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Jumbo Package: Three Days ‘til the Chance at Redemption

The players are saying all the right things, but you can bet that there is a little extra motivation this time.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Friday, everyone. Only one weekend separates us from the Sugar Bowl and Alabama’s ultimate chance at redemption. We’ll start with the practice reports.

-- Freshman defensive lineman LaBryan Ray, who is working back from a broken foot, was again practicing and wasn't even wearing a black non-contact jersey during the portion of practice open to the media.

-- Reserve wide receiver Derek Kief was back practicing. He wasn't present last week during the Crimson Tide's last open practice in Tuscaloosa.

Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (hamstring) appeared to be slightly limited, but it’s likely precautionary. Fitzpatrick said he’s spent a little time at safety, but noted it’s mostly been Deionte Thompson filling in for Hootie Jones (knee).

Alabama linebackers Mack Wilson (foot), Christian Miller (biceps) and Terrell Lewis (elbow) are all healthy and with the team.

The beat writers probably got about three minutes of viewing before being told to buzz off. All indications are that Ray, Wilson, Miller, and Lewis are full-go at this point. No mention has been made of Da’Shawn Hand, but you have to imagine that his knee will be feeling better as well. In the secondary, it looks like they plan to roll with Deionte and Ronnie Harrison at safety, freeing up Minkah to cover the slot. Thompson was certainly regarded highly coming out of high school, when he was a borderline five-star praised for superlative range and seen as the heir apparent at free safety to Hasean Clinton-Dix. For whatever reason, the redshirt sophomore has yet to crack the starting lineup, but that will apparently change on Monday night. May he enjoy a coming out party while Minkah helps lock down the short stuff.

There will undoubtedly be more previews over the weekend, but here is a nice sampling of what we have thus far.

Hurts sits at No. 11 in the nation with a passer rating of 155.62. Hurts has accounted for 2,708 yards of offense while throwing for 15 touchdowns with just 1 interception.

Clemson’s players have seen improvement in Hurts’ game from Year 1 to Year 2.

Jalen Hurts is as good as ever,” Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “He can throw the ball a lot better. You can see the improvement from being a young freshman to now a vetted sophomore.”

"It’s going to be a low-scoring, field position, special teams, turnovers, who gets the short field kind of game," Herbstreit said. "But I’m telling you, if Clemson wins it’s going to be because of Kelly Bryant, not his feet, his arm, and his receivers are going to make plays in the passing game. That’s the only way they win this game.

"If he doesn’t do that, they’re going to come up a little bit short. It’s as simple as that.”

As talented as Clemson has been up front the last two years, Alabama has had more than a little success on the ground against the Tigers. The Crimson Tide rushed for 221 yards and three touchdowns in Tampa, averaging 6.5 yards per carry in the process. That performance came one year after UA amassed 148 rushing yards and three touchdowns in Glendale.

With those numbers in mind, take the narrative about Alabama having to go to the air a lot on New Year's with a massive grain of salt.

Thursday morning, Clemson players also called the Crimson Tide offense the most versatile they’ve seen this season. Cornerback Ryan Carter credited junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley as being a “special player” and Wilkins noted that Jalen Hurts’ passing from a year ago was obviously better.

But first and foremost, Clemson is zeroed in on trying to stop Alabama’s running game.

“It’s going to take a whole team effort with the front seven to stop that run game, because if you can’t stop the run you can’t win the game,” Ferrell said. “It’s going to be tough and I’m getting tired of saying how tough it’s going to be because .… wow, they don’t really have a weakness.”

"My personal opinion, if Alabama can get Clemson's run game under control and somehow fenced up, I think they would love to see Kelly Bryant throw it north of 30, 35, 40 times because that will indicate Bama has, in fact, contained the run game."

Speaking of throwing the football, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts will have to do his part on early downs.

"I think Alabama has to be willing to throw the football on first down," Savage said. "Those are the easier and cleaner pictures for the quarterback Jalen Hurts. Clemson is not as complex on first and second downs as they are on third."

At the end of the day, Savage gives Alabama the nod "because I like their ability to run the football."

The long layoff and the uncharacteristically flat effort against Auburn seem to have turned the heat up to thermonuclear levels, though. In the course of a regular season, there’s always another chance in a few days. That’s not the case now. Daboll himself commented on the long preparation time for Clemson, who he praised as a “great” defense.

“This is the first time I’ve had about a month (to prepare),” he said. “It’s a little different for me coming from the National Football League … so we’ve had a lot of time to go through every play you can go through the whole season and pass things and analyze everything you can analyze. There’s a lot of information.”

