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5 players who could decide tonight’s national title game

Forget the hype. Don’t watch the celebrities. Pay no attention to the talking heads.

This is about players. Football always is.

So which players could change tonight’s game? A handful of possibilities for each team:

Clemson

1. Deshaun Watson, quarterback: Watson is the key figure to the game for both teams. If he gets loose – he had 405 yards and four touchdowns last year – then he can lead Clemson to a surprisingly easy win. If Alabama can contain him, their job gets easier. Watson does have 17 interceptions, however, and the Tide has been known to return one or two.

2. Mike Williams, wide receiver: Williams is a difference-maker. He caught 90 passes for the Tigers this year for 1,267 yards and 10 scores. He can expose the Tide corners, which some suspect is the vulnerable part of their defense.

3. Ben Boulware, linebacker: He’s the voice of the Clemson defense, an effusive tackler and leader. He has 110 tackles, including 9.5 for loss. He’ll be the guy in charge of stopping the relentless Alabama running game.

4. Wayne Gallman, Clemson: Gallman has rushed for more than 2,600 yards for Clemson the last two seasons. If there is a crease in the Alabama defense, and there haven’t been many, it’s up to him to exploit it. A very underrated back.

5. Clelin Farrell, defensive end: Farrell just dominated the Ohio State Buckeyes a week ago. His matchup with Cam Robinson of Alabama will be one of the more interesting head-to-head competitions in the game. Farrell, a redshirt freshman, has blossomed in the playoffs.

Alabama

1. Reuben Foster, linebacker: A lot of other players get a lot of attention, but Foster is the guy in the middle of the highlight reel tackles. He’s projected to be among the top two inside backers in the draft. He’ll have a lot to do with stopping Watson.

2. Jonathan Allen, defensive end: Allen is the most physically dominating the Tide has had in years. Allen has 24 sacks the last two seasons, and before Watson can work his magic, he’s going to have to get free of Allen.

3. Cam Robinson, tackle: Robinson has already been projected as a 10-year left tackle on the next level. It is up to him and his linemates to allow the Alabama running back to click. If it doesn’t, the Tide is vulnerable.

4. Jalen Hurts, quarterback: Hurts’ play will be one of the most revealing aspects of the game. Hurts struggled against Washington, the Tide offense looked lethargic. In some games this season, however, Hurts has been a difference-maker. He isn’t as good as Watson – yet – but his game will help decide things.

5. Bo Scarbrough, running back: For much of the season, Scarbrough was just another guy on the Tide team. But in his last three games, he’s rushed for 361 yards. If he can move the pile against Clemson, it will go a long way toward Alabama winning.

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Lightning clobbered yet again, falls to .500 for the season

After a while, it isn’t just a slump.

After a while, it’s a new reality.

The Tampa Bay Lightning fell to .500 on the season, losing their fourth straight game of the season. This time, it was a 6-2 beating at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. It lowered the Bolts’ record to 19-19-4 on the season.

The Lightning has now given up three or more goals in 16 of their last 21 games.

“We played a really good team that’s had quite a long break to get the bodies healthy, and we’re a tired group,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “When you’re tired, you’re bound to make a couple of mistakes. We did what we wanted to do, we got the lead, and unfortunately, we broke down on the first one and then the self-inflicted wounds started. We make a major error on the second one, turn it over, and against a good team, that’s going to end up in the back of the net. But, ultimately, it was still 2-1 going into the third. They pushed, and we just couldn’t push back. We were tired at the end.”

Weariness doesn’t answer all of the Bolts’ problems as of late, however. The defense has played poorly, and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has three six-goal games in the last four.

Jonathan Drouin and Vlad Namestnikov scored for the Lightning.

“You’ve just got to get back to work,” Cooper said. “It’s 82 games, not four. But we’ve got to have a little renewed interest in our D zone because it doesn’t matter, you can sit here and say, ‘Well, we can score four or five a night,’ you’re still going to lose when you give up six. But, the guys have played a lot of hockey here in a short amount of time, and they tried to game this one out. It was our mistakes that led to their goals, and they capitalized on every one of them.

