A handicapper's look at Alabama-Clemson IV

By: Harry King
Published: Thursday, January 3, 2019
In this Jan. 1, 2018, file photo, Alabama head coach Nick Saban, left, and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney talk before the Sugar Bowl semifinal playoff game for the NCAA college football national championship in New Orleans. Swinney and the Tigers play in their third national championship game in four seasons next Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, against top-ranked Alabama. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
In this Jan. 1, 2018, file photo, Alabama head coach Nick Saban, left, and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney talk before the Sugar Bowl semifinal playoff game for the NCAA college football national championship in New Orleans. Swinney and the Tigers play in their third national championship game in four seasons next Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, against top-ranked Alabama. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

LITTLE ROCK — Concocting two numbers for the College Football Playoff championship before consulting the professionals, one was a breeze, the other a boondoggle.

Confident before halftime of Alabama-Oklahoma that the Crimson Tide would be favored vs. Clemson, the spread figured to be more than a field goal but less than double digits. Seven was a natural compromise and shortly after the Orange Bowl was final, Nevada-based Bovada.lv established Alabama by 6 ½.

However, the quest for an over-under total for points scored was abandoned after several attempts to calculate how two highly skilled quarterbacks - who are far more mature than first-year starters are supposed to be - and their slew of talented wide receivers would fare against the two best defenses in the country.

Both Alabama and Clemson are capable of pitching a three-and-out on any possession, but Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence orchestrate offenses that can score from anywhere. Between them, they threw 68 touchdown passes with only four interceptions each, and the championship game will identify the early favorite for the 2019 Heisman Trophy.

Befuddled by such dynamics, the amateur handicapper deferred to the pros, the same folks who settled on 81 as the over-under for Alabama-Oklahoma — a contest in which 79 points were scored before Nick Saban shut down his offense with the Crimson Tide on the Sooners’ 6 and less than a minute to play.

For Monday night, the number is 61 and, if the wise guys have an accurate handle on the game, the contest will be much more entertaining than the semifinals. If not, use of a free HBO year-end preview resulted in a stash of movies of almost every genre.

Undoubtedly, the finalists are the two best teams in the country and coming up with No. 3 is not easy, partly because of LSU.

If not for the Tigers’ 20-point victory over Georgia in mid-October, the Bulldogs likely would have been the first loser of a conference championship game to make the CFP. The Bulldogs raised additional doubt in the Sugar Bowl when they were apparently disappointed in their destination and lost to four-time loser Texas.

Until LSU ended the University of Central Florida’s 25-game winning streak in the Fiesta Bowl, some could argue in favor of perfection. UCF was without quarterback McKenzie Milton, but the Tigers were forced to play lots of backups on defense.

Both The AP All-American team and 2019 NFL draft projections support the proclamation that Alabama and Clemson are in a class by themselves.

Seven of the 22 every-down players on The AP First Team are from Alabama and Clemson, including Crimson Tide tackle Quinnen Williams and safety Deionte Thompson, and linemen Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell from the Clemson defense.

For perspective, Arkansas’ last defensive player to make First Team All-American was free safety Ken Hamlin in 2002.

At least one reputable mock draft includes Quinnen Williams, Alabama All-American offensive tackle Jonah Williams and Thompson in the top 15 selections, plus Wilkins, Ferrell and running buddy Dexter Lawrence in the top 20, and a Clemson cornerback in the first round. Another lists the Alabama trio in the top 10, and all three of the Clemson defensive linemen in the top 15.

The 6-foot-5, 340-pound Lawrence was in street clothes for the 30-3 domination of Notre Dame because he failed an NCAA drug test, but viewers were told that even without him, Clemson has the “best defensive line in the country.”

Along those lines, back-up defensive lineman Albert Huggins averages only 20 snaps per game, but should be drafted.

Almost lost in the speculation concerning the two quarterbacks and receivers vs. pass coverage is Clemson’s up-front defenders vs. Alabama’s running backs. Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and Najee Harris each had more than 100 carries during the season and each averaged 5.4 yards or more per try.

A solid running game, a playmaking quarterback and superb defense has been a winning combination for years.

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