No. 1 Clemson vs. No. 4 Alabama
NEW ORLEANS — After four weeks of talking, the matchup everyone wants to see in the College Football Playoff is finally here.
Today, top-ranked Clemson will try to advance to its third straight national championship game where it plays No. 4 Alabama (8:45 p.m., ESPN) in the College Football Playoff Semifinals at the Sugar Bowl at the Superdome in New Orleans.
This is the third straight year the two powers have met in the CFP. Who has the edge in the trilogy?
Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow vs. Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick: What will Alabama’s plan be for Hunter Renfrow? Will they play Minkah Fitzpatrick, a safety, on him or will they play nickel back Tony Brown on him? Will they do different things in their coverages? How will they account for him? The last two national championship games, Renfrow has caught 17 passes for 182 yards and scored four touchdowns against the Crimson Tide. Alabama’s dilemma is this, if they do move Fitzpatrick, the winner of the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s best defensive back, down to cover Renfrow, then it takes away one of the safety spots and opens up things deep and down the sideline where Clemson likes to attack. If they choose to keep the two safeties deep and everyone else is in man, like they did a lot in last year’s game, then the middle of the field could be open, as well as the running backs, which should have a significant advantage on Alabama’s linebackers when they are in coverage. Advantage: Clemson
Alabama’s Calvin Ridley vs. Clemson’s secondary: What does Clemson do with Calvin Ridley? How are they going to try and take him out of the game and force other guys to step up in the passing game? Ridley leads the Tide with 55 receptions for 896 yards and three touchdowns. He is averaging 16.3 yards per reception. However, the next closest guy on the team has 14 catches and that is backup running back Bo Scarbrough. No other wide receiver has 13 receptions. Clemson is allowing just 165.1 yards per game through the air and has 14 interceptions. Teams are completing just 51.6 percent of their passes. Brent Venables has done an excellent job all year of taking away an opponent’s best receiver, look for him to do the same with Ridley. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson’s Austin Bryant vs. Alabama’s Matt Womack: This is one of the most interesting matchups in the game. Womack, Alabama’s right offensive tackle, is where Alabama will most likely run to when it needs to get rushing yards. Bryant’s side is the one area where teams have been able to run the football against Clemson. Bryant is more of a pass rusher than as a run stopper. When it comes to pass blocking, this is where Alabama can struggle. Bryant, who has 7.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss, has the edge here as Womack has had issue’s protecting his quarterback’s right side. Advantage: Push
Clemson’s Will Spiers vs. Alabama’s JK Scott: This year’s game is going to be a very low scoring, physical type game. When that happens, I think turnovers and field position are two big keys. Alabama has been great at protecting the football, losing just 8 turnovers all year long. The Tigers are not far behind, losing just 14 turnovers. In a game like this, turnovers and field position becomes very important because both defenses will have the upper hand in this game. The defenses will set the tone in this one and field position becomes huge. Scott is averaging 43.4 yards per punt with a net average of 40.9. He also has 22 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and 14 punts beyond 50. He has had one punt blocked. Spiers is averaging 40.8 yards per punt with a net average of 36.8 yards. He has 25 punts down inside the 20 and 12 kicks over 50. Advantage: Alabama
Bottom line: The first two games in this trilogy have been high scoring games, but I don’t expect this one to be. I do expect it to be a close and well contested matchup, but I think the game will be physical. I expect this to be a similar game to Clemson’s 14-6 victory over Auburn back in Week 2. It is hard to imagine, especially if the Tigers take care of the football, Alabama’s offense consistently being able to drive the ball down the field. Clemson has a little bit more weapons on offense than the Tide does and I think that will be the difference in the end.
Prediction: Clemson 17, Alabama 7