SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was a player at Alabama back in 1992, the Crimson Tide already had won the national championship with a 13-0 record.
Swinney’s Tigers are 14-0, but they still have one more game to go to stay No. 1.
The game — and the challenge — couldn’t be bigger.
Something has to give Monday night. Either Alabama’s vaunted defense, ranked first or second nationally in a fistful of major statistical categories, or Clemson’s balanced and potent offense, led by the most prolific dual-threat quarterback in the game.
They will duke it out in the desert in a 7:30 p.m. CST kickoff on ESPN at University of Phoenix Stadium in nearby Glendale, at stake the right to claim the College Football Playoff national championship.
It’s a classic strength-versus-strength matchup.
Alabama leads the nation in scoring defense (13.4 points per game), is second in total defense (256.8 yards per game) and is first in rushing defense (70.8 ypg).
Bama is led by a pair of first-team All-Americans in defensive end A’Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reggie Ragland. But the Crimson Tide’s defense is so deep, a player like linebacker Tim Williams from University High can rank third in the SEC in sacks (10.5) and not start a game.
“Those guys are the best defensive line in the country,” said Alabama center Ryan Kelly, the Rimington Trophy winner. “If you look at the first and second downs they are able to do, they totally take the running game out. For third down, they rotate some new guys in and get sacks on third down. It is unbelievable going against those guys every day. It almost makes playing the games a little bit easier.”
And, oh yes, Bama’s offense features Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Derrick Henry, the first SEC back to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season (2,061).
“You’ve got to slay a dragon Monday night,” Swinney said. “That’s a lot easier said than done, and everybody knows that.”
Clemson averages 512 yards per game (11th in the FBS), having raced to Arizona with a pick-your-poison attack led by quarterback Deshaun Watson, a Heisman finalist who set an ACC record with 4,731 total yards.
“It’s all about sticking to our assignments,” Ragland said. “(Watson) can run and pass. Stay on your assignments, or you’ll get burned.”
Clemson can play defense, too, ranking sixth in yards allowed (301.6) and 16th in scoring (20.0). But a big concern for the Tigers is the health of All-America defensive end Shaq Lawson. He suffered a sprained MCL on the second play of the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, and his health has been one of the biggest subplots of the week.
“We expect him to play,” Swinney said Sunday. “Hopefully he’ll be able to perform and play to the level that we all know he can. But, you know, if not, I don’t think coach (Nick) Saban is going to cancel the game over there. We’re going to have to keep playing, so we’ll put the next guy in there. That’s just the way it is.”
Alabama is seeking to reignite the SEC’s remarkable championship run in the CFP era. The SEC won seven straight BCS national titles from 2006-12, an unprecedented run for any conference. Last year’s inaugural CFP championship game, won by Ohio State over Oregon, marked the first time since 2005 that no SEC team at least played for the title.
Bama also will be seeking to join Notre Dame from 1943-49 as the only schools to win four titles in a seven-year span. But Saban doesn’t want his players thinking about any of that.
“What we’re trying to get our players to do is stay focused on the things that are going to help them play well in the game and not be affected by external factors, all the things that are going on around this game,” said Saban, who can win his fifth national title combined between LSU and Alabama. “It is a big game, there’s no doubt, for every player that’s created an opportunity to play in it on both sides. But you’ve got to focus on the next play and do what you have to do to do your job to help your team be successful.”
On the other sideline, there is burgeoning conference pride at play for the ACC. A victory for Clemson gives the ACC its second national championship in three seasons, following Florida State’s victory over Auburn in the final BCS championship game two years ago at the Rose Bowl.
Despite its glittering offense and unbeaten record, Clemson comes into this contest a touchdown underdog. It’s a fact the Tigers have played up strongly as their psychological advantage.
“A lot of people don’t respect us,” Watson said. “Nothing that we’ve earned has been given to us. Each and every week we go out and earn it.”