For the fourth consecutive year and the third time in the national championship game, Alabama and Clemson will meet in the College Football Playoff. Like the 2015 and 2016 seasons, the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide and No. 2-ranked Tigers will face off as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the playoff in some order.
This time both teams are undefeated and the winner will become the first FBS team in the modern era of college football to go 15-0 in a season. They’ll share the field Monday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, where kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET with television coverage on ESPN.
It’s Alabama vs. Clemson Part IV and a true heavyweight matchup in the sport. One of the two schools has been ranked No. 1 in the CFP rankings in 26 of the 31 weeks in which the playoff selection committee has released an updated top 25 rankings. Both the Crimson Tide and Tigers have been ranked in every edition of the CFP rankings, something that only Ohio State can also claim.
However, this season’s matchup is different than the last three. Both teams made a quarterback change since No. 4 Alabama defeated No. 1 Clemson 24-6 in last season’s College Football Playoff Semifinal.
Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa replaced Jalen Hurts at halftime of last season’s national championship game to lead the Crimson Tide to its fifth national championship in nine seasons. Tagovailoa has since led Alabama to an average of 47.7 points per game this season, which ranks second nationally, and he has only attempted 14 passes in the fourth quarter as a sophomore, in large part because Alabama has all but secured a victory by the end of the third quarter in most games.
Clemson’s true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence beat out the incumbent signal-caller, Kelly Bryant, who elected to transfer from Clemson midseason. By early November, Lawrence was already breaking the Clemson freshman passing records of Deshaun Watson, who led the Tigers to a national title against the Crimson Tide in the 2016 season.
Despite the more than 6,500 combined passing yards and 68 combined passing touchdowns between the two quarterbacks, quarterback may not be the most talented position at Levi’s Stadium on Monday.
Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, a unanimous First Team All-American who won the Outland Trophy as the country’s top interior lineman, might be the best player in college football and he’s a potential top-five pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Clemson arguably has three future first-round picks on its defensive line in defensive end Clelin Ferrell, defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, although the latter will not play in the national championship game after a positive drug test.
Alabama opened as a seven-point favorite, according to Vegas Insider, but the spread has since dropped to 5.5 points in favor of the Crimson Tide as of Sunday afternoon.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for on Monday night.
Can Clemson’s offensive line slow down Quinnen Williams?
As referenced earlier, Williams is on the short list of the best college football players in the country and he’s capable of taking over a game by himself. He had 10 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks against LSU and eight total tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack against Georgia in the SEC Championship.
Can Alabama’s front four, led by Williams, consistently put pressure on Trevor Lawrence?
Or will Clemson’s offensive line, headlined by First Team All-ACC offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt and three Second Team selections, keep Alabama’s defensive line at bay?
Which Alabama running back will be the most effective?
Josh Jacobs was Alabama’s leading rusher with 98 yards on a team-high 15 carries (6.5 yards per carry) in the Crimson Tide’s Orange Bowl win over No. 4 Oklahoma. He was also the team’s third-leading receiver with four catches for 60 yards and a touchdown.
But that wasn’t Jacobs’ role for most of the regular season as he took a backseat to senior Damien Harris and sophomore Najee Harris. So who will be the most effective running back against Clemson?
As a true freshman, Najee Harris was Alabama’s most productive running back (six carries, 64 rushing yards, 10.7 yards per carry) in last season’s national championship game against Georgia and Damien Harris is the team’s most experienced back with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons prior to this season.
Will Tua Tagovailoa’s ankle hold up the entire game?
Tagovailoa said his sprained ankle was “80 to 85 percent” healthy prior to the Orange Bowl and if he experienced any discomfort during the game, he did a great job of hiding it. The sophomore had more touchdown passes (four) than incompletions (three) as he completed 24-of-27 passes for 318 yards.
Unlike the lead-up to the Orange Bowl, which was Tagovailoa’s first game since leaving the SEC Championship with the ankle injury, it’s not a question of if he’s healthy enough to be effective but rather if he can stay upright and avoid re-injuring his ankle against a talented Clemson defensive line.
Will either team jump out to an early, multiple-touchdown lead?
Alabama took a 21-0 lead in the first 13 and a half minutes against Oklahoma, which wasn’t an uncommon start for an Alabama opponent this season.
Meanwhile, Clemson and Notre Dame traded field goals in the first quarter to take a 3-3 tie into the second quarter.
Alabama and Clemson have been relative equals the last two times they have played for a national championship. The Tigers had a 14-7 lead after the first quarter and the game was tied at halftime in the title game three seasons ago. The next season, Alabama led by seven after the first quarter and at halftime.
Both times the team that held the lead entering the fourth quarter ended up losing the national championship game.
Will there be another competitive, back-and-forth national championship game or will one team establish itself as the aggressor with a big lead in the first quarter?