2016 CFP National Championship Roundtable

Greetings, sports fans! The moment has finally arrived. We have the two best teams going at it, Alabama and Clemson, in what should hopefully be an exciting matchup. Below, writers Christopher Paschal, Brian Peel, Peter Rosston, Geoffrey Hammersley and I discuss various topics surrounding this game and give our predictions. Enjoy!

1. Is this the championship game that you predicted before the season began?

Christopher: I never made any official predictions, but I was pretty confident Clemson would be here. My other pick was Ohio State. I thought that the Buckeyes had an easy enough schedule and enough talent to make it. Their loss to Michigan State was a surprise to me. And honestly, I believe Ohio State would have played a much better game against Alabama than the Spartans did. It certainly would have been tough to play a worse one. That being said, I’m not at all surprised that Alabama made it. The loss against Ole Miss made things interesting, but an early loss is always better than a late one.

Brian: I don’t think anyone really predicted an Alabama-Clemson National Championship in the preseason mostly because Clemson came into the year ranked 12th in both the AP and coaches polls. Clemson has defied almost everyone’s expectations all year such as last week when they were an underdog to Oklahoma according to Las Vegas, and we know how that turned out. Alabama of course is always a popular pick to go all the way and even after their early season hiccup against Ole Miss, there was very little doubt they would be playing for their third championship in five seasons. So no, I certainly didn’t predict this would be the National Championship matchup, but I think few can argue against this being the best game we could have gotten.   

Peter: My short answer is no, this is not the game I predicted, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who saw this game coming. On the other hand, if you had told me at the beginning of the season that these two teams would be playing for the National Championship, I would not have called you crazy. Coming into the season, Alabama and Ohio State were the popular picks to make it, and honestly, I’m a little shocked that Ohio State didn’t even end up in the Playoff given the immense amount of talent they had. Coaching goes a long way in college football, and Saban and Swinney are two of the best out there, so with the teams they have, it’s not a surprise that they are coaching on Monday for a National Championship

Geoffrey: I thought Alabama was going to make it back to the championship game, but I didn’t expect Clemson to be joining the Crimson Tide in Phoenix. If anything, Ohio State was my viable candidate to be in the championship game against Alabama. However, after watching the Buckeyes go through the motions for 10 weeks, and then get upended by Michigan State in late November, I’m not surprised they didn’t get to the playoff. I thought Oklahoma and Michigan State were playoff teams – but didn’t expect both of them to get rolled in their respective games.

2. Has Clemson earned enough respect to be taken seriously as a national contender for now and in the future?

Christopher: I still can’t figure out why no one believes in Clemson. Being undefeated is no small feat. They have possibly the best athlete in the country under center in Deshaun Watson, along with great playmakers around him on offense and a solid defense. What is it going to take for people to take Clemson seriously? They have wins over Notre Dame, Florida State, North Carolina, and a thrashing of Oklahoma (who was the favorite in that game). There’s not much more you can do to prove your case. To me, they should be among the most feared programs in the country by now.

Brian: All year long Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has been making it clear that the idea of “Clemsoning” or the Tigers choking in a big game is a thing of the past. Well Clemson will be playing for the National Championship on Monday, they are undefeated, and have beaten some of the most storied programs in college football in 2015...yeah I think they have earned enough respect. The most important thing Swinney has done to take Clemson to the next level is recruit. The Tigers are now built like an SEC team on both lines and with a seemingly endless supply of skill players combined with maybe the best player in the country in Deshaun Watson, Clemson is here to stay for the long haul.

Peter: Clemson is absolutely set up to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Although this is really their first time on the national stage, they have won at least 10 games in every season since 2011. During that time, they were playing second-fiddle to Florida State, so no one ever really paid attention to them. Early this season, people were complaining that the only reason they were undefeated was their level of competition was low and many thought they would end up like last year’s Florida State. However, wins over Notre Dame, Florida State, North Carolina and most recently Oklahoma, the Football Power Index favorite to win it all, have appeared to change people’s opinions of Clemson. As for the future, Clemson has a Top 10 recruiting class coming in next year. Don’t sleep on the Tigers, they are for real.

