It’s not that Clemson hasn’t been tested this season.
Don’t worry, this isn’t about to resemble a caller on the Finebaum Show shouting, “PAAWWWLL! They ain’t played nobody!”
The Tigers have played and beaten Notre Dame, Florida State, North Carolina and Oklahoma. You have to respect their No. 1 ranking and undefeated record against a strength of schedule ESPN puts in the top 25 nationally. What’s more, they’re the only team in the top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency.
Yada, yada, yada.
If you’re reading this, you already know how deserving Clemson is.
So what about Alabama?
What Clemson has accomplished is great and all, but Alabama is unlike any team the Tigers have played this season. As we inch toward Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T in Arizona, it’s fair to ask whether they will be able to handle the Crimson Tide's physical play.
Some teams dominate the scoreboard. Alabama dominates every inch of the field, imposing its will with a measure of force few teams have shown in recent years.
No player more embodies that hard-nosed style than running back Derrick Henry. He’s 6-foot-3 and 243 pounds of pain barreling between the tackles. He broke SEC single-season records for rushing yards and touchdowns, and what’s even more impressive is that 900 of his 2,000-plus yards have come after contact, which is more than for any other Power 5 player.
Quarterback Jake Coker joked that it’s like “playing with the biggest kid on the playground.” Linebacker Reggie Ragland said that, “When you meet him in the hole, you better bring everything you’ve got.”
Henry ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan State, and that was considered one of his worst performances of the year. Three times he has rushed for more than 200 yards in a game. The last time he failed to score a rushing touchdown was in his sophomore year.
"He's a whole different animal," Coach Swinney said of Henry. "They just beat you to death with that guy.”
Swinney acknowledged that “everything starts with the running game for them" and "if you don't stop the run, you have zero chance.”
“Absolutely zero,” he said.
The bad news for Clemson is that even if you find a way to bottle up Henry, there’s a chance Coker will tuck the ball and run. Coker, who comes in at 6-5 and 232 pounds, is surprisingly fast. And he’s not afraid of contact. Earlier in the year, he leveled a Texas A&M defensive back while running for a first down. Alabama coach Nick Saban said that he’d love to see Coker avoid taking hits but admitted that “sometimes I like to see the other team’s reaction when he does that.”
Although Coker has shown that he’s capable of running over a defender or two, don’t count on Watson doling out the same punishment on Alabama’s defense. Not when there is a pair 300-pound tackles in the middle of the defense projected to go in the first round of the draft (A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed). And not when the starting Mike linebacker is 6-2, 252 pounds and another likely first-round pick (Ragland).
Alabama’s defense has been harassing quarterbacks all season. Between Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott, you’re looking at two future pros -- and 13 sacks. Quarterbacks have been pressured by Alabama on 33 percent of dropbacks and sacked an FBS-best 50 times.
When that defense gets a hold of you, you’re not getting away, either. Not only does Alabama have the fewest missed tackles per game (3.4) among Power 5 teams but it has allowed the fewest yards after contact and the ninth-fewest yards after catch.
In Alabama’s past four games against FBS opponents, offenses have scored two touchdowns, averaged fewer than 2 yards per carry and managed a QBR of 8.0.
“They're a complete football team in every sense of the word,” Swinney said, “great coaches, great depth, great talent, great on offense, great on defense, great in special teams, fundamentally, technically. I mean, that's just -- it is what it is.”
Go back and replay the Cotton Bowl. You can see the frustration in Cook and his Michigan State teammates.
They weren’t ready for Alabama, and it’s fair to wonder whether Clemson will be, either.
Information from ESPN Stats & Information was used in this story.