The last game of the college football season is upon us, and the familiar faces of the Alabama Crimson Tide are in the national championship game. Bama has rolled for much of the season, including a deconstruction of Michigan State in the semifinals. Already favored to win, here are five reasons why the Tide will win their fourth national championship under Nick Saban.
1. Derrick Henry
Does he really need an introduction? The Heisman Trophy winner has been the biggest game changer in the biggest moments this season. He ran for more than 200 yards at Texas A&M, against LSU, at Mississippi State, and at Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Henry has demonstrated that he plays his best when his best is needed, and it’ll be needed in Glendale to raise the trophy.
An underrated reason to value Henry in this game: He got a comparatively light workout in the semifinals against Michigan State. The Spartans decided to focus on Henry, so Alabama passed the ball more than it had in previous weeks. Henry wasn’t overloaded with touches. He will be very fresh for this game. Don’t expect him to go gently into the Arizona night.
2. Nick Saban
He’s the greatest college football coach of all-time. In an era when the top teams are hyper-competitive and have comparatively mind-boggling levels of resources when measured against the past, Saban has found a way to keep his teams at a level above elite. His worst record since 2008 has been 10-3. He knows how to coach Bama to big wins, so much so that anything less than a national title is a bad season. Playing on Monday was expected back in August, and so was winning on January 11. There’s no reason to expect anything to change from Saban in Glendale.
Saban’s Alabama teams have not allowed a point in the first halves of each of their last two national championship game appearances (2012 versus LSU, 2013 versus Notre Dame). If Alabama pitches a shutout in the first half against Clemson, does anyone honestly think the Tigers can keep pace in the desert?
Mark Dantonio did a great job with Michigan State this season, but he had no answers against a Saban-coached team which was thoroughly prepared for the Cotton Bowl. Clemson is better than Michigan State, but if Saban’s team is ready, the Tigers and everyone else in college football are playing for second place.
3. Hungry Seniors
The Tide’s senior class hasn’t won a national title since 2012. If Clemson wins, Alabama’s senior class will leave Tuscaloosa with three championship-free seasons, all in a row. A common narrative among younger players is that they go hard in big games for the seniors. You better believe that will be preached in the locker room on Monday night. It’s a legacy game for a lot of Tide seniors, and everyone will be up for it.
You could see how much this team wanted to banish the memory of the playoff semifinal loss to Ohio State a year ago. Alabama played with purpose and relentless tenacity throughout the second half against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. The Crimson Tide wanted to preserve their shutout, and they succeeded. That’s what hunger looks like.
Clemson’s challenge in Glendale is considerable.
Alabama has the number-two defense in college football, technically ranked below Boston College. Yet, the Eagles played two FCS opponents this season and did not play anywhere near the competition the Tide faced. Alabama’s defense is prolific in the amount of draft picks it seems to have on the field at any one time. Clemson has a high-octane offense with Deshaun Watson, and the Tide will need to be at full throttle to stop him. That’s the expected way the Tide play D, however — they’ll be up for the challenge.
The big tactical advantage Alabama has is that it is so stout up front. The Crimson Tide are extremely hard to run against. They bottled up Leonard Fournette of LSU. They swallowed up Michigan State’s running game and prevented the Spartans from establishing any semblance of balance or unpredictability. Clemson, in its Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma, rode its offensive line and running back Wayne Gallman in the second half. The Tigers pounded the rock between the tackles and wore down the Sooners in the process. That approach is great if Clemson can make it work, but Alabama’s defensive line will stand in the way of Gallman and the rest of the Tigers. Deshaun Watson can do a lot of things on his own, but he might have to do too much by himself in this game. He will need help from Gallman, and that’s where Alabama’s defensive front can turn the Tide in favor of the SEC champions.
5. Jacob Coker
He hasn’t been the motor on offense. He hasn’t been the biggest star on the team. He hasn’t been lighting up the stat sheet. What Jake Coker has done has been more subtle: He’s lent a guiding hand to the Tide, moving Alabama smoothly up the field. He’s thrown for more than 250 yards in a game only once, but he’s thrown 19 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. Coker has been there when the Tide has needed him. The biggest compliment that can be given to Coker is that the Tide lost the one game he didn’t start, against Ole Miss. There’s been only one game Coker has started in which Bama won by fewer than 13 points. For Alabama to win he’ll have to play another steady game under center. Based on what we saw in the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State, he should be able to do so.