“I can look back on those goals and three-quarters of them, we just handed to them on a platter. You can’t do that. Ultimately, we didn’t penetrate enough. They got to the scoring areas to score, and we didn’t. We were still a little bit perimeter at times, and we can’t be. It cost us.”

The Lightning is home Thursday night against Buffalo and Friday against Columbus.

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Steelers send Dolphins home for the winter

The Miami Dolphins’ stay in the NFL playoffs was brief, but at least they got there. On Sunday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers had their way with Miami in a 30-12 rout at Heinz Field.

Despite the score and the fact Steelers’ running back Le’Veon Bell set a franchise playoff rushing record with 167 yards, Miami had their chances. Three costly turnovers and a devastating penalty proved fatal, however.

Early on, the Dolphins looked like they did not belong. If Bell wasn’t running crazy, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was playing pitch and catch with Antonio Brown for long (60 and 52 yards) touchdown passes.

It was 20-6 and looking to be a lot more. While Bell was piling up the yards, Dolphin running back Jay Ajayi was getting piled on. After running through the Steelers for more than 200 yards during a 30-15 Dolphin win in October, Ajayi managed on 33 yards on 16 carries on Sunday.

“Last time, we felt we didn’t play well,” Bell said. “Those guys got after us, they jumped on us early.”

Not on Sunday. Pittsburgh scored touchdowns on their first three possessions to put Miami on their heels.

“The defense played great today, stopping their run game, making it tough on (Ajayi) their side; he’s a great runner,” Bell said. “On the other side, we wanted to control the ball, score some touchdowns and we did our job today.”

They certainly did, but the door did open for Miami just a bit.

The Dolphins’ big chance came near the end of the first half and the start of the second. With Matt Moore hooking up with receivers Jarvis Landry, Kenny Stills and DeVante Parker, the Dolphins reached the Steelers eight-yard-line in the final 30 seconds of the half.

With the Dolphins set to receive the second half kickoff, Coach Adam Gase believed his team could tie the game early in the third quarter. That plan was blown up by linebacker James Harrison.

As Moore dropped back in the final 30 seconds, Harrison, who was unblocked, got a clean shot at Moore, who fumbled and the Steelers recovered. On the first series of the second half, Moore was again sacked in Pittsburgh territory, he again fumbled, and the Steelers again recovered.

After a Steeler field goal, Moore was picked off on the first play of the next series. Miami held Pittsburgh to a field goal attempt, but Tony Lippett jumped offside, giving the Steelers a first down. Three plays later, Bell was in the end zone, making it 30-6.

These kinds of things can’t happen during the playoffs. You can get away with stuff like that against Cleveland or the 49ers.

Game over.

It’s not time for excuses, but it is fair to point out this is the Dolphins’ first playoff game since 2008. There is every reason to believe there will be more and they can become playoff veterans like so many of the Steelers are.

The trick is to get a playoff game at home. That will mean beating the New England Patriots to win the AFC East.

Tom Brady won’t be there forever. Even if he is around another two or three seasons, Gase is building a solid foundation in south Florida.

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Bulls hire Brian Jean-Mary to head up defense under Strong

New Bulls coach Charlie Strong has announced Brian Jean-Mary as the man to help with the heavy lifting with the Bulls.

Jean-Mary, USF’s new assistant head coach-defensive coordinator, takes over the Bulls’ defense, which was ranked No. 120 this season. Every team but North Illinois scored at least 20 on USF in their 11-2 season.

Jean-Mary is an 18-year coaching veteran who served on Strong’s staff at Texas for the past three seasons as the Longhorns’ linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator. Jean-Mary has spent the past seven seasons on Strong’s staffs, also joining him as assistant head coach/linebackers coach at Louisville from 2010-13. Jean-Mary also coached linebackers at Georgia Tech (2004-09) and was a secondary coach at North Alabama (2003).

“Brian has been a big part of assembling and coaching some of the best defenses in college football over the last 14 years and is ready for the next step to defensive coordinator,” Strong said. “He has recruited, coached and mentored numerous all-conference and future NFL players and I’m excited for him to work with our student-athletes at South Florida.”

 Jean-Mary helped assemble three top 15 ranked recruiting classes at Texas. The Longhorns’ 2014 signing class was ranked No. 15 by Scout, while the 2015 and 2016 classes both ranked in the top 10 checking in at No. 7 and No. 8 in the country, respectively.

