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Jumbo Package: Championship Monday

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The Tide will look to make history against a formidable Clemson bunch.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Head Coaches News Conference John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Monday, everyone. It’s about time for the talking and prognosticating to step aside in favor of actual blocking and tackling. We all know what’s at stake:

  • Alabama’s fifth national title in eight seasons, something no team has ever done
  • The first 15-win season in FBS history
  • Extending the current win streak to 27 games
  • Saban’s sixth national title, tying Bear Bryant for most all-time.

Vegas likes Alabama, but the sportswriters are largely favoring Clemson. Somehow, the Tide have found a way to paint themselves as actual underdogs:

Despite being almost a touchdown favorite over No. 2 Clemson entering Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T, some Alabama players say they don't feel as though they are the championship front-runner.

"We do feel like we're underdogs right now," Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson said.

Come again?

"Just feel that way," Anderson added.

Sure, they remember holding the national championship trophy afterward, but they also remember Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson shredding the Alabama defense to the tune of 405 passing yards and four touchdowns and another 73 rushing yards.

"That's something that sticks with you," Alabama senior defensive end Jonathan Allen said. "It was like we were just holding on, and that's not the way we play defense. It wasn't close to our standard."

Allen said he still hasn't watched the entire tape from that game

The Tigers almost got the Tide last year, losing 45-40 in a memorable title game, and they have two big-play receivers (star Mike Williams and underrated Deon Cain) who missed that matchup. In Deshaun Watson, they have a quarterback who will not be overwhelmed by Alabama’s awesome defense. And they have been burning for this rematch for 12 months.

“Honestly, this is the game we wanted,” said Tigers linebacker Ben Boulware after the Fiesta Bowl. “We want our revenge. We want our redemption. I think we’ll be coming with fire for the big game.”

Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings have Alabama at No. 1 and Clemson at No. 3. Per S&P, Alabama has a 69 percent chance to beat Clemson, with a predicted score of 28.9-20.5.

Las Vegas clearly likes Alabama to come out on top once again. In fact, odds for this game came out before Clemson’s Fiesta Bowl blowout over Ohio State was even over, and the Tide were an early 7-point favorite. Per OddsShark, the Tide are currently a 6-point favorite.

OddsShark’s computer system also predicts the Tide to win and cover.

The “motivation” bit is always overstated. That type of emotion carries a team only so far. No matter who wins the game, “revenge” or “disrespect” won’t be the driving factor.

So, the computers and statistics love Alabama, but many of the writers are buying Clemson. The Tiger fans seem widely convinced that this is their year as well. They’ll hear nothing of the numbers:

“But Alabama hasn’t played a _____________ like us/ours.”

“But we’re a different team since ________________.”

“But we scored 40 on Alabama’s defense last year.”

Nothing wrong with being a homer. It’s what fandom is all about, really.

As far as the writers are concerned, I am not a licensed psychologist and admittedly didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I’m thinking that some basic recency bias and a subconscious desire for a new storyline each play a role there.

Still, the numbers don’t lie, and neither does the Tide’s performance in games with tighter spreads:

In the seven games Alabama has been favored by fewer than 20 points, it is 6-1 against the spread and 4-3 in its other seven games. They were favored by an average of 32.4 points in those games and won them by 33.7 points per game — “just” an average margin of 1.3 points per game. In the seven games the Tide were favored by fewer than 20 points, they were favored by an average of 12.8 points per game and won them by an average of 22.1 points — a 9.3-point average margin. That includes the season-opening 52-6 win over USC when Alabama was a 13.5-point favorite, the 49-10 win in October over Tennessee (14-point favorite) and the 24-7 victory over Washington (12.5) — all games away from home. Alabama is a 6.5-point favorite in Tampa against Clemson this week, meaning, that if the trend holds up, the Tide could win by more than 15 in the rematch.

Alabama has consistently out-performed expectations in the bigger games this season. Winning this game by 15 or more will certainly require a defensive or special teams touchdown. Have we reached the point that it’s acceptable to expect one?

Watson has been somewhat prone to mistakes, but I’m not willing to bet on it. The over/under on this game has been around 51 all week with good reason. Neither offense is likely to put up a ton of points. To be sure, the Tide have their own issues:

Alabama was flagged for two false starts and whistled for delay of game twice. One play-clock penalty particularly infuriated Alabama coach Nick Saban, who yelled at center Bradley Bozeman to snap the ball with an expletive thrown in for good measure.

The issues, according to offensive line coach Brent Key, stemmed from the cadence, the Tide's layoff before the semifinal game, and communication. Key and the Tide are hoping to get the kinks worked out before the national championship rematch against Clemson on Monday

Drive-killing, pre-snap penalties can certainly be an equalizer that the Tide need to avoid.

So, how do I see this one going down? Glad you asked:

It’s a scary proposition for Clemson that Alabama’s defensive line, the team’s definitive strength, is matched up with Clemson’s obvious soft spot.

Said one assistant familiar with Clemson: “The offensive line is a weak link for sure. Two years ago I thought they were not very good. This year at times they’ve played a little better. They need Watson running on the perimeter to negate their offensive line.”

Said another: “Their right tackle [Sean Pollard] is atrocious. I think Wayne Gallman is a special back, and he’s proven that. But they’re not going to be able to go up and down the field and hand it off to move the chains.”

On Alabama’s side, they cite Jalen’s limitations in the passing game and the claim that “they aren’t as good as they have been” in the secondary, something we hear often from people who apparently didn’t watch Alabama in 2013-2014, with the pass rush getting credit for masking the three former five-stars in coverage.

Clemson opened the season with a nice win at Auburn, who also has one of the most talented defensive lines in the country.

