The last day of the 2016 college football season is here. The sorrow of that statement should be tempered at least partially by the fact that the last game — Alabama-Clemson next to a pirate ship — looks like a darn good one.
Of course, there’s always the potential that Alabama — destroyer of dreams — takes all of the best-laid plans of the non-partisan fan hoping for a four-quarter game and gleefully puts them through the shredder known as the Crimson Tide defense. Alabama has been the best team in the country all season long and has the potential in almost any game. A two- or three-score win for the Tide is on the table.
A two- or three-score win for the Clemson probably isn’t. (Then again, I wouldn’t have said 31-0 over Ohio State was on the table either.) But the Tigers, minus some hiccups along the way (yes, I know North Carolina State could’ve won and Pitt did), have looked like the second-best team for much of the season. If not by record, ranking or “game control,” at least in terms of athleticism. Clemson is one of just a handful of schools right now that doesn’t totally have to shiver at the thought of matching up with Alabama athlete-to-athlete. The Tigers also have the one thing that has occasionally proven problematic for the Tide (and is thus a problem for all college football teams everywhere): a dual-threat quarterback who is intermittently capable of magic.
That quarterback, junior Dashaun Watson, also threw the second-most interceptions in the country (17). That’s the quickest way tonight’s game gets out of hand. If Watson looks mortal, Alabama will make the Tigers aware of that mortality. What else is worth watching tonight? There are two categories I’ll be keeping close eye on tonight.
One, which team has the better third-down opportunities? Yes, that always matters, but it matters more, not less, in a game between two elite teams. Both offenses, not surprisingly, are good at staying on schedule, and both defenses are good at keeping teams off schedule. So who cracks? Probably not Alabama. Comparing offense to defense, the Tide is slightly better at running the football and stopping the run. Insert your personal favorite coaching chestnut about “running the ball” here, but when trying to play this game out before it is actually played Alabama’s ability to keep things manageable within the constraints of its typical offense is a significant edge.
Two, scoring opportunities might be tough to come by both ways. Clemson in particular has to get the most out of those trips inside the Alabama 40. Field goals are probably losses tonight. The Tigers have been pretty good at that this season, but Alabama’s defense has been the best in the country at minimizing the damage. Clemson has to find a way to succeed against trend. In a one-game setting, anything is possible, so it’s not unthinkable.
But I wouldn’t call a Clemson win probable. Give me Mike Riley’s alma mater, 27-17.
The Grab Bag
- Nebrasketball’s conference winning streak ended yesterday with a loss to Northwestern. Here’s the game story and some immediate reactions (Premium).
- Interesting power-pairing scheduling idea for college football from Nate Silver. The Big Ten is used as a test case.
- Alabama is on the precipice of history writes Ivan Maisel.
- Steve Sipple writes that recent comments from Shawn Eichorst up the pressure on Nebraska’s recruiting, while Sam McKewon takes a close look at the Huskers’ California focus in recruiting.
Today’s Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.