 “I’m very excited to come to South Florida and have the opportunity to serve as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator under Coach Strong,” Jean-Mary said. “I have had the honor to work with Coach Strong over the last seven seasons and appreciate his confidence in me to lead his defense. We have some terrific talent at USF and in the state of Florida and I’m excited to be back in the state and getting to work building the Bulls defense.”

 A native of Apopka, Fla., Jean-Mary played college football at Appalachian State, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1998. Jean-Mary is married to the former Jerilyn Ardis and has two daughters, Brooke and Brittany.

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Drive to Super Bowl continues on Sunday

Two teams took the first step toward the Super Bowl on Saturday. With Houston and Seattle moving on, two more games will set up the NFL’s Elite 8. Here are Sunday’s matchups.

Miami (10-6) at Pittsburgh (11-5), Sunday at 1:05 p.m. (CBS)

Miami is making its first playoff appearance since 2008 and is looking for its first postseason win since the wild-card round in 2000. Quarterback Matt Moore will make his first postseason start for the Dolphins with Ryan Tannehill out because of an injury.

With the game-time forecast of around 20 degrees, the Dolphins put footballs used by the team’s place-kicker and punter in a freezer before practice to simulate conditions for Sunday’s game.

Miami beat Pittsburgh 30-15 in October as Jay Ajayi ran for 204 yards and two touchdowns.

“One of those weird days in football,” Steelers guard David DeCastro said of his team’s struggles in that game. “Sometimes you’re going to have one of those weeks.”

Ajayi is one of four players in NFL history with three games of at least 200 rushing yards in a single season.

The Steelers are 34-23 in the postseason, tied with Dallas (34) for the most total playoff wins all time.

The Steelers’ offense led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown will be in the lineup for the first time in a playoff game.

New York Giants (11-5) at Green Bay (10-6), Sunday at 4:40 p.m. (Fox)

The teams have a rich playoff history going against each other. The Packers have a 4-3 edge in playoff games. The Giants won the first one and the NFL title in 1938, beating the Packers 23-17. The Packers won the next four games and NFL championships in 1939, ’44, 61 and ’62.

And the teams have met twice in the past decade in the postseason. Both games were at Lambeau Field and both times the Giants won en route to taking the Super Bowl after the 2007 and 2011 seasons. Temperatures are forecast in the mid-to-low teens for this matchup.

The Giants are back in the playoffs for the first time since that 2011 run under first-year head coach Ben McAdoo, who replaced Tom Coughlin. McAdoo was a Packers assistant under Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy from 2006-13.

McCarthy is the fourth coach in NFL history to lead a single franchise to eight straight playoff appearances, joining Tom Landry, Chuck Noll and Bill Belichick.

The Packers enter the postseason on a roll. Green Bay finished 6-0 in the regular season and clinched the NFC North title.

Aaron Rodgers led the way as he completed 71 percent of his passes with 15 touchdown passes and no interceptions.

“Inside the pocket he can shred you, he can make all the throws,” Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas said.

“To think that such a good passer, you would think they’d get him out of the pocket, damper him, or put some type of uneasiness about him – but no, he’s very comfortable outside the pocket.”

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Steve Sarkisian: Time away showed me I loved coaching football

Steve Sarkisian has been cramming for a final exam he didn’t know he’d have to take.

The newly elevated Alabama offensive coordinator had all of a week after his earlier-than-expected promotion to prepare and implement the game plan for Monday night’s national championship game with No. 3 Clemson. Not to mention getting better acquainted with players, most notably quarterback Jalen Hurts, and adapting to a very different job description.

“I’m embracing this more than anything,” Sarkisian said Saturday. “I would be remiss if I didn’t exhaust myself in the preparation standpoint to put our players in the best position to go do the best job they can do Monday night because they’ve earned this.”

Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban told Sarkisian he was getting the early bump in responsibilities last Sunday, the day after the Peach Bowl semifinal game. A day later, Saban announced that Lane Kiffin would head to his new job leading the Florida Atlantic program instead of sticking around through the playoffs as initially planned.

Sarkisian, 42, had already been promoted and started formulating ideas for spring practices and for the offense and he said that made the transition easier .

