Clemson vs Alabama : It is Monday morning at San Jose’s SAP Center. The home of the Sharks, at the moment, is the home of the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).
“I guess the only comparison is the Rocky movies,” he said. “I know after three it’s a trilogy. But what’s four?”
It’s a good question, though it’s doubtful Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney have spent much time researching it. The on-field questions, however, deserve plenty of attention.
Sure, this is a matchup between two teams that know each other pretty well by now. Alabama came back to beat Clemson for a national championship to cap the 2015 season. Clemson returned the favor in 2016. Last season, the Tide topped the Tigers in the Allstate Sugar Bowl before upending Georgia for another title. And there are plenty of holdovers from those three, from Wilkins to the coaches to the undeniable heavyweight fight comparisons. But a lot has changed, too, and so we’re digging into the details — and hopefully avoiding too many Rocky allusions — to find out who has the advantage in Part IV of college football’s biggest rivalry.
Alabama X factor: Safety Deionte Thompson will have his hands full with all of Clemson’s receivers, but Hunter Renfrow is another animal. Thompson can ask his predecessor, Minkah Fitzpatrick, about that. Fitzpatrick, a first-round pick and perhaps the best defensive back ever to come through Tuscaloosa, was torched by Renfrow in the team’s three previous playoff matchups, where he caught a combined 22 passes for 211 yards and four touchdowns, including the winner in 2016. This game — barring an 18th year of eligibility — will be Renfrow’s last chance to hurt the Tide, and it’s up to Thompson to stop him on those pivotal third downs and red zone opportunities where he has been particularly effective.
Clemson’s X factor: Renfrow seems the obvious answer here given his history against Alabama, but that success means he’ll already have the Tide’s attention. So instead, turn your attention to the defense, where Isaiah Simmons blossomed into the Tigers’ leading tackler during the regular season and will be tasked with slowing down Alabama’s slot receivers in the national championship game. Dorian O’Daniel was a key to Clemson’s defense last season at the nickel/strongside linebacker spot, and Simmons has done admirably filling that hole in 2018, but this will be his biggest challenge of the season.
Alabama’s breakout star: He gets overlooked, with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and fellow wide receiver Jerry Jeudy dominating the postseason awards circuit, but Henry Ruggs III could be a real problem for a shaky Clemson secondary. The sophomore from Montgomery, Alabama, can take the top off a defense with his speed. This season, he has averaged 16.4 yards per catch. All told, he has 45 receptions for 738 yards and 11 touchdowns. If the focus shifts too much to the Biletnikoff Award winner, Jeudy, don’t be surprised if Ruggs shows off his wheels and hands against the Tigers.
Clemson’s breakout star: Justyn Ross was already a known commodity even before demolishing Notre Dame’s secondary in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, but this game comes with even bigger stakes and an even bigger spotlight. Then there’s the little matter of Ross being from Alabama and a top Tide target on the recruiting trail. The freshman has been a force in a backup role for Clemson all season, with 847 yards and eight touchdown grabs, but if he has a big game against his home-state team, you can be sure it’ll put his name into headlines well outside of Clemson.