By RALPH D. RUSSO
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Clemson and Alabama are playing in the College Football Playoff for the fourth straight season, and the third time for the national championship.
The winner Monday will become the first 15-0 FBS champion.
With the help of SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic, a former Auburn offensive lineman, a breakdown of some of the key matchups that could decide Tide-Tigers Part IV.
CLEMSON ON LINE
There are few one-on-one matchups where Alabama is ever going to be at a disadvantage. Clemson’s defensive line might be good enough to capitalize on some small vulnerability even without suspended 340-pound run stuffer Dexter Lawrence.
Tigers All-America defensive tackle Christian Wilkins against Alabama left guard Lester Cotton is a place where the Tigers can win one-on-one.
“Wilkins is a player who has really good quickness inside. Could be very disruptive against a player who was benched in the middle of the season for a younger player that came in and sort of took his spot and is now suspended and not going to play,” Cubelic said.
Deonte Brown was suspended for an undisclosed NCAA violation, Alabama coach Nick Saban has said.
Alabama right tackle Jedrick Wills has occasionally had some problems in pass protection. The Tide might need to provide some help for the sophomore to deal with Clemson’s defensive ends, whether it’s All-American Clelin Ferrell, Cotton Bowl defensive MVP Austin Bryant or freshman Xavier Thomas, who looks like Clemson’s next great pass rusher.
Clemson leads the nation with 52 sacks, led by Ferrell with 11½ and Bryant with eight, including two against Notre Dame. The Tigers also lead the nation in yards per play allowed at 4.05.
Cubelic said he would expect Clemson to rely on the defensive line to hold its own against the run and commit more players to coverage. It sounds weird to say of Alabama, but challenging this Tide team to run the ball is probably the way to go.
“They’re kind of greedy,” Cubelic said of Alabama’s offense, led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. “They know they’re really good throwing the ball. They know they have an elite quarterback and elite wide receivers. Why not go out there and pitch it around?”
Tagovailoa, the Heisman runner-up, has a 205.19 passer efficiency rating, which would break Baker Mayfield’s single-season record from last year.
Senior Albert Huggins played well filling in for Lawrence against Notre Dame, but the junior is more likely to be missed this week.
“He’s probably one of the best linemen in college football, no doubt, in terms of his production and his performance,” Saban said. “He’s played really well against us in the past.”
If there was a defensive player with a case to the win the Heisman Trophy this season, Alabama’s Quinnen Williams was the guy. He has hardly been slowed down and it’s doubtful Clemson center Justin Falcinelli, an All-ACC player, and guards John Simpson, Gage Cervenka and Sean Pollard will be a physical match for the future top-five NFL draft pick.
Williams, an All-American and Outland Trophy winner, plays differently than the recent dominant Tide nose guards such as Terrence Cody and Daron Payne. Williams often lines up in one gap, and then shoots into another gap or works his way from one shoulder of a blocker to the other. Clemson uses a lot of zone- and gap-blocking schemes, where its linemen are assigned to block a particular space rather than a man.
“The scheme is not very friendly to handle not only a guy as talented as Quinnen Williams, but the way he plays,” Cubelic said.
The 295-pound Williams had 18 tackles for loss, including eight sacks.
FLUSTERING THE FRESHMAN
Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence has all the physical gifts. From that standpoint, he is ready for Alabama. The challenge against the Tide for Lawrence will be as much mental as physical.
Alabama’s overwhelming talent sometimes overshadows just how well-coached the players are. The Tide doesn’t make many mistakes and Saban’s defenses throw a lot at quarterbacks.
“The windows are going to close faster,” Cubelic said. “The pressure is going to be applied more quickly. The decisions are going to have to be made faster.”
Lawrence has completed 65.5 percent of his passes, with 27 touchdown passes and only four interceptions.
An underrated part of Lawrence’s game is his mobility, but he hasn’t used it much until late in the season. He has 86 yards on 10 carries in the last three regular-season games. Swinney said he’d like to see Lawrence take off more.
“Sometimes people will drop and play coverage and receivers will have to work and work and work to try to get open and he’s confident he can rip it there,” Swinney said.
Because Alabama is so good up front with Williams, Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs (team-high 9.5 sacks), it is likely Lawrence will see a lot of seven- and eight-man coverage and get some opportunities to run.
“If Alabama is going to give you anything, you damn well better take it,” Cubelic said.
Alabama’s excellent pass rush has helped bring along a secondary that relies on talented but inexperienced corners such as freshman Patrick Surtain.
“I don’t know how good the Alabama secondary is,” Cubelic said. “And I don’t think anybody else really knows.”
Clemson has a versatile group of receivers with Tee Higgins (11 touchdowns) and Justyn Ross (eight touchdowns) both checking in at 6-foot-4, Amari Rogers (four touchdowns), who is built like a running back, and senior Hunter Renfrow, who has scored four touchdowns in two previous championship games against Alabama.