Geoffrey: That’s a good question. They beat Notre Dame in a hurricane-esque rain, and cruised their way past the ACC. On a seriousness scale, I would put them at a solid 7/10 – with 10 being most serious. I feel as if the Clemson debate this year is a lot like the Florida State debate held last year. Beat ‘Bama and I’ll take them seriously from here on out. If anything, they have to hang with Alabama if they want to stay in the national title conversation for next year.

David: I believe that they have. One of the biggest criticisms that the Clemson Tigers had faced in the past was that they lost games they absolutely had no business losing. For example, in 2013, they were the third-ranked team and were playing the fifth-ranked Florida State Seminoles. The game was played in Clemson’s home stadium, Memorial Stadium. Not only did Clemson lose, they got destroyed in their own house by a score of 51-14. Now with that said, that is in the past and Clemson is a completely different team now. They beat four Top 10 teams this year and have not lost to an unranked team since 2011. Clemson has earned my respect and I hope that they have earned everybody else’s as well.

3. Do you believe that there’s a chance Nick Saban moves on from Alabama if his team wins?

Christopher: In short, no. Nick Saban is Alabama and Alabama is Nick Saban. He already tried moving to the NFL and it didn’t go very well. He’s better suited for college football, and I don’t see him wanting to move to another school. He is firmly rooted at Alabama, always in national title contention. There’s not another school out there with an open position where he could immediately have the same success. He’s living the good life right now, why change things?

Brian: This conversation comes up every year and every year it is the same result. No, I don’t think there is any chance Nick Saban will move on to the NFL despite how immensely successful he has been at the college level. Saban recently said how making a move to another team, be that NFL or college, is not just about him but about his family as well. Now I know coaches say stuff like this all the time, but Saban isn’t exactly a young, up-and-coming coach an ymore. He will be 65 in October and has laid his roots down in Tuscaloosa probably for the rest of his career. Not to mention, Saban’s dictatorship style of coaching doesn’t really fly in the NFL when you are dealing with adults that have been playing the game for almost their entire lives. Just look at what has happened with Chip Kelly.  

Peter: I would be shocked if Nick Saban left for the NFL. In two seasons with the Dolphins, Saban finished with a 15-17 record before returning to college football to coach in Tuscaloosa. If Saban chose to go, many NFL teams would clamor for his help, but there would still be uncertainty. He would take over a subpar team and be forced to rebuild, a process that he has never really been forced to go through. By staying in Alabama, Saban knows he will have strong job security and top recruits will still come filing in to load his roster with talent. Remember, Saban did not get fired from the Dolphins, he chose college football over the NFL, and I don’t see him changing his mind given his three (potentially four) titles in seven years.

Geoffrey: The Nick Saban leaving window was shut after the annihilation of Michigan State. If he would’ve lost that game, then I could see the delusion of the fan base wanting him out. Now, Saban controls when he leaves. What he has done for Alabama is nothing short of remarkable, and I can’t see him leaving a place where he has helped lead to four championship games in a decade.

David: I do not think there is. I know that’s widely speculated, but let’s face it; Nick Saban is Alabama football. He is everything that epitomizes the culture of that football team. Let’s not forget the fact that his first stint in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins did not turn out so well. Obviously, there are coaches who get another chance in the NFL and make the most of it, like Pete Carroll. However, Nick Saban is a much better fit for college because he is a control freak. Everything has to be done his way. That is the thing about college sports. You do not have to worry about star players calling the shots. Because of that, you have a lot of free reign over your team when it comes to decision making, who makes the roster, and who has to sit out a game.

4. What are the keys to victory for each team?

Christopher: For Clemson, the obvious answer is to stop Derrick Henry. Bama’s gameplan revolves around feeding Henry the ball. By stopping him, they can force Jake Coker to win the game with his arm, something I’m not sure he’s fully comfortable doing. Clemson also has the 5th ranked passing defense in the country, so they should be able to keep Coker in check.