Savage is a noted homer, but the fact is that Alabama homers are usually right. Herbie really hit the nail on the head, too. For all of the handwringing by Alabama fans, the fact remains that in a fairly even matchup, Alabama has more paths to victory:

  • Clemson has turned the ball over more than Alabama has while forcing slightly fewer turnovers.
  • Alabama is one of the best net punting teams in the country with noted assassin J.K. Scott allowing only five return yards all season, while Clemson is one of the worst. This is especially important since Clemson has changed some games with punt returns this season.
  • Alabama has made far more explosive plays in the passing game and has more threats to do so. In a game where neither team is likely to be able to run it much, the team that can create an explosive touchdown or two will likely prevail.
  • Alabama has been surprisingly competent, and borderline excellent, at field goal kicking. Clemson has been something of a train wreck. In a close game, we know all too well how critical this can be.

Clemson’s path to victory looks to be completely shutting down Alabama’s offense and stringing together long drives, with Kelly Bryant making plays like those that Stidham made down the stretch. Analysts point to the Mississippi State and Auburn games late in the season to give Clemson hope that they will be able to run the ball, which not only fails to consider the personnel issues but also the fact that those two teams managed a mediocre 3.4 and 3.5 a carry, respectively. It will be an upset if Clemson is able to get anything of substance going on the ground. There is a general perception that Clemson has a big advantage at quarterback and as Herbie states, Bryant’s play is likely to make or break them on Monday.

Oh, and props to Christian Wilkins for examining film rather than his opponents’ nether regions.

“That’s a big thing Coach (Dabo) Swinney has been harping on us.” Carter said. “Let’s change the narrative. Let’s be great. There’s nobody that’s been in the College Football Playoff that’s won the national championship back to back. One thing Coach Swinney has always said is, ‘Why not us?’ Why not us?”

Carter even conceded that visions of a “dynasty” have danced in players’ heads this holiday season.

Dynasty, eh? Mmmmm, that looks like some tasty rat poison. Lap it up, Tigers.

As the Tide does at most bowl games, Nick Saban and a group of players spread some holiday cheer to kids at New Orleans' Ochsner hospital Thursday. They handed out and signed footballs and spent a few minutes chatting with each family, visiting both the pediatric unit and the NICU unit.

This is a fine tradition that hopefully impacts the players even more than the children they visit. Nothing puts life in perspective like a sick child.

Alabama basketball will be in action tomorrow, with a daunting matchup against #3 Texas A&M.

The Crimson Tide and Terps are surprise omissions from this week's projected field. Break it down, though, and the pair are 0-5 against what will be "Column I" opponents on the new NCAA team sheets. Specifically, Alabama has lost four of seven since a 5-0 start and Maryland is held back by a No. 222 nonconference schedule.

Projection: Despite high hopes at the start of the year, the SEC looks too deep for Alabama to get back in the NCAA hunt.

Considering Avery’s concerns from earlier in the season about his players whistling past the graveyard due to a pretty record, maybe a little adversity and the negative coverage that comes along with it is just what the doctor ordered for this group. I still maintain that things aren’t as bad as they seem, and that a little bit of hot shooting is likely due. Dazon Ingram came into the season shooting better than 43% from three, but has only shot 22.2% thus far. Both Sexton and Petty have shot it well overall, but they combined for only 2/7 vs. Texas despite plenty of open looks, and the team curiously took only 15 of them despite the monster roaming the paint for Texas that made inside shots difficult.

I have a feeling that this was a conscious effort and that “Shots aren’t falling!” was said somewhere along the way, a common and ridiculous assertion that one ball bouncing out of the rim will somehow cause the next to do the same.

For better or worse, this team’s identity has to be running and shooting the three. They are small and athletic, really lacking a legitimate “big” post presence on either end of the floor, but they are long and fast with enough shooters to light up the scoreboard. The 10-1 Oklahoma team led by freshman phenom Trae Young is shooting only slightly better as a team from behind the arc - 38.8% vs. 34.6% for the Tide - but they have launched 29 per game to Alabama’s 19. This is the same school that shot its way to the Final Four two years ago to the tune of 25 a game before losing to a Villanova squad that was scorching hot outside, and was similarly led by a superlative guard in Buddy Hield. A coach has to understand his team’s identity, and this one is going to live and die by its play on the perimeter. There will undoubtedly be some cold nights that turn into bad losses, but there will also be plenty of successes. This is, in fact, the same team that scored 82 in Tucson. It’s not a coincidence that they shot 24 threes in that game, making a solid 41%.

The “hot hand fallacy” needs to step aside with this group. Keep shooting until they drop, men.

Last but not least, this might be the coolest thing you see today.

This kid is a heck of a story.

That’s about it for today. Have a great New Year’s weekend.

Roll Tide.