It's hard to pick against Alabama these days and feel good about it, but Clemson is the truth.
This doesn't mean we think the Tigers will beat the Crimson Tide on Monday night. But they absolutely can. Here are five reasons why.
Their run defense is better
Let's take a look at the statistical breakdown between Alabama and Clemson:
|14-0 (8-0 SEC West)||Record (Conference)||14-0 (8-0 ACC Atlantic)|
|No. 1||CFP ranking||No. 2|
|47.7||Points per game||44.3|
|527.6||Yards per game||530.4|
|310.5||Yards allowed per game||274.6|
|190.2||Passing yards allowed||182.1|
|120.3||Rushing yards allowed||92.6|
Alabama's rush defense is still elite by just about any metric. But it's not Clemson's, and even though the Tigers are missing Dexter Lawrence, they have plenty of bodies up front. They didn't miss a beat against Notre Dame, only allowing the Fighting Irish to gain 88 yards on 35 rushing attempts. Clemson doesn't get pushed off its spot and it has excellent gap discipline.
The Tigers are going to need to win the time of possession battle in order to win the game. Perhaps handily. That's a lot to ask, but looking at the two teams' statistical profiles going into the game, it's doable. The other half of that equation is also key...
Their rushing attack is better
Trevor Lawrence and the defense get most of the publicity for Clemson, but Travis Etienne is a boss. He's run for 1,572 yards and 22 touchdowns this season on a whopping 8.3 yards per carry. It's not going to be easy to run on Alabama, but if anyone can do it, it's Clemson. The Tigers also have an outstanding offensive line.
Alabama could post gaudier rushing totals if they chose to commit to the run more, but considering they have Tua Tagovailoa under center, it's understandable why they don't. Damien Harris is their leading rusher with 819 yards on the season.
All things considered, you'd rather have an elite passing game than an elite running game. But there's a clear formula for Clemson to win: contain Tagovailoa, and control the time of possession battle with Etienne and the offensive line.
Momentum is on their side
Clemson has played lights-out football for months now. No opponent has come within 20 points of the Tigers since Sept. 29, a game they won by four against Syracuse. And while Alabama and Clemson both won in the CFP semifinals comfortably, the Tigers' win over the Fighting Irish was a complete domination. The Tide got up early and coasted for most of the second half.
A reminder: Alabama should still be expected to win, but this is the case for why Clemson can. The Crimson Tide should be applauded for beating Georgia and Oklahoma in their last two outings, but they struggled in the first half against the Bulldogs and took their foot off the gas in the second half against Oklahoma. The Tigers went through that kind of stretch in September but are playing their best football now.
Their pass rush
Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins are for real, and while Clemson has excellent cover guys, the best way to contain Tagovailoa is by giving him less time to throw. The loss of Lawrence hurts here, but this should be the best pass rush Alabama has faced all season.
The most similar comparison is Alabama's game against Georgia, where the Crimson Tide scuffled offensively and the Bulldogs consistently applied pressure. Of course, there's a big difference: Tagovailoa is healthier and more mobile now. But it's a factor to keep an eye on nonetheless. An outstanding pass rush is a prerequisite for having any shot to contain the Alabama offense, and Clemson fits the bill.
If Clemson can control the time of possession and keep Tagovailoa under wraps, this game will likely come down to the wire. And crazy stuff can happen in a one-score college football game.
Chance comes into play when the talent levels are comparable; they are here. Don't be surprised if this game is decided by three points either way.
FINAL SCORE PREDICTION: Clemson 27, Alabama 24