He amiably faced dozens of reporters and cameras, and a spotlight he’d been able to avoid since his firing as Southern California’s head coach in October 2015, and subsequent entry into an inpatient rehab facility for alcoholism.

He mostly said questions about his battle were “for another time,” but did touch on what he’d learned about himself during that time.

“I think the biggest thing I discovered about me is, I’m a good person,” Sarkisian said. “Not perfect, like none of us are. But the reality of it is I also learned that I love this game and I love coaching football. I love being around these players. I love being around the coaches. I love all of college football. I love game day, when you get to go to that stadium. I really like to try to take it in. I think it’s important that we don’t just gloss over that kind of stuff, and enjoy the moment.”

That was much easier to do as an offensive analyst than a head coach, or coordinator for that matter. Asked how he was doing personally, Sarkisian said succinctly: “Life is good.” He also believes he’ll be a head coach again.

Sarkisian said he has spoken to Kiffin this week and praised his performance over the last three years, which included three Southeastern Conference titles and a shot at a second national championship.

He was expecting to spend the season working as a television analyst, but then started visiting different teams. His first practice observing the Atlanta Falcons drove home how much he wanted to get right back into coaching.

Those stops included the University of Florida, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a week in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with Saban and Kiffin, a former colleague at USC.

“Before he left, he said he was supposed to do some TV work or something, but he would really like to get involved in a program someplace, and if there was any opportunity for him to do it here …” Saban said. “And I liked him in the week that he spent with us.”

They delayed his starting the job until after the opener against USC – to avoid looking like Alabama was seeking an advantage in the game.

Sarkisian had already learned the offense but his behind-the-scenes role didn’t allow him to develop close relationships with most of the players, including Hurts. Hurts says he’d only had three or four casual conversations with Sarkisian before this week.

“Nothing’s changed, it’s just a different guy calling plays,” Hurts said. He did check out some of Sarkisian’s coaching highlights online, and said his postgame celebration was “pretty cool.”

“Lane is moreso a laid-back guy,” Hurts said. “Coach Sark is an enthusiastic guy. He’s kind of electric. He brings a different feel to practice. It’s different for all of us.”

Sarkisian said the two have “a really good relationship” and he’s clearly been able to watch and learn about the freshman throughout the season even if the reverse isn’t necessarily true.

“He’s a kid who loves football,” Sarkisian said. “He’s a gym rat. He works at the game. Those are the kind of guys I like to be around. They make my job easier. I think it’s a good (relationship). I think we’ve worked well together this week and ultimately I think we’ll work well together Monday night.”

Sarkisian was constantly in motion during the media viewing period at practices in Tuscaloosa, including rushing at the quarterbacks with arms upraised to simulate a blitz.

He might have to be ready to get yelled at on the sidelines. Kiffin absorbed more than a few chewing-outs from Saban during games.

Sarkisian says he hasn’t experienced that from a head coach since the 2009 Rose Bowl when USC was playing Penn State (and won 52-49). Sarkisian had already accepted the head coaching job at Washington.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘I’m a head coach, too,'” he said, smiling. “But not in that game I wasn’t.”

Republished with permission from the Associated Press.

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Defenseless Lightning continues slump against Philadelphia

The Tampa Bay Lightning continues to talk about how big the games ahead of them are.

And they continue to lose them.

The Bolts lost their third straight game – giving up 16 goals in the three – in a 4-2 loss to Philadelphia Saturday afternoon.

“It was turnovers and lost battles pretty much all night,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper. “When you’re going to do that, you don’t really have much of a chance of winning. And then, on top of that, 5-on-5, we were okay for the most part and shots were only I think 32-26 5-on-5, but we each had two power plays, they had eight power-play shots, we had none. You look at our 6-on-5, we had it in their zone for two-and-a-half minutes, and all we did was kill the clock for them.

“And when you just don’t have that passion to go to the net and shoot the puck to score, it’s tough to win games. And that’s what (the Flyers) did tonight, they threw pucks at the net and had guys there and banged a bunch home. We just lost too many battles and turned too many pucks over. That was it.”

 The Bolts took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Nikita Kucherov, but gave up four goals in the second period for the loss. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 40 shots, but he let four of them in.

