TAMPA, Fla. — Some are expecting a high-scoring repeat of last year’s College Football Playoff title game between Alabama and Clemson on Monday night, but Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage isn’t among them.
“I don’t think so at all,” Savage said in an exclusive interview with SEC Country, when asked if Monday’s game will resemble the Crimson Tide’s 45-40 victory over the Tigers last year in Glendale, Ariz.
“I think Alabama is looking at it like, here are the things that we can do better than a year ago,” said Savage, a former general manager of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns who also provides color analysis for the Crimson Tide Sports Network. “I think defensively Alabama is more equipped to try to hang on the field with Clemson this year.”
Savage said Clemson quarterback and Senior Bowl invitee Deshaun Watson and his receivers provide the greatest challenge for Nick Saban’s defense.
“Deshaun is maybe the best player in college football, and I think he has a chance to prove that Monday night regardless of the outcome,” Savage said. “He’s so silky smooth, he really understands this offense. He can get the ball out of his hand quickly, he can scheme-run it, and he can throw it downfield, so he’s truly a triple threat.
“I don’t know that he’s different from last year; to me they try to make him more of a true passer and not lean on the run game as much. But in this particular instance on Monday night, if they need to run him 20 or 25 times, he’s going to have the football in his hands.”
The Tigers’ receivers are led by 6-foot-2, 225-pound All-ACC selection Mike Williams.
“The biggest question in my mind is can Alabama’s defensive backs hold up in man-to-man coverage against this assortment of wide receivers that Clemson puts out there,” Savage said.
As for the Crimson Tide’s offense, in its first game under the direction of new play-caller Steve Sarkisian, Savage doesn’t expect things to look too different than they were with Lane Kiffin calling the plays.
“There may be a wrinkle or two, but it’s going to be essentially the same offense,” Savage said. “I think there’s a little bit of a spark there, because I think this group of players and coaches want to prove that they can win without Lane.”
The play of Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts could prove pivotal, Savage said.
“Turnover margin and third downs will be huge for Alabama,” Savage said. “They have to possess the ball and they have to play keepaway. That will be their best defense against Clemson’s offense.”