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Alabama vs. Clemson for the College Football Championship

"Look at me! I'm the captain now!"
"Look at me! I'm the captain now!"
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. That includes college football season. While for Bulldog fans this one has been, in more ways than one, a season to forget, there’s still a little twinge that comes with the actual closing of the book on another season on the collegiate gridiron.

National champions are like the Highlander: there can be only one. Tonight beginning at 8:30 eastern at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona we’ll find out whether that one is the Alabama Crimson Tide or the Clemson Tigers. You can catch the game live on ESPN, and certainly enjoy the 15 hours of live coverage leading up to it. Georgia fans are winners either way, because once the clock strikes zero we finally get our very own full-time head football coach who we don’t have to share with Nick Saban like a condo in Orange Beach.

Honestly, I have no real rooting interest in this one. In the playoff era I believe that most of the advantage of having an SEC champion has worn off. Under this system, the odds that an undefeated SEC champion will be left out of the four team playoff are low. The odds of a one loss SEC champion being cast aside in favor of Iowa, Baylor, or UCLA aren’t much better.

And at this point the only real advantage for Georgia fans of another Tide title is the ability of Kirby Smart to call recruits tomorrow morning and idly say “Sure am tired from shutting down the top QB in the nation last night en route to another national championship. Want to meet up in Athens later?” So if you’d like to root for Clemson to win this one, for no other reason than the Finebaum callers who tomorrow would take a second title loss in a row as proof that Saban can’t win the big one (sound familiar?), be my guest. Totally not going to tell you which historic rival you should root for.

I will tell you who I think will win, as will a couple of other Dawg Sports staffers, who are not themselves actually insane.

GlimmerTwinDawg: "Alabama 34 - Clemson 23. Clemson hasn't turned the ball over much, but they will this game. Watson is going the way of Colt McCoy - he'll have his numbers, but a tipped ball and a strip will doom Auburn-with-a-lake to the bad side of the ledger. "

DaveTheDawg: "I think Bama is going to take Clemmons to the wood-shed like an ugly urnge-haired step child.  They've been there before and the defense is going to play lights out for Kirby because they genuinely love playing for him. Roll Damn Tide, PAWWWWWWL:  41, Auburn with a Lake:  13"

MaconDawg: "I think Alabama is better on both offense and defense than Clemson. . .

{Hits head, comes to 20 minutes later . . .}

But frankly . . . the difference isn’t as significant as many believe. For example, consider the numbers of the two defenses. Kirby Smart’s unit is viewed as the epitome of a championship unit, and the numbers bear that out. Alabama ranks #1 in the country in scoring defense, surrendering a stingy 13.4 points per game.  The thing is, Clemson’s #16 with an average of 20.0 points allowed. The Tide are #2 in total defense. The Tigers are #6. As between two very good teams the difference is often made by luck, little things, and outlying individual performances. I think those things favor Clemson in this game.

For one, there’s Dabo Swinney’s ridiculous underdog narrative. As disingenuous as Swinney’s contention that his team, the one which has been ranked #1 in the country since November, has been continually disrespected, it seems his team has bought into it. You may feel free to insert a joke about the relative academic chops of Clemson matriculants here, though I won’t. I will say that if, as Nick Saban likes to say, Bama gets everyone’s best shot, the national title game against Bama would be the place to give a superhuman uber-effort. The fact of the matter is that Clemson, the #1 ranked team in the polls, is a heavy underdog to Alabama. And that seems to really matter to the Tigers.

Wanting to beat the Tide and actually doing it are of course very different things. One of the ways to accomplish this goal is by putting up big plays. The Alabama defense is a lot like the dealer at a Vegas blackjack table. They’re more knowledgeable than you. They’re more disciplined than you. They are going to win more hands (or plays) than you. The way to beat them in the long run is to score big on the rare chances when opportunity presents itself. Clemson is uniquely suited to do this, having notched 44 offensive plays of 30+ yards in 2015. The Tigers have also converted an enviable 47.7% of third down conversions. If the Tigers can better their season average of 3.14 blockbuster plays and convert 50% of third downs, I like their chances.

Speaking of which, both of those items will depend heavily on how sophomore QB Deshaun Watson handles the Crimson Tide. When Alabama has struggled defensively in the past 6 years there’s been a crucial common thread: a quarterback capable of making plays with both arm and foot playing out of his mind with both. Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton, Tim Tebow, Nick Marshall, Chad Kelly, Cardale Jones. A guy like that isn’t in and of himself sufficient to turn the Tide. As Auburn learned, a little star dust is also helpful if you want to zig-zag your way past Nick Saban.

There’s a reason Kirby Smart said recently that he wouldn’t be averse to signing a “duel threat” QB at Georgia: the guys listed above have bedeviled his offense. Defensive coordinators who become head coaches often run the offense they had the most trouble stopping. And Alabama’s had trouble stopping quarterbacks who can improvise or use their legs to take away the defense’s numbers advantage. And Deshaun Watson is the best kind of duel threat signal caller, the kind who is actually a true passer capable of tucking it and running, rather than a runner forced to sometimes throw.

The Gainesville native has completed 68.2% of his passes on the season, averaging 10.7 yards per attempt. Those are sound numbers. If there’s a worry for Clemson fans, it’s that Watson also threw 12 interceptions this season. A full 8.5% of passes he didn’t complete wound up in the hands of the other team. That number was 2.1% for Greyson Lambert, for what it’s worth. 5.5% for Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. 6.6% for Jacob Coker. Perhaps Lambert’s numbers indicate that it’s hard to pick off a worm-burner to the shortstop. But the others’ seem to be saying that Watson has a little higher risk/reward variability. If he’s skewing toward the reward side of the equation, watch out.

But Clemson will only win this one if Deshaun Watson has one of those games that people speak of in knowing tones years from now, a night on which he just refuses to lose and plays out of his mind. The thing is, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see that happen. That’s why against my better judgment I’m picking Clemson to not Clemson this one, and win 34-30."

So there you have it. Two sane men pick Alabama, and a guy with a hunch and a head injury picks Clemson. We should know who's right in a matter of hours. As always, feel free to tell us who you have in this one, and why, then hang around to talk your way through this one with all your fellow Dawg Sports readers. Until later . . .

Go 'Dawgs!