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College Football Playoff Championship Prediction 2016

Derrick Henry
What a bust this college football bowl season was. Usually the most wonderful time of the year in the sport, the last couple weeks have been filled with an absurd amount of blowouts and pretty unexciting match-ups that included two noncompetitive Playoff games. Though, as the 2015-2016 season wraps up, the National Championship has a chance to redeem what has been a rough December and January in the sport. It pits a rising Clemson program that ran through the ACC with ease en route to a 14-0 start, against an Alabama team that has shut down everybody since a September loss to Ole Miss. While there is no clear favorite entering this one, one thing is clear: the blowouts in the sport we witnessed this bowl season won't continue in the sport's Championship.

Alabama has been absolutely dominant since that early season loss to Ole Miss. The Tide allowed 40-plus that night to an explosive Rebels' offense, and their five turnovers raised serious questions about the state of the program moving forward. Since then, Alabama has shut down every single offense they've faced, with a quick and aggressive defense, and one that forces turnovers like crazy. That defense has used a defensive line stocked with future NFL talent to hold opposing running backs in check all year. The Tide use a rotation of eight skilled linemen that all have different strengths, which keeps them fresh and ferocious. They will be joined by a strong group of linebackers, headed by the veteran Reggie Ragland, who recognizes plays as well as anybody in the nation. That front seven should help Alabama quite a bit against an underrated Clemson rush offense. Not only can Deshaun Watson run the ball when needed, running back Wayne Gallman has quietly put together a huge year. Gallman isn't the most talented back Alabama has faced (Leonard Fournette, Alex Collins and more), but he is a versatile runner with excellent burst. He won't get much space, but when he does, he will have to be able to do something. In the defensive backfield, Alabama also has incredible depth and two shutdown cornerbacks, Eddie Jackson and Cyrus Jones (who is also a major factor on special teams). Clemson not only has a very legit passer in Watson, he is aided by a number of weapons on the perimeter, that include a number of deep threats. It will be interesting to see just how aggressive the Tigers are against this Alabama secondary. The Tide have proven that any mistakes against them will be serious problems, as they are easily one of the best in the nation at forcing turnovers and producing off of them. Another major storyline to watch is Watson himself versus the Tide's defense. Strong-armed quarterbacks with great running ability have given Alabama's defense fits over the years, and they weren't great against a pretty similar player earlier in the year in Chad Kelly and Ole Miss. Inside the SEC, Alabama has faced some great running backs and overall strong offenses, but they haven't faced a quarterback with the skills of Watson. It will be interesting to see how Kirby Smart, in his finale as defensive coordinator at Alabama, handles Watson.

On the other side of the ball, Alabama will bring their typical, grind-it-out style of offense, but most likely with a twist. Throughout the Nick Saban era, the Tide have always run the ball with power, and that hasn't changed at all this year, with Derrick Henry leading the way. But, Lane Kiffin has added a new element to the 'Bama offense since he arrived in Tuscaloosca, adding an up-tempo attack and leaning slightly more on the passing attack. Alabama's aerial attack hasn't exactly been scary this year, but is seemed to find it's full rhythm last week in their 38-0 drilling of Michigan State. QB Jake Coker looked poised and confident as he dissected the Spartans, and he will enter his final game in college with significant momentum. He'll be helped by rising superstar Calvin Ridley, a true freshman, who has already broken records in his short time with Alabama. Along with Ridley, Coker will search for tight end O.J. Howard. Howard is crazy talented but slumped mightily throughout the season. Though, he seemed to find some space in the Cotton Bowl, and he is an absolute nightmare matchup for the Tigers. Outside of the passing game, Clemson will have to prove they can contain Henry, which few teams have managed to do this year. Henry is an absolute monster who seems to never tire. And, even when he does, Kenyan Drake can bail him out as a change of pace, with more speed and explosiveness. Clemson's rush defense has been strong all year, but they will certainly get tested by the punch of Henry and Drake. Though, this Clemson defense did do a great job earlier in the year when they managed to contain Florida State's Dalvin Cook, a similar runner to Henry.

While Clemson's offense obviously gets a lot of attention (and they rightfully should), the defense has been surprisingly terrific. Talent was never a question mark for the unit but there was so much experience and leadership gone entering the campaign. The Tigers have found a number of weapons up front, led by defensive end Shaq Lawson (who will play in this game after injuring knee against Oklahoma) and tackle Carlos Watkins.  They will also be joined by a strong group of linebackers, including senior Ben Boulware, and a well-coached defensive backfield, that includes cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Boulware will help give Clemson's defensive line a fighting chance against Alabama's rushing attack, while Alexander will be tasked with shutting down Ridley. Ridley's speed and great route running ability have given teams fits, but Alexander has the advantage in size and experience. That matchup could very well change the game; if Alabama succeeds they have a huge edge up against the Tigers. If Alexander can tame Ridley, a major component of Alabama's offense is lost.

On the other side of the ball, Clemson will be led, clearly, by sophomore Deshaun Watson, who finished off third in Heisman voting this year. Watson has been great all year despite coming off a torn ACL last season. He has the type of arm that can make all the tough throws, and he plays with a maturity and confidence well beyond his years. Watson will also be supported by Gallman, and a solid crop of weapons at receiver. Artavis Scott is an absolute burner who has emerged as Watson's favorite target over the past two seasons, while veteran Charone Peake is a reliable player who is great at finding space. Meanwhile, tight end Jordan Leggett has quickly become a very lethal red zone weapon, with seven touchdowns on the year. It will be interesting to see just how successful he is though, as Alabama's defensive versatility allows them a number of defenders to contain the tight end.

This looks like it will certainly be an intriguing battle sure to come down to the wire. It features two teams that move the ball in very different ways. Clemson has a number of explosive playmakers to work with and can move the ball in bunches, while Alabama will still lean heavily on their power and grit. Both teams have proven defenses that could have some success, but Alabama has had more proven success against proven offenses. It is hard to bet against a defense that has shut down everybody they have played in the season's second half, and they should still have success even against Watson. Clemson should get all the credit in the world for an impressive campaign they have put together, and they could very well enter next year as the title favorite (with Watson, Scott and more set to return), but the Tide are the nation's hottest team. They have been absolutely dominant and become even more scary if Coker plays like he did against MSU. Most importantly, they have the edge in experience. Saban and Smart know these big games and know what needs to be done to win a national title. While Clemson is clearly on the rise and has been for awhile, they haven't played in a game this big under Dabo Swinney, and it will be interesting to see how they handle it.
Alabama, 28 Clemson, 24

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