The stage is set for the college football national championship as #1 Clemson will take on #2 Alabama for all the marbles out in Glendale, Ariz. The opening line had Alabama as a touchdown favorite but if you ask Clemson, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have played the role of underdog all season, with the “experts” picking them to lose in nearly every big game this year from Notre Dame, Florida State and North Carolina to the semifinal game against Oklahoma where most of the pundits had the Sooners winning big over the Tigers.
Swinney--who joined Bear Bryant as the only two coaches to defeat the Sooners in a bowl game two times--will look to become the first head coach to defeat his alma mater in the national championship game Monday night. The scary part of it all is that the Tigers are the third youngest team in the nation and were expected to be ”one year away” from competing for the tile heading into this year. Guess the boys in orange didn’t listen to those predictions, either.
With most of the team coming back including a young and talented offensive line, an even more mature and experienced Heisman contender at quarterback, another top recruiting class with several four and five star players who can contribute from day one, the Tigers don’t appear to be going anywhere for the foreseeable future.
A win Monday night would add Alabama/Nick Saban to his list of recent victories, which include Oklahoma/Bob Stoops, LSU/Les Miles, Ohio State/Urban Meyer, South Carolina/Steve Spurrier, Notre Dame/Brian Kelly and UGA/Mark Richt all within the past four seasons. Could it be that the man we call “Dabo” will return home to Alabama after Saban steps away from Tuscaloosa? It is possible. While Clemson has become home for Swinney and his family, I think Alabama is one the “for sure” job that he would ever leave Tigertown for. If that spot opens in the next year or two, it’d be hard not to give Dabo a serious look.
As an outsider or just general football fan, you couldn't ask for a better matchup. The Tigers and Tide are the only two teams in the nation with 10 or more wins in each of the last five seasons. The showdown should be a instant classic and while Alabama has the upper hand in coaching experience, I think Clemson will show up ready to go to work and is more than prepared and hungry to capture the schools first title in 35 years. Teams of destiny look a lot like Clemson and it would not be wise to think the Tide are just going to roll past the Tigers on Monday night. It’s going to be 60 minutes of grown-man football in the school’s first meeting since 2008—a 34-10 Bama triumph –-in what was “supposed” to be a big year for Clemson under then-head coach Tommy Bowden.
That season opener in the Georgia dome keyed the resurgence of Alabama and the Tide have hardly looked back since. It’s also worth noting that later that season, Tommy Bowden and Clemson parted ways and Swinney was named interim. For all intents and purposes...he hasn't looked back since, either. It all comes full circle on Monday night. Alabama always has NFL-ready talent at nearly every position on the defense but if you look at where they’ve struggled this year, it’s been against mobile quarterbacks. In the shocking loss at home to Ole Miss back in September it was Chad Kelly who gave the Crimson Tide fits all night long with his ability to extend plays and beat you with his arm as well as his feet.
Vol fans will remember the tough 19-14 loss this season in Tuscaloosa, a game in which Tennessee gave the Tide quite the scare before a late Derrick Henry touchdown erased a 14-13 advantage and gave Nick Saban’s team the lead with just 2:24 remaining in regulation. And what do the Vols have? A mobile quarterback that can beat you with his arm and feet as well. I don’t think it takes a genius to tell you that Clemson is a more complete team this year than both Ole Miss and Tennessee and has the athletes and talents to give Alabama plenty to worry about heading into the showdown Monday night in Arizona.
Make no mistake, the Tigers will have their hands full too trying to find a way to slow down the Heisman winner Derrick Henry but Clemson’s defense—while suspect a times this year—as always come up with the big plays and stops when they needed it most. Jake Coker had a impressive showing against the Spartans in the Cotton Bowl semifinal game (25-30 for 286 yards, 2 touchdowns) but it’s been Henry that has been the workhorse for the Tide touching the rock over 30 times against LSU (38) and Texas A&M (32) and over 40 against Florida (44) and Auburn (46).
The Tigers have a pretty reliable guy in the backfield as well who as rushed for over 1,000 yards and one of those guys who can not only make you miss in the backfield but gets those hard earned yards after contact. If you haven’t heard of Wayne Gallman, you will early and often Monday night. Tiger fans refer to him as the "Wayne Tain" and the locomotive is ready to pull out of the station one last time around 8:30pm Monday.
Gallman, like Watson, is only a sophomore and has rushed for 1482 yards on 269 carries for 12 scores compared to Henry’s line of 2061 yards on 359 carries for 25 touchdowns. Believe it or not, both are averaging 5.92 yards per carry in the second half of games this season. Henry is a junior and regardless of the game’s outcome is likely NFL bound. If the situation and location is right, perhaps Saban might be too.
Call it disrespect, call it haters, call it whatever you like....Clemson has fed off the negativity all season and week after week have proved they are better than what some are giving them credit for. If you've watched this team all year it just seems like its their time and its destiny. It won't be easy and the Tigers will have to weather the storm as they have all year but in the end, it should be a big party for the folks in orange stretching from Glendale to Death Valley. A tight game heading into the fourth quarter takes a big turn when an Alabama turnover leads to a Watson-Gallman fueled drive for Clemson that wins the game.
Clemson 31 Alabama 27
(Photo Credits: The State, USA Today, Jacksonville.com)