We’re down to one more game in the college football season. On Monday night in Glendale, Alabama plays Clemson for the national championship. The Crimson Tide are a six-point favorite. What way do you play it?
Let’s begin by saying that the fluctuations of the pointspread mean that shopping for the right price and timing will be important. Some books in Las Vegas have the line as high as (-7). If you’re a Clemson backer you’d clearly like to get a clean touchdown. Just as clearly, Alabama bettors only want to give 6 or 6.5.
Both teams rolled through their semifinal games on New Year’s Eve and both did it by pulling away in the second half. Clemson trailed Oklahoma 17-16 at the half before ripping off twenty unanswered points to win 37-17. Alabama led Michigan State 10-0 at intermission before four unanswered touchdowns led to a 38-0 rout. The Tigers & Tide are clearly the best two teams in the country and playing like it right now.
Let’s begin with the keys for Clemson. It all starts with quarterback DeShaun Watson, a dual-threat quarterback who used his running to great effect against Oklahoma, rushing for 145 yards. Watson also ran well in his team’s biggest games this year, going for 93 against Notre Dame, 107 against Florida State and 131 in the win over North Carolina.
The performance against Florida State is most relevant here because the Seminoles were a top five defense this season. With their speed on the edge, Florida State is the only team that comes even close to providing a test case for what might happen against Alabama. The fact Watson was able to make hay on the ground against FSU provides reasonable hope he might be able to do on Monday night.
Running back Wayne Gallman was vital in the win over Oklahoma, gaining 150 yards and that was no fluke. He also went over 100 yards against Florida State and North Carolina and got close to that against Notre Dame in monsoon-like conditions. Gallman and Watson together make for a diversified running attack where a defense can’t just focus on one player.
The key is going to be throwing the football. Michigan State had opportunities in the first half to make plays in the passing game, but drops killed one drive and an ill-advised pass that was intercepted on the goal line killed another. If Sparty doesn’t make those mistakes, they might have been tied at the half and who knows how the second half unfolds.
Watson’s season-long passing numbers are impressive, but he was erratic against Oklahoma, completing 16/31 for 187 yards and missing some receivers that were clearly open. There won’t be nearly as many opportunities against Alabama, and Watson can’t leave plays on the field, especially early in the game the way Michigan State did. If Clemson is going to win, we need to see the Watson that went 28/42 for 297 yards against Florida State.
Defensively, the Tigers have playmakers, but the health of Shaq Lawson is going to be crucial. The talented defensive end left the Oklahoma game in the first half with a knee injury, but is expected to play. He needs to be able to pressure the quarterback for Clemson to win.
On the other side of the defense is another terrific playmaker in Kevin Dodd. At linebacker, Clemson is anchored by B.J. Goodson, who is both steady at making the sure tackle and capable of blowing up a play behind the line of scrimmage. The top corner, Cordea Tankersley, leads the team in interception with five picks and it’s likely Clemson will need to get some mistakes from Alabama quarterback Jake Coker if they’re going to win this game.
Now let’s move to Alabama where it all starts with defense. This is the top-ranked D in the country and anyone who watched the Michigan State game doesn’t even need to know that statistic. The Crimson Tide front seven did what they’ve done all year and that’s dominate the point of attack. Reggie Ragland at middle linebacker, along with Ryan Anderson and Jonathan Allen are the top playmakers, but the ‘Bama defense is much more about the system and depth, especially contrasted with Clemson’s big play guys on defense.
The offense revolves around Heisman Trophy-winner Derrick Henry. The Michigan State defense committed to stopping Henry and it has to be noted that they were mostly successful. The Heisman winner only gained 75 yards on 20 carries in the semifinal game. In previous games against top SEC defenses, notably Florida and LSU, Henry rolled up huge numbers—nearly 400 yards combined in the two games. But Michigan State did provide Clemson a blueprint for slowing Henry down.
That brings us to the X-factor, quarterback Jake Coker. In selling out to stop Henry, Michigan State put the burden on Coker and he responded with his best statistical game of the season, 25/30 for 286 yards. In previous big games, Coker has been effective, but not dynamic. The Tigers will likely have to sell out to stop Henry as well, so the Alabama quarterback will again have the burden of the offense in his hands.
There’s our general landscape for handicapping this game. Can Watson make some downfield throws, open up the Alabama defense and allow himself and Gallman to control tempo. Will Coker continue to show his growth as a quarterback? Can Clemson’s handful of dynamic defensive players make enough big plays to change the game or will Nick Saban’s machine-like defensive system continue to roll? How does all that translate into the pointspread?
I can’t reveal my choice here—I have to keep that for clients—but I hope it helps you with your own wagering decisions or simply enhances your enjoyment of Monday Night’s title fight in the desert.
Jim Hurley has been a successful public handicapper since 1985, when he began a Network that emphasized a team approach to handicapping. Hurley consults with statistical analysts, personnel experts and Vegas insiders to narrow the NFL and college cards down to the most bettable games each and every week. Visit him online at www.winningedge.com.