There just might be an antidote to Alabama’s best-in-the-nation defense. His name is Deshaun Watson.
Clemson’s junior quarterback rolled up 478 yards and directed the Tigers to 40 points in last season’s national championship loss to the Tide. He’s back for more — especially a ring — when No. 1 Alabama (14-0) and No. 2 Clemson (13-1) play Monday in Tampa, Fla., for this season’s title (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“Deshaun Watson has played big in every game since he’s been at Clemson,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “I think he’s played great his whole three years. I mean, great.”
If anybody is going to unravel the Tide, it’s Watson. He’s an athletic dual-threat. He has a big arm and go-deep receivers. That all means big plays. You don’t beat Alabama with methodical 12-play, 75-yard drives. You need “chunk” plays. You need “splash” plays.
Clemson carved up Alabama with 10 plays of 20-plus yards last season. Contrast that to Saturday, when the Tide allowed one such play — a 20-yard pass — in a dominating 24-7 semifinal victory over Washington.
“I thought he played fantastic against us last year,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said of Watson.
“He may be arguably the best player in college football. The guy is very athletic. He’s got a great understanding of their offense. He does a really good job of executing for his team. He can extend plays. He can run. He can run quarterback runs. And he’s a terrific passer. I mean, he is the complete package.”
The knock on Watson — the Heisman runner-up this season and third-place finisher last year — are his 30 interceptions in 29 games in the past two seasons.
While that might be disconcerting for Clemson fans, it’s probably not as distressing as losing your offensive play-caller the week before the season’s biggest game.
That’s the highly unusual position Alabama is in after Saban parted ways with Lane Kiffin on Monday, saying that Kiffin hasn’t been able to successfully juggle two jobs since accepting the coaching position at Florida Atlantic.
Saban elevated offensive analyst Steve Sarkisian to coordinator. Sarkisian has been involved with the planning of the offense this season, but, by NCAA rule, wasn’t able to coach at practice or otherwise instruct the players.
Now, Sarkisian directs freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts and tries to find a play-calling rhythm against a Clemson defense coming off a 31-0 shutout of Ohio State.
Hurts has many of the same qualities as Watson, just in a younger package. In fact, when he enrolled early at Alabama at last year’s winter break, he played the role of Watson on the Tide’s scout team in preparation for the title game, won 45-40 by the Tide.
Hurts was the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, directing an offense that was best when it played up-tempo. Alabama often relied on its ground attack, led by Hurts and running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, but it has multiple threats in the passing game, including receivers ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley, and tight end O.J. Howard, the offensive MVP of last season’s championship game.
“I guess you’ve got some nuances that might be a little bit different maybe from a play-call or something like that, but it’s not like they’re going to come out and run the triple option,” Swinney said of Alabama’s change of coordinators.
“They’re going to do what they do. It’s just as simple as that. Why would they change? Nobody has stopped them.”
Alabama, going for its fifth title in eight seasons, leads the country in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense. Clemson is salty, too, seventh in scoring defense and eighth in total defense.
One mistake by either quarterback could be the difference. Alabama has scored 11 times on defense this season and will be hunting off-target throws by Watson. Clemson, as is its usual strategy under coordinator Brent Venables, will bring defensive pressure and force Hurts to make quick decisions and complete passes in the intermediate and deep zones.
No true freshman quarterback has led his team to the national championship since 1985, when Jamelle Holieway did so for Oklahoma.
Will quarterback experience matter?
Will defenses rule?
Clemson is going for its first national title since 1981, and Swinney said these Tigers have “more juice” than the 2015 squad. Meanwhile, at Alabama, winning never gets old.
“When you play an outstanding opponent, that’s something that in and of itself as a competitor is motivation,” Saban said. “And that’s certainly the case in this game.”