A rematch of last year’s title game is this year’s second semifinal game as the Alabama Crimson Tide roll into New Orleans to take on the top-seeded Clemson Tigers. Last year’s game was an instant classic and Alabama is in search of revenge after the Tigers won the 35-31 thriller. Alabama had to plead its case and sweat an Ohio State Big Ten Championship victory to get here, but the Crimson Tide are in the College Football Playoff and are a favorite over the #1 seed. Alabama is laying two at DSI Sportsbook based on early action that bumped the number up a little bit from -1.5 for the Allstate Sugar Bowl in the Big Easy.
The College Football Playoff committee sent a pretty strong message that it’s not okay to lose to Iowa by 31 points, which is why we’re talking about Alabama here instead of Ohio State. The Crimson Tide were nowhere near as dominant this season as they were last season with a 10-4-1 ATS mark. Alabama was 11-1 straight up and just 5-7 against the spread. The downtime should certainly help an Alabama team that did not look good down the stretch with the loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, a very close call against Mississippi State, and an uninspired 24-10 win over LSU. Clemson rides into this game on a high, but the Tigers really leveled off in the middle of the season with struggles against Wake Forest, Syracuse, and NC State. The Tigers removed all doubt early and often against Miami in a 38-3 win that propelled Clemson to the top seed with a 12-1 record. The Tigers are 8-4-1 ATS, depending on the numbers you have gotten over the course of the year.
Alabama is the team that Clemson did not want to play. The Tigers shut out Ohio State 31-0 in the semifinal last year. They beat Alabama and outgained Alabama in the National Championship, but this is still the most dangerous team in the country. Dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts posted a 15/1 TD/INT ratio and was the second-leading rusher with 768 yards on 137 carries. The Alabama offense was actually more explosive this season under first-year head coach Brian Daboll than last year’s OC Lane Kiffin. The Crimson Tide went from 6.5 yards per play to 6.9 yards per play. Alabama threw the ball a lot less this season, with just 276 pass attempts against 531 carries. Overall, Alabama ran fewer plays this season, but was a more efficient group. Damien Harris rushed for 8.2 yards per pop, while Bo Scarbrough regressed a bit with just 5.1 yards per carry. We often talk about Alabama simply replacing one five-star with another, but some injuries on the offensive line and some losses to the NFL really did seem to create some problems in some of the team’s bigger games. That merits watching here against a Clemson defensive line that could very well be the best in the country.
Per usual, Alabama’s defense was basically impenetrable. The Crimson Tide allowed just 5.5 yards per pass attempt and just 4.04 yards per play overall. That was the best mark in the league by 0.14 yards per play over Washington. The biggest knock against Alabama in terms of the College Football Playoff committee’s decision was the strength of schedule. It does make sense. The SEC West was weaker this season. Alabama avoided Georgia. Florida State was a shell of what it generally is. Because Alabama also avoided Missouri, the Crimson Tide faced only three offenses in the top 40 in yards per play. One was Colorado State. The others were Ole Miss and Auburn. Colorado State had 391 yards and 23 points. Ole Miss got obliterated, but Auburn won and moved the ball with ease. Alabama now has time to get healthy. The loss of Shaun Dion Hamilton was a big deal and Minkah Fitzpatrick had been dealing with a hamstring ailment. The Tide should be in good shape by the time the game rolls around. Alabama, despite being the #4 seed, is still the favorite to win the College Football Playoff.
The Clemson Tigers don’t have Deshaun Watson. They don’t have Mike Williams. They don’t have Wayne Gallman. They don’t have Ben Boulware. They don’t have Cordrea Tankersley. They do have Dabo Swinney. Swinney is the best coach in the country, bar none. Swinney’s recent resume included wins over Oklahoma twice, Ohio State twice, three straight over Florida State, four straight over South Carolina, and, of course, last year’s win over Alabama. Brent Venables is the highest-paid defensive coordinator in college football for a reason, but Swinney is the best head coach in the sport. He knows how to motivate players with positivity. His kids buy in because he buys in. He’s genuine. That helps over this prep period because the kids remain focused. Players stay attentive to the tasks at hand. That’s how you beat a guy like Urban Meyer 31-0. That’s how you bounce back a few days later and beat Alabama. Kelly Bryant completed 67.4 percent of his throws with a 13/6 TD/INT ratio. Clemson did increase from 4.2 to 4.9 yards per carry with speedsters Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster, who averaged 7.2 and 6.4 yards per carry, respectively. Bryant added 11 rushing touchdowns. Clemson, though, was only 34th in yards per carry and 46th in yards per play. Clemson has three great receivers in Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow, and Ray-Ray McCloud. Bryant isn’t Watson, but Swinney is the great equalizer in all of this.
That being said, Deshaun Watson threw for 420 yards with three touchdowns and no picks on this Alabama team in last year’s championship game. That safety net is gone, since Bryant is not the passer that Watson was. That means that the defense has to step up once again. Clemson had a top-five pass defense that only allowed 5.8 yards per attempt and a top-10 rush defense that allowed just 3.1 yards per carry. Overall, Clemson ranked fourth with 4.29 yards per play against. All of those marks are better than what we saw from Clemson last season, as they allowed 3.7 yards per carry and 4.6 yards per play. The Tigers have become one of those teams that simply reloads instead of rebuilds, particularly on the defensive side. Clemson’s defense absolutely shut down Auburn, including 11 sacks, stifled Louisville, and mostly stopped every other team that came in its path. The up-tempo offense of Syracuse was a problem, but with Alabama playing a more controlled brand of football this time around, that should help the Tigers.
College Football Free Pick: Alabama Crimson Tide -2
The difference between last year and this year is Deshaun Watson. Kelly Bryant has a lot of potential and upside, but he isn’t the same type of thrower as Watson. Clemson’s defense is better, but Alabama is unrivaled when it comes to winning defensive battles. The Tide lost last year because they couldn’t contain Watson. Alabama ran the ball just fine on Clemson’s defense and stopped Clemson’s running game.
Another play to look at here is the under when totals pop. The 2015 game between these two ended 45-40. Last year’s game ended 35-31. The Deshaun Watson dynamic plays a part here as well and Clemson’s defense has more time to prepare for Alabama this time around. We should see a bit of an inflated total based on the first two meetings.