For Alabama, its holding Wayne Gallman. Gallman isn’t a premier back, but he creates the change of pace from Deshaun Watson. If Gallman has a good game, it allows Watson to play more freely and be more aggressive in the passing game. If Alabama were to stop him, it forces Watson to do more. Watson is at his best when he is playing freely and not under a lot of pressure. By stopping Gallman, Alabama can put the pressure on him. 

Brian: In order for Clemson to win the game, there are a few things they need to take care of. On offense they need to establish enough of a run game to keep the Alabama front-seven from pinning their ears back and getting after Watson on every second-and-long or third down. Against Oklahoma, Watson was used on a ton of designed runs, and I don’t think that will be successful against Alabama, so they need to be able to use running back Wayne Gallman effectively or establish their short passing game. Defensively, it will probably come down to slowing down Derrick Henry. That being said, Michigan State held Henry to only 75 yards rushing and still lost 38-0 because of how well Jake Coker played. 

How has Alabama lost football games in the past 3-4 seasons? It has been against athletic quarterbacks that have spread them out and made plays in open space. Watson might be the best quarterback the Crimson Tide have faced since Johnny Manziel, so in order to win their first title since 2012, they need to contain Watson in the pocket and make plays in the secondary. On the other side of the ball, it will all fall on Coker’s shoulders again, but really that might not be such a bad thing anymore. After an up-and-down start to the year, Coker has been very good down the stretch, throwing seven touchdowns with no interceptions and hitting on 74% of his passes in the Tide’s last four games.     

Peter: For Clemson to win, they need to come in with the mindset that if Alabama wins, it will be because of Jacob Coker and not Derrick Henry. I know this sounds a little ridiculous considering Coker is coming off a game against Michigan State where he went 25-of-30 for 286 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. However, Coker has only thrown more than 35 passes in a game once this season--during Alabama’s only loss of the season to Ole Miss. He threw fewer than 20 passes in 10 of Alabama’s 13 regular season games. It is clear that Alabama prefers to win using the ground and pound of Derrick Henry, so if Clemson wants to win this game, they need to force Alabama to resort to Plan B and then hope Coker does not have a repeat performance of the Cotton Bowl.

Alabama will win if they can control the pace of the game. The one thing Alabama does not want to do is get involved in a shootout. The fewer possessions that they have to stop Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman and the fewer possessions Watson and Gallman have to try and crack the exotic schemes Kirby Smart will throw their way, the better off Alabama will be. Alabama needs to establish the passing game early so Clemson cannot stack the box against Henry, and then feed Henry to keep the clock rolling. Alabama has the better all-around athletes, so as long as they play a mistake free game at the rate they want, they should be fine.  

Geoffrey: For Alabama, the game plan is to feed Derrick Henry. If he gets over 150 on the ground, you might as well start inscribing “Crimson Tide” on the trophy. He wears defenses down, and helps open up the passing game. 

For Clemson, they have two keys to the game. First, they need to stop Henry. Doing that, they have a better chance of walking out of University of Phoenix Stadium with their first title since 1981. Second, they can’t play conservative; the way you beat Alabama is by taking risks. Four down territory starts at midfield, and they need to convert on fourth down when the time comes. Much like what Ohio State did last year in the Sugar Bowl against the Crimson Tide, the Tigers have to throw everything they got, or risk getting trampled in the national spotlight.

David: For Clemson to win this game, they have to be able to figure out how they’re going to use their running game against Alabama’s uber-talented front seven. I know the obvious answer should be to stop Derrick Henry. But, you know, that Jake Coker guy is a pretty good quarterback. Derrick Henry did not play poorly in the game against Michigan State. He just didn’t have the typical game that we’re used to seeing from him. Coker proved that he could win a game with his arm if needed. Alabama’s front seven is by far the best in the nation and it really isn’t close. They have shut down numerous 1,000-yard rushers. If Clemson wants to have a chance in this game, co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott are going to have to find a way to expose the front seven’s weakness and exploit it through an in-your-face rushing attack. 

