The College Football Playoff championship game is set to kick off on Monday night, as Clemson and Alabama will battle for the national title. Here’s what to watch for when tuning into the game.
Derrick Henry vs. Clemson defensive line (including Shaq Lawson)
It seems Clemson star DE Shaq Lawson is ready to go.
“We expect him to play,” head coach Dabo Swinney said on Sunday morning of Lawson, who suffered a knee sprain early in the Orange Bowl semifinal. “He looked good yesterday [in practice]. But again, until you get out there and you're playing in a game of this magnitude with the intensity and physicality, you never know.”Lawson has been doing everything he can to get ready for this game, and he’s going to be tested early and often. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry has racked up more than 20 carries 10 times this season and more than 30 carries four times. If Lawson isn’t 100 percent, expect Henry to look to take advantage. The Tigers defensive line showed off their depth in Lawson’s absence in the Orange Bowl, but the national-best 23.5 tackles for loss that he brings to the table cannot be discounted.
“Shaq Lawson is a very good player,” Henry said. “They have physical linebackers and a secondary that is very strong and very fast. They're a very fast defense that is good at making plays.”
His ability to run on Clemson could be a huge factor on Monday night.
Clemson trick plays?
The Tigers have been known to have a few tricks up their sleeves this year. Why would Monday be any different?
In the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, the Sooners had a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter when Clemson punter Andy Teasdall completed a 31-yard pass to 315-pound freshman DT Christian Wilkins. The play, which Clemson practiced every week and is called “UConn” because Wilkins is from Connecticut, turned out to be a huge momentum shift in the game.
Of course, the Tigers wouldn’t reveal any specifics at Media Day on Saturday, but they hinted that something could be in the works.
Alabama’s fearsome front seven
It’s been said over and over again in the lead up to the game, and really, all season. Alabama’s defensive line and linebacker groups are historically great.
“They're monsters. I've been saying that all week,” Clemson guard Eric Mac Lain said. “They have a great front seven and they do a lot of stuff with their blitz game, obviously having 50 sacks on the season. It's going to be a huge challenge for us, but we're ready for it.”
It’s not just A’Shawn Robinson for the linemen or Reggie Ragland for the linebackers. It’s Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen and Darren Lake. It’s Tim Williams, Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson. And them some. Everywhere you look, there’s a player who would star on any other team.
“[Their depth] is why they've been so dominant,” Swinney said.
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Alabama has the top rushing defense in the country, giving up 70.8 rush yards per game and 2.3 yards per attempt. Opponents have six touchdowns on the ground all season against the Tide.
Running back Wayne Gallman has been a huge part of Clemson’s success this season. On Monday, him and the Tigers’ offensive line will be facing the biggest challenge of their careers thus far.
Championship game jitters?
It’s the biggest stage in college football. How will the teams react to the bright lights?
Alabama’s been here before, though many members of the team have not. The Tide were last in the title game in 2012. This is Clemson’s first time in the national championship game since 1981. Nerves are normal and expected.
However, the teams’ approach to this challenge could not be more different. Swinney has become well-known for his have-fun mentality in coaching, while Alabama QB Jake Coker says that playing football in and of itself is a “blast.” You won’t see as much other “fun” coming out of the Tide as you do the Tigers.
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“We've been loose all year,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said. “We don't really tense up for games or get too uptight, that's just how we are.”
So, which team will get comfortable first? The more serious-minded Tide, or the fun-loving Tigers? It could go a long way to determining the winner.
Can Jake Coker do it again?
We have a pretty good idea of what we’ll be seeing from Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, Heisman finalist and one of the top signal callers in the country. But what about his counterpart?
With Derrick Henry being held to 75 yards in the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State, Jake Coker stepped up. His 286 passing yards were a career high as he led the Tide to a 38-0 rout.
“You shouldn't be surprised at what he did last game because he's got the talent to do that every week,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said.
It will be interesting to see if Clemson goes all in on stopping Henry like Michigan State did by loading the box and making Coker beat them.
“I doubt they're as heavy as Michigan State was in defending the run, but we gotta see,” Coker said.
If they are, that could be dangerous road to go down for the Tigers.