field. As Ross showed last week, any one of these guys can break out. My guess is Henry Ruggs thanks to his elite speed, and he'll tally 113 yards. But you could tell me any one of seven players between the two teams leads the game in yards and it wouldn't be surprising.

Will Alabama's History of Field-Goal Woes Be a Factor in This Game?

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    Joseph Bulovas
    Joseph BulovasMark Brown/Getty Images

    Matt Hayes

    My guess is Saban might try to kick early, and if it goes awry, he's not kicking againunless it's a chip shot. He'll do everything he can to prevent the Tide from depending on a kicker. Of course, that's not as easy as it sounds if you're not converting third and fourth downs. At some pointas these close games in this series have shownhe's going to need a kicker.

                     

    David Kenyon

    Yes. Even though Joseph Bulovas hasn't missed since mid-October, I think this is what determines the outcome. Whether it's an early missed kick that wastes a scoring opportunity or a potential clutch moment, I anticipate a special teams mishap will cost Alabama a repeat championship.

                

    Adam Kramer

    It very well could be. History says it will. Alabama missing big field goals in critical situations (see: basically every year ever) is just what ultimately happens.

    But Bulovas hasn't been awful this year. In fact, by Alabama kicking standards, it has been a decent season. So I will be the contrarian and say that Bulovas is perfect on the night. Two field goals from 39 and 41 yards out. Yes, I am as shocked as you are that I said this.

           

    Kerry Miller

    Bulovas is a redshirt freshman who has missed five extra points and nearly a quarter of his field-goal attempts. In Alabama's only two games decided by fewer than 22 points, he attempted (and made) one 38-yard field goal with an 18-point cushion in the first half against Oklahoma.

    In other words, he has yet to face anything as stressful as this. Combine that inexperience with Alabama's almost annual Achilles' heel in the kicking game, and it's a safe bet we'll either see a blocked field goal or a doinked extra point, followed by all of the #CollegeKickers tweets.

           

    Brad Shepard

    Yes. For some reason these issues always pop up. While the Crimson Tide will score their points, there will be pivotal downs and distances in this particular game, and the Tigers are far better equipped to defend them than the Sooners were. The Crimson Tide will have to settle for occasional field-goal attempts, and whether they hit them will go a long way in determining who wins the game.

                

    Ian Wharton

    It'll at least cause distress. As well as Alabama has played in the red zone, they're much more likely to settle for at least one field goal during the game. If they can't earn tough red-zone yards on the ground, then it's possible a missed field goal will be the determining factor in this one.

Will There Be a Defensive or Special Teams Touchdown in the Game?

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Matt Hayes

    Absolutely. Maybe one on each side. There's too much individual talentguys who can impose their will and playmaking ability on the gamefor it not to happen. Each team has an elite pass rush that can force quick (poor) decisions. That typically translates to a big mistake somewhere in the game.

                     

    David Kenyon

    It's remarkable that two of the previous three matchups included one. There are hundreds of matchups played in each of the last three seasons, and I'm sure we'd only find a handful where that's true. This is the long way of saying it's unlikely to happen again, especially because neither quarterback is prone to throws that are easy pick-sixes.

                

    Adam Kramer

    Nope. I believe you'll see both quarterbacks protect the ball. It's hard to forecast a blocked punt or strange football play that could creep in, but I don’t believe this will be a game defined by those types of big plays.

    That said, if any one of the defensive players on the field gets his hands on the ball, this prediction could go out the window. There are some superb athletes on both sides that could flip fields and then some if there is a breakdown.

           

    Kerry Miller

    Not only am I going to say yes, but I'm going to get unnecessarily specific about it. My gut is telling me Jaylen Waddle will return a punt for a touchdown. Clemson is going to have an edge in the run game, and these teams will just about break even through the air, but Alabama is going to keep this more than a little bit interesting with a big momentum-shifting touchdown courtesy of Waddle.

           

    Brad Shepard

    Nope. There is a ton of talent on both sides of the ball, and there will be a mistake or two that helps swing the game. I think the defense will set up a touchdown or two, but the athletes are so good on both teams they can neutralize mistakes during the screwed-up play. So, while there won't be any immediate capitalizing off turnovers, key points will come in the ensuing drives.

