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College Football Playoff Championship Prediction 2017

Tim Williams, Alabama
After 365 days, and plenty of exciting games, we are back where it all started back at the beginning of 2016: Alabama and Clemson for the National Title. The two squared off in a thriller last season that was back and forth until the very end. Nick Saban and Alabama used a second-half onside kick to change the momentum of the game and overcome a huge day from Deshaun Watson and the Tigers to claim the title. Now, coming off a blowout victory over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, Watson and the Tigers are eager for vengeance, in what it is being called "The Rematch".

For the third straight year, Alabama broke in a new quarterback and for the third straight year they won the SEC and made it to the Playoff. True freshman Jalen Hurts understandably had growing pains to begin his career but has grown in confidence as the weeks have gone by. Hurts is a fabulous runner that can open up games, but many still question what he can do with his arm. Only fueling doubters was Hurts' relatively poor showing in the Playoff semifinal over Washington. Even though 'Bama had no troubles rolling past the Huskies, Hurts struggled to do much through the air. Clemson almost certainly will stack the box as much as possible and force the young quarterback to beat them over the top. Hurts does have a plethora of different receiving weapons to help him, which has certainly helped the young quarterback get more comfortable. Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart can break it deep every time they touch the ball, and tight end O.J. Howard had a career day in this game one year ago. That explosiveness and versatility on the perimeter gives new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian plenty to work with and the former USC coach (who takes over for Lane Kiffin, who will now move to Florida Atlantic as their head coach) will be creative with how he spreads the ball around. The Tide also have their usual power-run attack to lean on if they can't do much in the passing game, with Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris waiting in the wings. Scarbrough struggled with fumbles earlier in the year but his punishing rushing has led him to take over the feature back role. He ran all over Washington in the semifinal, but we will have to see how he performs in this one; Clemson is a very good rush defense team and will be prepared to stop him. Harris is far from flashy but can still do plenty of damage. The X-factor on this Tide offense, though might not be Hurts, or Scarbrough or any of the skill positions. It likely will be on the offensive line, where they will have plenty of resistance. Alabama rebuilds on the trenches as good as anyone and studs Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams lead the ground game. They will have to show their abilities in pass blocking, however. Clemson has perhaps the nation's most talented defensive line, which they definitely showed in the Fiesta Bowl. The Tide are so used to dominating the line of scrimmage that this war in the trenches could be an interesting adjustment. If the Tigers manage to get some serious pressure on Hurts, they will have a significant advantage.

Their offense will obviously have to put up points, but the offense is not Alabama's strength, it is their suffocating, big-play defense. The Tide managed to retain a number of important defenders from last year's team (Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Eddie Jackson, although he is injured) and have been absolutely scary this season. The group not only gets after the quarterback in ways we haven't seen before, they force turnovers and capitalize off of them as well as anybody in the nation. A ball-hawking back seven that includes Minkah Fitzpatrick, Marlon Humphrey, Ronnie Harrison and a talented group of linebackers has been the key all year long for Alabama. Teams have been able to manage some success at times against the group, but this Alabama defense is the best I've seen at changing the momentum of a game with simply one play. Any number of these defensive backs can pick off a pass, take it back for a big gain and get 'Bama going. Turnovers have been an issue all season long for Watson, and he had two picks in the semifinal. If he makes mistakes, the Tide are going to have a field day defensively. This unit is also extremely motivated after they were shredded by Watson a year ago. The then-true sophomore was on fire in last year's Championship, making big play after big play against a Tide defense that was awfully good as well. Guys like Allen, Williams and linebacker Rueben Foster will also have to step up to ensure that the result is not the same this time around.

While Watson has seemingly take a step back in some ways, the gunslinger is still one of the nation's best players. The junior (who will be playing in a Clemson uniform for the final time in this one) has a huge arm, is dangerous running and is a winner that seems to play better the bigger the stage. Only helping the talented signal-caller is a supporting cast that could be even better than last year's group. Sure-handed Artavis Scott will test Alabama on short and intermediate throws and in the open field, while a healthy Mike Williams is a huge test for this Alabama secondary. Williams missed all of 2015-2016 and didn't play in this game a year ago, but presents so much challenges. At 6'3" with great athleticism the wide out is terrific catching jump balls and is a security blanket for Watson. Against such a talented and aggressive Tide defense, that is awfully important to have. Underrated Hunter Renfrow had a coming-out party in this one last season, hauling in two touchdowns and looking like the best receiver on the field. He will be joined by the explosive Deon Cain and valuable tight end Jordan Leggett to give Watson a ton of weapons to work with. Alabama will not be intimidated by this group of receivers, but this may be the best group they have seen all season long. There is so much talent and experience, and these guys find ways to contribute in different ways. Paired with quality running back Wayne Gallman and the versatile Ray-Ray McCloud, the Tigers can hurt defenses in so many different ways.

A big reason why Clemson is such a tough team to beat is because they are so balanced. That means that they don't rely solely on that big-play offense to win, but also on a defense that only gets better as the years go by. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables is as good as anyone at developing new, young talent and finding different, unique ways to attack offenses. He has been able to grow a fabulous D-Line, headed by veteran Carlos Watkins, end Christian Wilkins and Clelin Farrell, who was the Defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl. That talented group will have to step up and contain Hurts and Scarbrough, while also blitzing Alabama in a multitude of ways. Linebacker Ben Boulware is a gritty, disciplined linebacker that will have to also step up and contain the ground attack. Even so, it isn't those players that may have the largest impact on this game for Clemson, it is their defensive backfield. The group was decimated by NFL departures last spring but has been pretty good for much of the year. They have to have a big day in order to stop Hurts and the rest of the Tide offense from gaining momentum. Also key will be tackling in space; Alabama has so many different players that run so hard they can't be stopped with simple arm tackles. Clemson needs to ensure they stop 'Bama from getting into the open field and wreak havoc, something Alabama did too often in this game in '16.

While some of the players may be different, one has to assume the feel of this game is going to be very similar to the 2016 edition. There should be plenty of smashmouth football, and Alabama will likely try to overpower Clemson with their powerful rushing attack early. But, this game could well come down to turnovers and big plays. It is hard to know what type of Clemson we will be getting in that aspect. Can a focused Watson lead the Tigers again to big yardage and plenty of points, or will turnovers doom this team? Can Hurts make enough throws to secure a victory for Alabama? I think this game could be down-to-the-wire much like last season. Both are extremely talented and have enough weapons on both sides of the ball to get the job done. Alabama is trying to put together the first 15-0 season in college football history, while Clemson is looking for a revenge, so motivation will certainly be no question in this one. These teams are so evenly matched, it could come down to the little things or special teams, like it did last season, but I worry about Watson turning the ball over. Alabama's ability to score on the defensive side of the ball so often is the only distinct advantage they have in this one. It may be unexciting to pick this one the way I did last year, but I think 'Bama is the safer pick. They will get one heck of a challenge from the Tigers but Saban is better the bigger the game and has a defense eager to help 'Bama finish the job.
Alabama, 34 Clemson, 31

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