I can’t claim to have scouted Pollard at all and I’m sure that the true freshman has improved over the course of the season, but he was a disaster in that game. His get-off was poor, he struggled with leverage, didn’t use his hands well, and most importantly was nothing more than a traffic cone in pass pro. He ended up on his knees or his face more than once. Watch for yourself:

Clemson got the win, but Auburn was able to shut them down in the red zone and hold them to 19 points despite a back seven that is nowhere near the caliber of this Alabama team.

Getting back to Pollard, there is absolutely no way that Clemson is going to leave that young man on an island with Tim Williams or Ryan Anderson. LG Taylor Hearn is rather limited as well, and Da’Ron Payne has eaten up guys of similar ability to C Jay Guillermo this season.

Like last year, expect a ton of max protect. These still-shots offer some insight into the reason that the Tide have handled mobile QBs this season and why Vegas thinks Alabama can limit Watson:

This was a 3rd and 4 in the first quarter of last year’s game. Clemson has crossed mid-field on the strength of an outstanding kick-off return and a bogus third-down pass interference call on Reuben Foster, thrown by the Back Judge who was fifteen yards away, but I digress.

First, note that Clemson has kept six in to block four, which obviously leaves them at a disadvantage on the back end. Secondly, note the personnel along the front. From left to right you have Denzel Devall, Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson, and DJ Pettway.

All of those guys were excellent run-stuffers, but none terribly fast. With only four in the route against seven defenders, Watson elected to pull this ball down. He was easily able to escape to the left and outrun Robinson to the corner for a first down. One play later, Watson fired the dart to Renfrow down the sideline for a 31-yard score.

So, why is the Tide better equipped to deal with Watson this year?

Why, personnel, of course.

It’s not just the names, however. Some of the returnees are also deployed differently. Let’s have a look at an early third down against Josh Dobbs and Tennessee for an example of the strategy Jeremy Pruitt has used against a mobile QB:

The four down linemen in this instance were, left to right: Tim Williams, Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne, and Ryan Anderson. In last year’s title game, Allen played on the edge when he entered the game. Tonight, he will be playing inside as seen above, something that we have seen all year against mobile QBs. Likewise, Ryan Anderson is now seen with his hand on the ground opposite Williams. Last season you’d see one or the other in the game at jack with a more traditional 3-4 end on the other side. Using him in tandem with Williams has not only improved the Tide’s athleticism, but also helped to keep the bigger guys fresh since only two are on the field on many downs.

This particular call was a loop stunt. Anderson dropped to spy, Foster came off the edge and chased down Dobbs as he tried to escape. The result was a sack.

Given the drop-off in size of around 20 lbs. average per man in the front six of the nickel, the Tide should have been more susceptible to power run games this season, but that hasn’t happened. Somehow (Scott Cochran/deer antler spray) they have held up just as well at the point of attack while closing pockets appreciably faster and, more importantly, giving up far fewer scrambles. The speedy Rashaan Evans has moved from pass-rush specialist to inside linebacker, and Reuben Foster dropped fifteen pounds in the offseason and has looked much faster all season.

It was evident to anyone watching in the preseason that this defense was going to be much more athletic:

This really can’t be overstated. With Williams, Anderson, Foster, Evans, and Allen on the field together, Watson is going to have a very difficult time extending plays. The Tide are better equipped than anyone in the country to make his life miserable. Expect plenty of punting from both sides, another area that the Tide hold a sizable advantage.

Is this to say that Clemson can’t win the game? Of course not. Anything can happen in sixty minutes on the gridiron. To win, Alabama will need to avoid turnovers and mistakes that provide Watson with short fields. He will make some plays, but driving the length of the field against this defense is a tall order.

Look for JK Scott to make a significant impact and for the senior leaders on the defense to go out with a bang. Watson is too good to shut down, but he won’t be throwing for 400. On the other side, it will be Alabama taking advantage of Clemson’s stouter bodies in the front seven to hit the edges enough times to sustain drives.

Let’s go with 26-17 for a final, as the Tide move the ball but struggle in the red zone, leading to a huge night for Adam Griffith in his last college game.

As usual, give us your score in the comments.

Some other stuff:

With Reuben Foster moving on, Hamilton will be the leader in the middle of Alabama’s defense next season.

“Just get my knee back right and be that leader and every down linebacker who’s going to be relentless and be the alpha dog,” Hamilton said of what he wants to improve on this offseason. “Things like getting bigger, faster and stronger. I’m looking forward to the challenge next year.”

Get well soon, SDH. You will be needed next year.

While he doesn't make much -- typically $15 for washing a car and $25 for a truck -- it allows him to send money home two or three times a month to help with expenses since his mother, a family therapist, can't work much.

"If she needs money, I'll just work that whole week after practice just so I can get paid at the end of the week and get it to her," said Jones, who does that despite typically not being finished with class, practice and football meetings until the evening.

Jones recently sent his mother a picture that showed him wearing an apron with paw prints on it. He was bathing animals to make some extra money.

Jones' mother asked him at one point why he works so much, even during football season.

"Because you need me," he told her.

As fans, we never know what these guys are going through. Hootie has to be playing with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

When Jerry Glanville got fed up with Keith Bostic falling asleep in meetings, he deployed his most dutiful mercenary to fix the problem: Nick Saban. Before Saban would forge a legacy as the head coach at Alabama, which will pursue its fifth national championship under Saban on Monday night against Clemson, he flexed his authority as defensive backs coach with the Oilers in 1988 and 1989.

You won’t be able to read the article without a subscription, but check out the cover photo. Outstanding.

That’s about it for today. May you get absolutely nothing accomplished today, but have a great week just the same.

Roll Tide.