                

    Ian Wharton

    No. Neither team has been good at creating special teams plays this season, which is unusual. And each side defends well on special teams. Of course, that means something wild will happen because these major games tend to break everything we think we know and go the opposite way.

Which Player Is Named the Offensive MVP?

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    Tua Tagovailoa
    Tua TagovailoaWilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    It's an easy choice: Tagovailoa. And after he wins the MVP, there will be a social media outcry about waiting until the end of the postseason to name the Heisman Trophy winner. Because that's our world now, folks.

                     

    David Kenyon

    If Clemson is going to win, Lawrence must be the biggest reason. And since I expect a relatively high-scoring game, it follows that his numbers would be sensational. It's going to be a second straight year with a true freshman quarterback taking home Offensive MVP.

                

    Adam Kramer

    This is such a boring, obvious answer, but I am going to stick with it anyway. Give me Tagovailoa. I could see someone like Josh Jacobs sneaking into the mix, although Tua will be asked to do too much not to win. He'll finish with 321 passing yards and four total touchdowns.

    Consider what the legacy of the true sophomore would look like if this happens: two seasons, two national championships, two heroic performances in the title game. Maybe we're getting slightly ahead of ourselves, but the possibility is about 60 minutes away.

           

    Kerry Miller

    Travis Etienne. I don't think he's going to have a monster stat line—probably something along the lines of 19 carries for 128 yards and a touchdown—but his ability to pick up key third-down conversions to keep Alabama's offense off the field will not be forgotten. And on one of those 19 carries, he's going to break a Mack Wilson tackle and pick up 35 yards for one of the biggest highlights of the game.

           

    Brad Shepard

    It's too easy to say Tua, so I'll go with Jacobs. This will likely be his final game with the Tide, and I just love the kid, his game and what he stands for. He had a chip on his shoulder against his home-state Sooners, and he played very well. For the first time in his career, this can be "his" backfield in the biggest game of the year, and I think he shines with 80 yards and a couple of scores to go along with a few catches that pad his all-purpose stats.

                

    Ian Wharton

    I'll go with the best talent on each offense. If Alabama wins, it'll be Tagovailoa. If Clemson emerges with the upset, then Etienne must've had a huge performance.

What Will Be the Final Score of the National Championship?

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    Dabo Swinney
    Dabo SwinneyChris Carlson/Associated Press

    Matt Hayes

    It's so hard to pick against Alabama in these games. The reality is this: but for the greatest drive in the history of Clemson football led by the greatest player in Clemson football history, Alabama would be working on its fourth straight national championship. There's too much to like about Alabama and how it operates on both sides of the ball. This game will come down to which offense can successfully navigate the other's defensive front seven. Alabama will eventually figure it out and win 34-24.

                     

    David Kenyon

    One way or another, this result will hinge on two or three critical plays. If Clemson's defense doesn't break, it can pull out a close win (34-30). While every coverage has a weakness, Clemson should be doing everything possible to make Tagovailoa win in the intermediate portion of the field. Quick passes are tough to defend anyway, but Clemson cannot afford to get beaten deep. Trust the run defense, and do everything possible to bend, not break.

                

    Adam Kramer

    This has all the ingredients to be a classic. Great quarterbacks, 5-stars everywhere, two brilliant coaches. I believe this game will be as advertised. It'll be close at first, and the teams might work through their nerves early on. But I envision Alabama hitting a gear it hasn't hit yet this season. Final score: Alabama 38, Clemson 28.

           

    Kerry Miller

    I picked Clemson before the season began, and I'm sticking with it. I've got the Tigers winning a 41-38, thrill-a-minute shootout...wait for it...in overtime. Clemson's defense makes a colossal goal-line stand to force a field goal, followed by a game-winning touchdown catch by the ageless wonder Hunter Renfrow.

    Listen, I don't get to make any more football predictions for another 8.5 months, so I've got to get in as many as I can here.

           

    Brad Shepard

    There are going to be points scored in this one, but it's not going to be a shootout because both defenses are darn stellar, too. I think it's going to wind up something like 33-27 Alabama, but it wouldn't surprise me if that margin is even slimmer.

                

    Ian Wharton

    A blowout either direction would surprise me. I don't think Alabama's defense is quite as good as prior years, so Clemson should be able to rely on its run game for stretches to keep pressure off Lawrence. Still, I can't go against Saban and Tagovailoa on this stage. I'll say Alabama 23, Clemson 21.