“It starts with turnovers,” Cooper said. “When you’re turning pucks over, now you’re on your heels a little bit and now you’ve got to win battles to get them back. And they just, to me, won a few more battles than we did tonight.”

The Lightning, still behind in the playoff race, had hoped to use this weekend’s trip to Philadelphia to find itself. It did not.

“It’s too bad because everybody’s losing all around us,” Cooper said. “That’s not going to happen forever, and we’re scrambling to find our way back into the mix, which we did over the break. And now in one short week, we’re right back where we started with a long road trip, and a back-to-back coming tomorrow and then a six-gamer on the road. The time is now, that’s it.”

Tampa Bay is now 19-18-4 on the season. The Bolts play Pittsburgh today. A loss would lower them to .500.

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Clemson’s Dabo Swinney thinks only Clemson can beat Alabama

According to Dabo Swinney, there is one team in college football that can beat the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Fortunately for Swinney, it’s the Clemson team he brought to Tampa to compete in Monday night’s National Championship game.

To be honest with you, I don’t think there’s another team out there that’s capable of beating Alabama,” Swinney said. “I think we’re probably the only team that has a chance.

You know, that’s – and we do, we’ve got a solid chance. But we’ve got to go toe to toe. Whoever is (Muhammad) Ali, whoever is (Joe) Frazier, it’s two great guys battling it out. That’s the way it is, and I love that. It’s never been easy. My entire life, nothing has been easy, and this is the way it ought to be. If we’re going to get it done, then we ought to have to play and beat a team like Alabama.”

Last year, Clemson lost a 45-40 game to Alabama.This year, Swinney thinks his team is better.

I think we’re better than we were last year,” Swinney said at Media Day for the teams. “We were a really good team. I don’t think we finished well last year. We won, but we were a team on fumes I felt like toward the end of the season. We were finding ways to win, and there’s a lot to be said for that, but we were a tired football team going into that ACC Championship Game, and defensively we were very top-heavy. Our first group was very, very good, but everybody behind him was freshmen, and so we just didn’t have a lot of competitive depth, you know, which affects your practice, your meetings, everything. We’ve got more guys defensively that are functional, more guys that can go play, and it’s been that way all year. We’re a healthier team.

Last year, Shaq Lawson didn’t practice all week for this game, Mackensie (Alexander) didn’t practice all week. They both tried to play, Mackensie didn’t last very long. We’re definitely healthier. We’re deeper. We’re more experienced, and then offensively we’re better at running back. We’re better at receiver.

Last year Ray-Ray  (McCloud) was a freshman, Trevion Thompson was a freshman, (Hunter) Renfrow was a freshman, Deon Cain was a freshman, didn’t get to play in this game, Mike Williams was sitting on the sideline, didn’t get to play in this game. We’re just better prepared, I think, to hopefully play our best four quarters Monday night.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban said his top concern was Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who passed for more than 400 yards and threw four touchdowns against the Tide last year.

The quarterback,” Saban said. “Their entire system, their entire scheme, but Deshaun Watson, I’ve said this all week long, is probably the most dynamic player in college football, maybe the best player in college football relative to what he does for his team. A combination of his ability to pass the ball accurately, execute their offense in the passing game, as well as his physical ability to run the ball and add quarterback runs to their whole system of very good players, whether it’s running backs or wide receivers, and he can utilize all the talent on their team because of his skill set.”

Saban thinks he has a resilient team. The Tide may have to be.

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A crucible for the Seminoles: No. 12 Florida State in midst of 6 straight vs. Top 25 teams

Florida State is in a stretch that has happened only twice during Atlantic Coast Conference regular season play.

The 12th-ranked Seminoles have six straight games against ranked teams. The last team to face that kind of stretch was Maryland in 1992-93 and the Terrapins lost all six games. North Carolina State also had that kind of run was in 1979-80 and the Wolfpack went 2-4. Duke also faced the gantlet that same season, but the final three games were in the conference tournament.

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton was somewhat understated when he described it as a unique experience for his Seminoles.

“Every one of these teams poses a unique challenge but it is an opportunity to be in a situation that few teams in college basketball have done,” Hamilton said. “We have accepted it for what it is and understand we can’t have a bad night.”