For Alabama, they are going to have to figure out how to contain Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. With how dominant Alabama's defense has been in recent years, they are not without weaknesses. Alabama has a tendency to struggle against mobile quarterbacks. Last year, against Ohio State in the playoffs, they had no answer for quarterback Cardale Jones who was able to utilize both his arms and legs to lead the Buckeyes to an upset victory. Deshaun Watson was a lethal weapon for Clemson this year. He was the only player to have 3,500+ yards passing and 800+ yards rushing. In Alabama’s recent three championship wins, they have not faced a quarterback with nearly the same caliber as Watson. This is going to be by far their toughest test.

5. Who do you think is going to win?

Christopher: This game centers around the Alabama defense against the Clemson offense, and I think Clemson just has too much firepower. Sure the 'Bama defense is fantastic, but they haven’t faced a player like Watson yet. The Crimson Tide is only the 17th best passing defense, which means that Watson should get his looks in the passing game. I think it stays close for three quarters, but Clemson pulls away a little when 'Bama starts having to throw the ball more. 

Final Score: Clemson 34, Alabama 24

Brian: Ten years ago, maybe the best National Championship in college football history was played when Vince Young led Texas to an improbable 41-38 victory over a USC team that had won 34 straight games. To me, this Alabama-Clemson matchup has a chance to be just as good. Both teams are playing such great football right now and in many ways their styles seem to contrast, but if you look closer, they really aren’t that different. Both teams have explosive playmakers and bring a nasty, physical, and aggressive defense to the table.

My guess is this game will all come down to the play of Watson, a player that has combined to score 43 touchdowns and accumulated 4,731 total yards this season. If Watson goes off for 400 plus yards and scores three touchdowns, I don’t see any way Clemson loses the game because Alabama is not a team that can really win in a shootout. Well, all that being said, I think Alabama wins because they are going to make it very hard on Watson to find any space to make plays. Alabama’s front-seven will be too much for the Tigers to handle and the Tide’s offense will make just enough plays to come away with the close win. 

Final Score: Alabama 27, Clemson 24

Peter: Alabama is the favorite in this game, and they come in expecting to win. On the other hand, Clemson will relish the underdog role. They have gotten used to tuning out all of the naysayers. The elite matchup in this game is the offense of Clemson against the defense of Alabama. Both of those units are incredibly good, and they will both play well.

Therefore, I think this game will come down to the Alabama offense against the Clemson defense, specifically the Alabama passing game versus the Clemson secondary. The Crimson Tide have a freshman phenom in Calvin Ridley as well as reliable receivers in ArDarius Stewart and Richard Mullaney. Clemson has been fantastic against the pass, ranking fifth in passing yards against per game. But arguably the best quarterback they have faced all season is DeShone Kizer of Notre Dame. Coker will be a big step up from that.

Finally, special teams tend to get overlooked in game previews, but you cannot ignore the effect of Cyrus Jones, who has four punt return touchdowns on the season and had a potential fifth called back for a penalty. Both teams have had amazing seasons and both deserve to be playing for the National Championship, but I just have a feeling Nick Saban’s experience coaching in the big game will lead Alabama to a close come-from-behind victory.

Final Score: Alabama 31, Clemson 30

Geoffrey: Dabo Swinney knows what it takes to stop Alabama. However, do they have the means of doing it. Stopping Henry is easier said than done, and converting big plays will come down to progressions made in the moment, not something you can study for. I think Alabama is too much to handle at this juncture, and they showcased what they are made of against Michigan State. Clemson will hang for a quarter, or maybe a half, but they will ultimately get the doors blown off the proverbial hinges by Saban, Henry and the rest of the Crimson Tide.

Final Score: Alabama 41, Clemson 16

David: These are both fantastic teams. They are the best teams in the nation and one of them will earn bragging rights afterwards. Deshaun Watson and Derrick Henry are both fantastic athletes and will likely be the best players for their respective teams. Now it’s time for my prediction. I do think this is going to be a good game for the most part. But, I think Alabama will pull ahead in the end. I believe Alabama’s front seven will pressure Watson all game by forcing him to make unnecessary throws. Derrick Henry rushes for 155 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Crimson Tide to their fourth national championship in seven years.

Final Score: Alabama 35, Clemson 22

Do you agree with our predictions? Give us your predictions in the comment section below!

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