Seven things to know about Bama vs. Clemson for CFP title


The first Monday in January means back to school, back to work and back to reality. After a few days or a few weeks of indulgence -- food, drink, ugly sweaters, materialism, bad music, bad bowl games -- we all need to get serious again.

So let's focus on a seriously big game, the biggest on the college football calendar: No. 1 Clemson versus No. 2 Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET on Jan. 11). The Tigers and Tide meet in the desert in one week, but the preparation process begins now. Procrastination, after all, is for the weak.

Master the matchup, folks. Be the expert in the room when toe meets leather on the second Monday of January at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. You have seven days to get ready, so to get started, here are seven things to know about the title game:

History lesson: It hasn't been pretty for Clemson. Alabama leads the all-time series 12-3 and has won the past 12 meetings. Clemson's last win came in 1905, and most of the outcomes haven't been close. Alabama has claimed the past three games by a combined score of 128-23. The Tide also posted four consecutive shutouts between 1934 and 1966, and blanked Clemson seven times in the 15 meetings. The teams haven't played since the 2008 opener, when Nick Saban was in his second season and Dabo Swinney was still Clemson's wide receivers coach, weeks from being named interim head coach after Tommy Bowden's resignation. Alabama beat Clemson 34-10 that day at the Georgia Dome, holding the Tigers to zero rushing yards and only 188 total yards. Before that, the Tide and Tigers last played in 1975. The teams have only one extended series, meeting each year from 1966-69. The series began in 1900, when John Heisman coached Clemson.

Best individual matchup: Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley vs. Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Ridley has helped fill the massive void left by All-American Amari Cooper, leading the Tide in receptions (83), receiving yards (1,031) and receiving touchdowns (seven) while breaking Cooper's freshman receiving-yards record. Since Alabama's Week 3 loss to Ole Miss, Ridley has led the team in targets in 10 of 11 games. He faces one of the nation's most complete cornerbacks in Alexander, a master tactician (and smack talker) who contained Sterling Shepard in the semifinal after being assigned to the Oklahoma star wide receiver. There's no doubt Ridley will be Alexander's top priority in the title game.

Position group you need to know: Clemson's defensive line. You will hear a bunch of justified praise for Alabama's defensive front, quite possibly the best collection Saban has ever had. But Clemson's line shouldn't be overshadowed by any group. The Tigers had to completely reset after losing All-American Vic Beasley and others, but they held up well this season. Their depth showed up in the semifinal after All-America end Shaq Lawson (23.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks) suffered a knee injury in the first quarter. Lawson says he will play in the title game, but get to know names such as end Kevin Dodd (18.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks) and tackle Carlos Watkins (6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks). They will be big factors as Clemson faces Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.

Biggest mismatch: Special teams. Clemson brought its guts to South Florida and turned momentum in the semifinal with a fake punt pass from Andy Teasdall to 322-pound defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. But it's still likelier that the kicking game hurts Clemson against Alabama. Clemson ranks 126th out of 127 FBS teams in expected points added through special teams (minus-45.31), mainly because its coverage teams struggle. That's troublesome against Alabama, which ranks 26th nationally in EPA through special teams (19.8) and boasts one of the nation's best punt returners in Cyrus Jones, who averages 12.6 yards per runback with four touchdowns, including one against Michigan State in the semifinal. An ACC coach recently said of Clemson's special teams, "It could kill them. That could be the difference if somebody gets them on it." Alabama could be that team.

What should worry Alabama: Deshaun Watson is the type of quarterback who gives the Tide problems. The Clemson sophomore has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in five of his past six games and is averaging 107.7 rush yards per game and 5.92 yards per carry during that span. Of the past six quarterbacks who beat Alabama --  Chad Kelly, Cardale Jones, Bo Wallace, Trevor Knight, Nick Marshall and Johnny Manziel -- only one (Wallace) averaged fewer than 4 yards a carry in that season. Knight, Marshall and Manziel each averaged more than 6 yards per carry. Watson poses not only a run threat but also a deep passing threat, where Alabama has been vulnerable at times. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Watson contributed 11.1 more points to his scoring margin against Oklahoma than an average quarterback would with the same number of plays -- the most by a quarterback in a BCS title game or playoff game since Texas' Vince Young against USC in 2006.

What should worry Clemson: Alabama's red zone defense. Everything about the Tide defense is a concern, but Alabama is particularly stingy in the red zone. The Tide lead the nation in fewest red zone drives allowed (25) despite playing one more game than all but 16 teams. Alabama is tied for second nationally in fewest red zone touchdowns allowed with 11. Remember, Clemson got away with poor red zone efficiency in the semifinal, producing only 13 points on four trips to Oklahoma's red zone in the first half. Clemson is just 65th nationally in red zone touchdown percentage (60.7 percent of drives). And while the Tigers have 24 touchdowns on plays of 25 yards or longer, Alabama allowed only nine touchdowns on plays longer than 25 yards, two of which were punt returns.

X factors: Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett and Alabama wide receiver Richard Mullaney both could play significant roles. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Leggett is third on the team in receptions (35) and fourth in receiving yards (447), but he leads Clemson in touchdown catches with seven. He had 101 receiving yards against Florida State. Mullaney, a graduate transfer from Oregon State, is second on the team in touchdown receptions (five) and third in total receptions (37). He had three receptions for 53 yards against Michigan State. On defense, Clemson's Cordrea Tankersley is often overshadowed by Alexander, but he leads the team in interceptions (five) and pass breakups (nine). He'll likely match up with ArDarius Stewart, Alabama's No. 2 receiver, in the title game. Like Tankersley, Alabama's Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams aren't famous names (yet), but both junior outside linebackers are dynamic edge rushers, combining for 16.5 sacks and 24 tackles for loss. The Tide need both players to pressure Watson.