With last Saturday’s 60-58 win at then-No. 12 Virginia, the Seminoles have won their first two conference games for only the third time since joining the ACC in 1991. Their 14-1 mark also ties the 1988-89 team for the best start in school history.

Saturday’s game against No. 21 Virginia Tech starts a stretch of three games in eight days. FSU hosts No. 8 Duke on Tuesday and then travels to 14th-ranked North Carolina on Jan. 14.

In a check of schedules on College Basketball Reference, only 25 times in ACC play since 1965 teams have faced ranked opponents in four straight games or more. FSU once had a stretch where it played five straight Top 25 foes in 2000-01 and won only one game.

Hamilton’s teams the past couple seasons might have wilted under such a challenging schedule, but this unit may be the best Seminoles squad since their last NCAA Tournament appearance five years ago.

Even though the Seminoles’ average college playing experience is 1.25 years, which makes them the second-youngest team in the conference and 46th nationally, FSU returned four starters from last year’s team.

A switch to a more up-tempo offense is a major reason why the Seminoles have their highest ranking since March, 1993. According to KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings, FSU is averaging only 14.8 seconds per possession, which is second in the conference and 16th nationally.

The past four seasons, their possessions averaged anywhere from 16.1-17.4 seconds. Florida State is also second in the ACC and 15th nationally in scoring at 86.2 points per game.

The Seminoles, however, have shown they also can play a half-court game if needed. Last Saturday’s game against Virginia was at a slower pace but Florida State rallied in the second half and won on a Dwayne Bacon 3-pointer with 4 seconds remaining.

Bacon, sixth in the conference in scoring at 18.1 points per game, believes Saturday’s game against the Hokies will be more to their style.

Virginia Tech is “more like us,” he said. “They like to spread the game out, get out in transition and make the extra pass. They also shoot 3-pointers very well.”

With home games against No. 23 Notre Dame and No. 9 Louisville rounding out the ranked gantlet, Hamilton is trying not to get too far ahead. He pointed out before the regular season this could be the deepest the conference has ever been. With seven ACC teams ranked, which is the most it has ever had in January, he is being proven right.

“It’s the best league in the history of college basketball and it’s getting better. I think a lot of the traditional fans aren’t used to it because it is a new ACC,” he said. “You have to be cautious, optimistic and focused about the situation you are in. You have to be on point because it is a dogfight every game.”

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Tide-Tigers II: The matchups that will decide the national title

Every defensive meeting at Clemson this week might as well have started with coordinator Brent Venables passing around a photo of Alabama‘s O.J. Howard with the caption “Know where 88 is at all times.”

For the second straight season, the Tigers and Crimson Tide will meet for the College Football Playoff championship. Howard is the talented tight end who came into last season’s title game with 33 catches for 394 yards and no touchdowns. He then went off for 208 yards on five catches with two scores as Clemson’s defense seemed unaware that Howard was an eligible receiver.

While it’s safe to assume quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Jalen Hurts will play pivotal roles in Monday’s game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, you never know who will emerge as a star on the big stage – especially with the most talented rosters in college football facing off.

With the help of some coaches who have played each team and the scouting website Pro Football Focus, these are some of the matchups that could determine Tigers-Tide II.

Watson vs. Alabama’s scoring defense

Watson is probably going to throw an interception at some point against Alabama. He has thrown 17 on the season after throwing 13 last season, including one in his magnificent championship game performance.

The junior Heisman Trophy runner-up is a confident passer who will try to make difficult throws. He is also able to escape trouble with his mobility and strength. Add those up and he occasionally courts trouble.

As everyone who has been paying attention knows by now, Alabama’s defense scores a lot. Twelve touchdowns to be exact. Alabama’s athletes are so crazy good – from defensive end Jonathan Allen to linebacker Ryan Anderson to safety Minkah Fitzpatrick – that they become dynamic ball carriers when running through fast guys who can’t tackle and big guys who aren’t fast enough to keep up.

Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, who faced Alabama when he was coach at Western Kentucky this season and lost 38-10, said the touchdowns are no fluke. Most defenses provide some opportunities for safe throws. Not Alabama’s.

