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College Football Playoff 2017-2018: Previewing the Sugar Bowl

Travis Entienne, Clemson
The last two seasons, Clemson-Alabama have given us memorable ends to the college football season. Two years ago, Deshaun Watson dominated but it wasn't enough as a bold onside kick to start the second half guided Alabama to victory. Last season, the Tigers started off slow but Watson led an epic comeback capped off by a last-second touchdown grab by Hunter Renfrow. There is no Watson this season, and this isn't the National Championship game, but it should still be a thrilling game. Clemson earned the No. 1 seed in the Playoff field, and hopes to defend that National Title. On the other side, Alabama looks to validate getting into the field over Ohio State, and get vengeance for last year.

Without Watson, Clemson's offense isn't quite as dangerous, but the group still proved it could get the job done on countless occasions this season. First-year starter Kelly Bryant isn't a great passer but he is dangerous with his legs and can really break games open. When paired with freshman Travis Entienne (744 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Tavien Feaster (659), Clemson's rushing attack can really be scary. Facing an Alabama defense that is very beat up on the D-Line and at linebacker could be a great opportunity for the group to show what they can do. On the outside, Clemson possesses some real weapons, namely Deon Cain and Renfrow. Cain is the next in a long line of talented Clemson wide outs, while Renfrow has played insane each of the past two teams he has played the Tide. Up front, Clemson has had some injuries, but the line should still be enough to control the line of scrimmage. In the past, Alabama was able to bully opponents and beat them with their insane athleticism defensively. That isn't going to be the case for Clemson. This offense might not drop 50 every night, but it has good balance and any number of guys can go out and break the game open.

While the offense will obviously need to play well to win this one, the Tigers will turn to their defense, which has been their strength all season. Clemson may have the nation's best defensive line, featuring four guys who should soon be playing on Sundays. Austin Bryant has had a breakout campaign, with 14.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, Clelin Ferrell dominated in last year's Playoff and had 17 tackles for loss this year, and interior linemen Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence are two of the best out there. Beyond that, the Tigers feature two superb linebackers in Kendall Joseph and Dorian O'Daniel who should be able to slow down Alabama's ground game. In the secondary, Clemson has plenty of talent but the group has lacked much consistency, and has been prone to big plays. Alabama still won't throw the ball a ton, but it could be cause for concern for the Tigers if Jalen Hurts is able to get the ball down the field. Even so, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is one of the best there is, and devised a perfect defense to stem the Tide last season.

The first season of new Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll wasn't exactly a booming success, but the Tide have proven they can still move the ball with a stellar rushing attack and consistent play from Hurts. Hurts hasn't had the breakout sophomore season some expected but he still has put up good numbers and showed great command of the offense. He also is still dangerous as ever with his legs, which could give the Clemson defense some serious problems. At running back, the Tide are stacked, per usual. Damien Harris leads the team in rushing, and is averaging 8.2 yards per rush. Powerful Bo Scarbrough and youngsters Joshua Jacobs and Najee Harris also will provide plenty of help. At receiver, there is no secret who Hurts will look to often. Junior Calvin Ridley led the team with 55 receptions and 896 yards on the season. The second closest was true freshman Jerry Jeudy, who had just 13 catches for 244 yards by comparison. If Clemson can shut down Ridley, this Alabama offense could really become one-dimensional.

The biggest reason why Alabama wasn't quite their dominant selves towards the end of the season was their defense. The unit is still as talented and deep as ever, but it has a long list of players sidelined with injury. That list includes defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, who won the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation's best defensive back. Fitzpatrick has been dealing with a hamstring injury for awhile, but luckily, is probable in this one. Alabama is still pretty strong in the front seven, even with a number of linebackers out. Raekwon Davis has evolved into a top-notch defensive linemen, while nose guard Da'Ron Payne will be tasked with slowing down Clemson's rushing attack. Alabama also should have a great counterattack to Bryant through the air with the talent they possess in the defensive backfield. Not only is Fitzpatrick a proven difference-maker, Levi Wallace and Anthony Averett are terrific. Wallace has proven himself as a game changer on the season, while Averett is one of the country's best cover corners, and will be tasked with slowing down likely Deon Cain.

Neither of these teams are their 2016-2017 selves, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Clemson has proven they can with Bryant leading the way, and the defense, which was once the team's Achilles Heel, has morphed into a Top 10 unit. On the other side, Alabama has proven themselves countless times on the biggest of stages and has insane amounts of depth. I expect it to be a hard-fought, hard-hitting football game, but I think Clemson will pull it out. The Tide just don't seem like they are at Clemson's level right now, and the Tigers have more overall versatility and balance.

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