When the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T kicks off (8:30 ET on ESPN), all eyes will be on the coaches and star players. At ESPN Stats & Information, we have already broken down Derrick Henry’s power, Deshaun Watson’s versatility and Calvin Ridley’s emergence as keys to the game.
Nearly every possible factor (including Dabo Swinney’s dancing) has been analyzed, but chances are this matchup will be decided in the same manner as nearly every other game this season - the team that wins the battle in the trenches, avoids turnovers and makes plays on third down will ultimately come out victorious.
For the Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers, these factors have been particularly important to their success this season. Below is one fundamental key to the game for each unit that could have a drastic impact on the national championship.
Keys for Clemson
Offense = Establish a run game: Clemson has rushed for 200 yards in 11 games this season, tied for second most in the FBS. Alabama has not allowed a team to rush for 200 yards in a game this season. However, the last three times the Crimson Tide did allow 200 rushing yards to an FBS team, they lost (Ohio State last season, Auburn in 2013 and LSU in 2010).
Establishing the run will help Clemson’s offensive game plan, but it can also help mitigate Alabama’s ferocious pass rush that leads the FBS with 50 sacks. This will not be an easy task against the FBS leader in rushing yards allowed per game (71) and yards per rush allowed (2.3).
Defense = Win first and second down: When Alabama has fewer than 5 yards to go on third down, it converts a first down on 60 percent of its attempts, which ranks 45th in the FBS. When the Tide have 5 or more yards to go, they convert on 25 percent of their attempts. Their national ranking falls to 103rd in that situation.
Special Teams = Contain Jones: Cyrus Jones leads the FBS with four touchdowns and 518 yards on punt returns. He has brought a punt back for a touchdown in three of Alabama’s past five games, including a 57-yard punt return touchdown against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. Clemson cannot match Jones on its own punt returns (second-worst punt return average in the FBS) and the Tigers have been only slightly above average at covering punts this season.
Keys for Alabama
Offense = Protect the football: Alabama has a plus-9 turnover margin, which is tied for 15th in the FBS this season. Removing the Ole Miss loss in which the Crimson Tide were minus-5, they would be tied with Michigan State at plus-14 for the best margin of any Power 5 team and fourth best overall.
Like any team, Alabama’s record is affected by its ability to protect the football; teams to beat Alabama since 2008 were a combined plus-19 in turnover margin in their 12 wins, and only one had a negative differential (2013 Auburn in the “kick six” game). Tide opponents are a combined minus-87 in turnover margin in 97 losses to Alabama over that span.
Defense = Contain Watson: Since the start of November, Watson has rushed for 646 yards, most of any FBS quarterback, and surpassed the 100-yard mark five times. Clemson is simply more efficient when Watson and Wayne Gallman are making plays with their legs.
In past seasons, Alabama has struggled to contain running quarterbacks. This year the Tide appear to have solved that problem; they have not allowed a quarterback to run for more than 29 yards in a game and have shut down efficient runners such as Dak Prescott and Joshua Dobbs. They will need to continue that success against arguably the best running quarterback over the second half of the season.
Special Teams = Make field goals: A recurring theme in Alabama’s recent losses has been an inability to make field goals. In the past five seasons, Alabama has made 6-of-17 field goals in losses (35 percent) and 81-of-112 field goals in wins (72 percent). Kicker Adam Griffith might have turned a corner this year; he has made his past six field goals from 40 yards or longer after starting his career 5-of-13 on such field goals.