“They’re going to press you,” he said. “They’re going to get up on you. So there’s not a whole lot of separation unless you want to hold onto the ball.” And holding on to the ball usually doesn’t end well against the best pass rush in college football – a pass rush that does not rely on much blitzing.

Troy coach Neal Brown, whose team lost 30-24 at Clemson on Sept. 10, said Clemson usually tries to set up Watson for easy throws early in the game to get him comfortable.

“They did a great job schematically of getting him into the flow of the game,” Brown said.

Brohm said Clemson’s offense, which is heavy on misdirection and gets Watson involved in the running game, matches up as well as possible against Alabama’s defense.

Alabama’s offense, with an inconsistent passer in Hurts, is not necessarily built to match scores with Watson. Clemson’s path to victory includes forcing the Tide’s offense to provide all of Alabama’s points.

Clemson WR Mike Williams vs. Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey.

Williams, at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, gets compared to all those big, impossible-to-cover receivers that play in the NFL : Alshon Jeffrey (6-3, 216), Demariyus Thomas (6-3, 235) and even former great Calvin Johnson (6-5, 237).

The junior is Watson’s security blanket – almost to a fault. The Tigers have so many effective weapons that at times this season they almost became too reliant on Williams and limited an offense that does so much well. Then again, it’s easy to want to force feed Williams, who has the speed to get deep and size and strength to catch passes when covered.

Physically, Humphrey is about as a good a matchup for Williams as you’ll find. The junior is 6-1 and 196. His problem has been getting beat down the field. He has allowed 16.3 yards per catch this season, according to Pro Football Focus, after allowing 17.4 last year.

Hurts vs. Clemson’s pass rush

The Tide’s pass rush is ferocious (50 sacks), but the Tigers get after passers almost as well (49 sacks).

Pressure has been a problem for Hurts. According to Pro Football Focus, Hurts’ completion percentage drops to 31 percent when he is under pressure. Incompletions are not the worst thing. Better than interceptions. Hurts has thrown four of his nine picks when facing pressure, according to PFF. Hurts (891 yards rushing) can also turn a near sack into a big gain.

So Clemson needs to force hurried throws, but also be disciplined enough to not allow Hurts room to take off.

LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said Lane Kiffin, now the former Alabama offensive coordinator, turned the Tide’s offense into one that morphs from week to week to attack an opponents’ weakness.

“The biggest thing with Alabama, you had to look at yourself before you looked at them. What hurt you in the past?” said Aranda, whose team lost 10-0 to Alabama on Nov. 5. Now with Steve Sarkisian calling plays : “I’m wondering how much that changes,” Aranda said.

Aranda said Alabama gets Hurts involved in the running game when defenses get overly aggressive.

“The quarterback run cancels out a lot of aggression for aggression sake,” Aranda said.

Alabama center Bradley Bozeman vs. Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence

The Tigers got 17 sacks from tackles Carlos Watkins (10.5) and Lawrence (6.5), the 340-pound freshman freak. Venables is going to make it hard for Alabama to double-team the big guy.

“Venables does a great job creating Bear fronts, which, in a Bear front, all five offensive linemen are covered. Which creates one-on-one matchups,” Brown said.

The good news for Hurts is Alabama’s offensive line is as good as any in the country at protecting the passer. The Crimson Tide allowed 24 sacks but that’s a little misleading because it counts running plays where Hurts was caught behind the line. In 434 passing plays, Alabama allowed six sacks, according to PFF.

Bozeman is the rock in the middle of that line, a 319-pound junior. Guards Ross Pierschbacher and Korren Kirven will also get their chances to deal with the Clemson’s man-child. In fact, don’t be surprised if Venables tries to get Lawrence matched up on the guards who are not as good as Bozeman.

Prediction

Alabama is better or at worst equal to Clemson everywhere but one spot: quarterback. Watson and the nature of Clemson’s offensive scheme give the Tigers answers for Alabama’s smothering defense that few teams have. But the combination of Nick Saban‘s preparation and planning and the most talented roster in college football means nothing less than another all-time performance from Watson will be needed for Clemson to win. It wasn’t enough last year and it won’t be this year.

Alabama 33-21.

Republished with permission from the Associated Press.

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