TAMPA, Fla. — Heading into Alabama football’s matchup against Clemson, we enlisted a little help to get a feel for the Tigers ahead of the College Football Playoff national championship on Monday.
Aaron Brenner covers Clemson for The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C. Kickoff from Raymond James Stadium is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Aaron Brenner, The Post and Courier
Question: Clemson shut out Ohio State. Is that the best the team has looked all year?
Brenner: Oh, absolutely. Throttling Boston College, Syracuse and South Carolina by 45-plus doesn’t resonate the same way as completely embarrassing a recent national champion and handing Urban Meyer his worst loss as a head coach. This was the culmination of a program that hasn’t been short on offensive weapons from record-setting quarterbacks to future first-round receivers, but now can offer a well-rounded dominant defense as a complement. Clemson won its fifth consecutive (non-national championship) bowl game Saturday, and the Tigers have never been this hot at the end of a season.
Q: What’s the mood around the program heading into this matchup? Are they confident they can win?
Brenner: Extremely. In their minds, while the Tigers have respect for the array of rings captured by Alabama in recent memory, they don’t view Alabama as dramatically better than Ohio State, and this core group of veterans and experienced sophomores remember how close they were to topping the Tide nearly 12 months ago. My columnist Gene Sapakoff made a great point: while Alabama enjoys the advantage of most opponents being in awe of the Bama mystique, Clemson won’t be intimidated this time around thanks to last year’s experience. If anything, the Tigers are likely to play as if every Alabama player personally said something about their momma.
Q: How does Clemson’s offense plan to attack Alabama’s defense?
Brenner: About the same way it’s approached every defense this season, with a nod to how historically excellent the Crimson Tide was in 2016. Deshaun Watson makes good decisions in the run-pass option game, and Wayne Gallman isn’t the fastest tailback but he finds holes and runs through defenders with the best of ’em. Mike Williams and Deon Cain are capable deep threats stretching the field, and Jordan Leggett has developed into one of the more trusty tight ends in the country. I would say that with Alabama’s propensity not just to create takeaways but to go for six points off of them, Watson will certainly be extremely careful not to throw crushing interceptions. But it’s not like he’s trying to get picked.
Q: In what ways is this team different compared to the team from last season?
Brenner: The offense is really similar to last year’s attack, but one way in which the 2015 unit was better was probably a little more cohesiveness on the offensive line; Eric Mac Lain is missed at left guard, and Sean Pollard has handled things OK but nonetheless is a true freshman fill-in at right tackle due to Jake Fruhmorgen’s leave of absence. One way in which the 2016 offense is better from last year’s College Football Playoff: Mike Williams isn’t shelved with a neck injury and Deon Cain, a Tampa product, isn’t suspended. The defense had more individual superstars in the secondary last season, whereas this year’s team thrives more up the middle; defensive tackle Carlos Watkins has molded into a potential future first-rounder, and Dexter Lawrence is arguably the best true freshman in the country, though Jalen Hurts might have a little say about that.
Q: What’s your feel for the game and prediction?
Brenner: I think we’ve all learned our lesson on doubting Alabama, even when they graduate great players or have some kind of major injury. But as the Clemson beat writer the past four years, I’ve been able to recognize when there’s that certain look in the eyes of coaches or players, that they know they’ve got a good chance to win this upcoming rivalry contest or league championship or bowl game. This will be my eighth postseason affair covering Clemson, and never before have they been this hot nor this confident. With Alabama stammering a bit over the Lane Kiffin issue, expect the Clemson defense to play again with reckless abandon, and the two-time Heisman finalist Watson to make enough plays (provided he avoids a pick-6 or two) to ensure he leaves college not with the sport’s highest individual honor, but its ultimate team trophy on Monday night. Clemson 27, Alabama 23.