The national title game looks awfully familiar in 2019. Alabama and Clemson have warred in College Football Playoff brackets since 2014.
But in a gambling sense, things just keep getting stranger. Headlines out of Vegas are touting Clemson as a “live underdog” – a team that is likely to bust the bookies’ wallets with a surprise win. The point spread opened at under a touchdown, shot to almost 10 points (with ‘Bama the favorite each time, of course) and finally began shrinking again…all the way to (-5.5) at several major books. Heavy action could swing it further.
Should gamblers really be so divided on who the true favorite is? We have a lot of available information from the past 4 months of pigskin.
Who: Alabama Crimson Tide vs Clemson Tigers
When: Monday, January 7th, 8 PM EST
Where: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA
Lines: Alabama (-6) vs Clemson (-6) / O/U Total: (59.5)
We know that Alabama has the finest offense in college football. Led by Tua Tagovailoa’s passing arm, pocket vision, and scrambling ability, the Crimson Tide ran roughshod over almost every defense on its schedule in 2018. Tagovailoa has posted a 68% completion rate and 37 touchdowns through the air. His 5 rushing TDs number more than the grand total of interceptions he has thrown in 14 games.
Damien Harris and Najee Harris have each averaged more than 6 yards per carry behind a bruising line. Josh Jacobs has scored 66 points on Red Zone carries. The Crimson Tide also have the best backup QB in the Football Bowl Subdivision in Jalen Hurts, who led a game-winning drive over the Georgia Bulldogs to secure an SEC championship in December.
We also know that Clemson has the best defense in the country. Pundits salivated over Notre Dame’s chances to knock-off the #2 seed when Tiger lineman Dexter Lawrence was disqualified from the semifinal due to a positive drug test. Dabo Swinney’s defense mauled a talented crew of blockers and harassed QB Ian Book, allowing 250 total yards and 3 points while frosh phenom Trevor Lawrence picked-apart the Fighting Irish.
Failing a coup by either special-teams unit, which group can most-easily take over the contest in Santa Clara? Clemson’s “Power Rangers” on the defensive line and improving LB and DB corps? Or Tagovailoa and ‘Bama’s All-World OL and skill corps?
There are a few missing chess pieces. Dexter Lawrence is unlikely to play when the 2 legendary programs rekindle their national championship rivalry on Monday night in California. Alabama HC Nick Saban hinted (later confirming) before the Orange Bowl that 3 suspended members of the Crimson Tide front wall – offensive guard Deonte Brown, tight end Kedrick James and offensive tackle Elliot Baker – would miss the entire College Football Playoff due to unspecified NCAA violations.
The losses didn’t seem to hurt Alabama against Oklahoma in Miami. Tuscaloosa is the only program where a 5-star athlete can go down with an injury (or a suspension) and be replaced by another pro prospect.
Besides, there is nothing wrong with Jonah Williams, an offensive tackle whose name often goes with the phrase “best blocker in the FBS.”
But the 2 semifinal losers proved to be far-inferior to Alabama and Clemson last Saturday. There was no chance for OU to expose any lack of depth in ‘Bama’s pass protection, since the Crimson Tide run out to a 21-0 lead and had the luxury of running the ball often in the 2nd half. There was no chance for Notre Dame to challenge the Tigers’ depth on the interior defensive line because Clemson took a commanding lead into halftime, allowing rushers Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell to tee-off as the game wore on. The pair combined for 3 sacks in the semifinal.
In a more closely-matched contest, any or all of the suspensions could hurt either side. But with Clemson missing a superstar and Alabama missing a pair on the OL plus a tight end, for handicapping purposes we have to consider it a wash.
Alabama’s special teams unit has flagged on occasion over the past few years, making the topic significant. PK Joseph Bulovas seems to have stabilized the ‘Bama effort from off the kicking tee, but his season-long FG-make is less than 50 yards. Jacobs doubles as a returner and was excellent in last year’s final against Georgia, potentially turning an area of concern into a strength for the #1 seed on Monday.
Greg Heugel of Clemson is same category as Bulovas – solid but not spectacular. He’s been perfect on 70+ kicks from inside 30 yards, but has faltered occasionally on mid-range FG tries, and also does not have a 50+ yard bomb on the season. Not that he has attempted one. The Tiger defense is so good that Swinney usually elects for a coffin-corner punt instead of a long try for 3 points. Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell is an excellent gunner/coverage player who earned Special Teams Player of the Week honors against Wake Forest.
Clemson can potentially get out to an early lead on Monday, and put pressure on Tagovailoa in the pocket without giving up big plays on the scramble. Tiger tailback Travis Etienne is as good as Damien Harris, and it’s possible that Clemson’s late-season breakdown against the South Carolina passing attack was a fluky funk brought on by overconfidence, just like Tagovailoa’s bad 1st half against The Citadel might have been nothing more than a lull in preparation against an FCS opponent.
Led by tall sophomore Tee Higgins and 1000-yard underclassman Jerry Jeudy respectively, the 2 receiving corps are about even, though Clemson’s group struggled to reach full potential without Trevor Lawrence behind center while Alabama’s WRs have gone from QB to QB without missing a beat. Hurts could win it for the Tide, but if Lawrence goes down, it’s curtains for the Tigers.
Finally, the weather forecast calls for potential rain in Santa Clara. A wet game and a wet ball would benefit the stronger defensive team.
I’m liking Clemson – a lot – to cover the spread.