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College Football Playoff National Championship preview: Alabama vs. Clemson

It's finally game day, ladies and gents. The best two teams in the country, Clemson and Alabama, are ready to battle it out Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Check out how Alex Scarborough and Andrea Adelson see it all going down.

How Alabama wins: Sure, the Clemson Tigers are undefeated and the No. 1 team in the country. OK, now make them earn it one last time. That should be Alabama’s mindset entering Monday night. Make the Tigers stop Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. Make Mackensie Alexander show he’s the best corner in the country by covering Freshman All-American Calvin Ridley. Make Deshaun Watson prove his worth as a runner by navigating through Alabama’s suffocating front seven. By winning two of those three battles, Alabama should come out on top.

The way Alabama wins is by following a game plan that’s best summed up in three parts: (1) run the football, (2) throw deep off play-action, and (3) stuff the run on defense and create turnovers. How the Tide lose, on the other hand, is when things get complicated. If you want the formula for that, look at the Ole Miss loss earlier this season, when there were too many turnovers, too many times Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin got too cute calling plays, and too many instances in which Chad Kelly had too much time to throw and hurt Alabama’s secondary with long touchdown passes. -- Alex Scarborough

How Clemson wins: The Tigers have followed a simple formula this season: Everything on offense goes through Watson; everything on defense starts with their aggressive defensive front. If Watson is able to run the ball effectively and the defense is able to slow down Henry and pressure Jake Coker, the formula will work once again. Here are a few reasons why. Clemson’s offense is similar to Ohio State's, which gave the Tide all sorts of problems last season in the College Football Playoff semifinal. Watson might not be as physically imposing as Cardale Jones, but he does have 100 yards rushing in five of his last six games. He also is a much better passer.

One more thing to remember about the added threat Watson brings to the run game: Clemson has run for more than 200 yards 11 times this season. Alabama has yet to give up 200 yards on the ground this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Alabama has lost its last three FBS games when giving up 200-plus yards rushing, including against Ohio State last season.

As for the defense, the Tigers rank second in the country in percentage of opponents' rushes for no gain or a loss (36 percent), No. 5 in tackles for loss (117) and No. 8 in sacks (43). If they can contain the big play, which has been an issue this season (they’ve allowed 22 runs of 20-plus yards this season), the Tigers will be in great shape. -- Andrea Adelson

Key matchups

Ragland vs. Watson: Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart wasn’t shy about comparing Watson to some of the SEC’s all-time best, calling him a “mixture” of Nick Marshall, Johnny Manziel and Cam Newton. So to Reggie Ragland we can all say, “Good luck with that.” Ragland has been one of the best linebackers in the country, and as a senior he knows a thing or two about preparing for mobile QBs. But while Ragland’s strength and ability to tackle aren’t in question, his athleticism will be put to the test by Watson, who is quicker than any quarterback he has faced this season. If Ragland lets Watson break contain, Alabama will be in for a long night. -- A.S.

Clemson pass-rushers vs. Bama offensive line: Nobody expected Clemson to be among the best pass-rushing groups in the nation after losing its entire starting group. But here the Tigers are -- ready to prove (again) why the defense has been so effective this season. All-American end Shaq Lawson says he will play despite a sprained left knee. Without him against Oklahoma, freshman Austin Bryant stepped in and held his own, while the other starting end, Kevin Dodd, had 3.5 tackles for loss and a huge day. Clemson absolutely needs an effective Lawson (the nation’s leader in tackles for loss) against the best offensive line it has faced to date, but the Tigers already have proved they know how to physically dominate. -- A.A.

X factors

Alabama: For argument’s sake, let’s call the matchup of Ridley vs. Alexander a wash. OK, then what now? Where does Alabama’s passing game go without its top target? In that event, look to ArDarius Stewart, who has shown plenty of big-play ability but not much consistency during his three years in Tuscaloosa. With one Clemson safety keeping an eye on Ridley and another creeping down into the box to stop Henry, Stewart will have one-on-one opportunities. -- A.S.

Clemson: For Clemson to be able to spread Alabama out, the Tigers are going to need to take some shots down the field. With Mike Williams injured and Deon Cain out, this is the perfect opportunity for fifth-year senior receiver Charone Peake to step in and make some big-time plays. Peake has been somewhat of a forgotten player, but he’s still the best deep threat the Tigers have in the game. -- A.A.

Final predictions

To me, this comes down to a team of destiny vs. a team of will. In the end, I’ll take the team that’s the most physically imposing: Alabama. While I admit I don’t have a ton of confidence in my pick, I think the most likely scenario is that Watson struggles to run against Ragland and the Bama D-line and Henry has one last big-time performance before leaving for the NFL. Alabama 20, Clemson 13. -- A.S.

I have picked Clemson to win every game this season, so why change now? Monday night's game presents the biggest challenge the Tigers have faced, but the same is true for the Tide. They might play in the SEC, but they haven’t dealt with a quarterback this good since last season's semifinal against Ohio State. And we all saw how that game turned out. Clemson 24, Alabama 21. -- A.A.