Crimson Keys: Alabama vs. Clemson (National Championship)

Dec 31, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry (2) and Michigan State Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun (89) during the game in the 2015 Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 31, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry (2) and Michigan State Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun (89) during the game in the 2015 Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

Here are the Crimson Keys for Alabama vs. Clemson. What will the Tide need to do to win their 16th national title?

In just a bit, the second ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (13-1) will do battle with top-ranked Clemson Tigers (14-0) in the National Championship game to crown the nation’s top dog. Alabama is coming off of a 38-0 throttling of #3 Michigan State while Clemson upended #4 Oklahoma on New Years Eve. The Tigers are coming off of their first undefeated regular season since 1981 and their first ACC Championship since 1991. Alabama is coming off its second straight SEC Championship and looking for its 16th National Championship while Clemson is looking for their second ever National Championship. Clemson won it’s only National Championship in 1981. Alabama is looking for its fourth under Nick Saban, and first since 2012.

This is the first time Alabama and Clemson have met since the Tide destroyed Clemson 34-10 in what was the game that many feel started Alabama towards the dynasty that Nick Saban built. Let’s look at some of the keys to the game for an Alabama Championship victory.

Tide Defense Must Slow Down Watson
Clemson QB and Heisman Finalist, DeShaun Watson, accounted for 4,731 yards and 43 TDs for the Tigers offense. Watson has been one of the most dynamic players in the country this year and when not killing defenses through the air he has been embarrassing defenders with his legs to the tune of more than 1,000 yards and twelve touchdowns on the ground. At times, Alabama has struggled with running quarterbacks under Nick Saban, especially teams that use the hurry up offense, and this season Alabama’s only loss of the season came against Ole Miss and their dual threat Chad Kelly. If you listen to the “experts” in the media then it is to believed that Watson certainly has the ingredients to be Alabama’s Kryptonite, and he is easily the best QB Alabama has faced this season, but the best running/dual threat QBs Alabama has faced this season were Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs, and Kelly. Those four QB’s combined for 36 total rushing yards on 64 carries for an average of less than one yard per carry. Only Kelly managed a rushing TD and he and Jeremy Johnson were the only two to throw TD passes against the Tide (Kelly had 3 while Johnson had one).

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While you do have to take in account for the sacks that went against those QBs (Johnson was sacked three times, Prescott was sacked an incredible nine times, Kelly was sacked twice, and Dobbs was sacked five times) none of these dual threats ran for a gross total rushing yardage of more than 72 yards (which was Prescott) against Alabama. Dobbs gave the Tide defense the most trouble out of all of those quarterbacks but it was his ability to throw on the run and convert big third downs that really hurt as he totaled less than 200 net yards in the game. His ability to run did open things for running Jalen Hurd to attack the edges in the game, and he was never tackled for a loss in the entire game rushing for 92 yards, which is exactly what Clemson will attempt to do. The Tigers will use the read option and Watson’s scrambles to open things up for top runner Wayne Gallman, who ran for more than 1,400 yards and 12 TDs on the season, which would in turn then open up things for Watson. Alabama will look to limit Watson’s big plays and his ability to take off on pass plays with a spy, likely either Reggie Ragland or Eddie Jackson, to make sure Watson doesn’t get unleashed. Another big thing for the Alabama defense will be discipline. If pass rushers rush too far upfield Watson is going to take off and if the Alabama cornerbacks get caught trying to peek back into the backfield too much Watson will throw deep. It is a fairly simple game plan but it is one that can be killer for a defense that does not stay focused and disciplined.

Derrick Henry Needs To Roll
Henry was held in check for much of the Cotton Bowl, though he still managed to score two touchdowns, but that had as much to do with Alabama’s game plan as anything the Spartan defense did. Lane Kiffin made it very clear early in the game that the Alabama offense was going to try and exploit the fact that Michigan State was so keyed in on Henry. This week Clemson, who has a much better secondary, will look to slow Henry down while also not giving up big plays in the passing game. That is a tall order for any defense but they will also be playing with an injured Shaq Lawson, their best defender, in the game. Lawson has a staggering 23.5 tackles for loss on the season. Alabama has not shied away from running at teams best defenders in the past and with Lawson likely matched up with Cam Robinson I would not be surprised if we see a lot of runs right at Lawson to try and keep him off guard. Henry will be a much bigger factor in this game as I believe Kiffin will look to pound the behemoth back. Clemson’s defense has allowed just two 100 yard rushers on the season (Appalachian State’s Marcus Cox had 103 rushing yards and FSU’s Dalvin Cook had 197 rushing yards against Clemson) but the defense has allowed more than half of the their opponents to rush for more than 150 yards so there will be opportunities for Henry to break some runs.

Coker Continue To Dominate, Keep OJ Howard In The Mix
Michigan State attempted to stack the box and limit Derrick Henry so Jake Coker had to make plays for Alabama to win. Coker responded by having the best game of his career. Alabama will need a similarly efficient day against Clemson as Kiffin will more than likely look to the air to open the ground game some against Clemson. The Tigers love to play man-to-man defense and their top corner Mackensie Alexander, a top NFL prospect, will likely be matched up against Calvin Ridley for much of the game. Ridley has showed that even the best corners can’t take him out, see his scorching of Vernon Hargreaves in the SEC Championship for proof, and he will definitely have his chances against Clemson’s man-to-man. OJ Howard, however, may be the best option for the passing game this week though. Howard had his best game of the season last week and if Clemson looks to match a linebacker up against Howard at any time in the game I fully expect Coker to take advantage of it this week. Look for more bootlegs to Howard as well in the game than we’ve seen as well.

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Alabama plays Clemson at 7:30 PM tonight on ESPN. Stay tuned to BamaHammer for full coverage all night!