TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — We still have plenty of time before Alabama football faces top-ranked Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, but it’s never too early to look at some keys to the game.
The winner of the matchup between the Crimson Tide and Tigers will meet the winner of the contest matching the No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners and the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs, who will play in the other College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 1. The 2018 CFP National Championship Game is scheduled for Monday, January 8, 2018, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Alabama, which had one loss and didn’t win its conference championship, earned the nod over two-loss, Big Ten champion Ohio State. While Ohio State had better wins, the selection committee wasn’t able to get past the Buckeyes’ 31-point loss to Iowa this season.
Alabama and Clemson have met the last two years in the title game, with both contests being decided by fewer than 5 points.
Alabama won a 45-40 thriller in 2015. Last season, Clemson defeated the Crimson Tide 35-31 on a last-second touchdown. While it won’t be for the title, this is the rubber match many college football fans wanted.
Alabama won’t have linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton (knee) for this contest, and Alabama coach Nick Saban said Sunday that safety Hootie Jones (knee) also would be out.
Every one else should be healthy and ready to go. Guys like Minkah Fitzpatrick (hamstring) and Ross Pierschbacher (ankle) should have time to get back from their nagging injuries.
Even bigger: Linebackers Mack Wilson (foot), Christian Miller (biceps) and Terrell Lewis (elbow) get more time to reach 100 percent, and work their way back into the fold.
All three played in limited roles in the Iron Bowl, but should be full-time starters by game time barring any setbacks.
Third down was rough for Alabama in the Iron Bowl, as well as the last time the Crimson Tide played Clemson.
Against Auburn, Alabama was 3 of 11 on third downs on offense. Defensively, Alabama allowed Auburn to convert 50 percent of its third-down chances.
Against Clemson in January, Alabama was 2 of 15 on third down while Clemson converted 7 of 18 attempts.
Alabama won’t win if it doesn’t fix its third-down issues. You can’t have your defense out there for as many plays as Alabama did against Clemson last season and expect to win.
It’ll be on Alabama’s offense to sustain drives.
Feature the running backs
This was a hot issue following Alabama’s loss to Auburn when the box score showed the Crimson Tide’s top three running backs — Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Josh Jacobs — had a combined 18 carries.
While Alabama’s offensive system is built around zone reads and more quarterback runs with Jalen Hurts, it’ll be interesting to see if the Crimson Tide decide to feature their running backs more against Clemson.
Along with running the ball, there’s also the option of the screen game. We haven’t seen much of that this season.