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Clemson tries to stop a talented, motivated Alabama

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Tonight’s contenders for college football’s national championship, top-ranked Clemson and No. 2 Alabama, have proud histories of success with their respective programs. Combined, they have won 15 previous championships.

OK, Alabama has 14 of those, but number 15 should not come easy, if at all, tonight. The odds makers list the Crimson Tide as a touchdown favorite, but that will only motivate Coach Dabo Swinney and the Tigers.

“We’re not the favorites, but we’re no damn underdog” he roared to his team before they went out and dismantled the favored Oklahoma Sooners on New Year’s Eve, 37-17.

Michigan State was a damn underdog against Alabama in the other New Year’s Eve semi-final. After their 38-0 shellacking, the Spartans were shown why few gave them any chance against Derrick Henry and the impressive Tide defense.

If Rodney Dangerfield were still around to crack jokes, he would have said something like “Michigan State’s biggest rally came when they had a third and two situation.”

Which brings us to tonight’s game that will be played at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. While the prevailing theme among the experts is an Alabama victory, no one is predicting the Tide will completely shut down Clemson.

Certainly not with Deshaun Watson at quarterback. Of those weighing in, Watson’s mobility is a frequent factor presented.

“While I think the Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has the ability to make plays on this Alabama defense, I don’t think he’ll make many,” said ESPN.com college football writer Edward Aschoff. His colleague, Sam Khan, Jr., took the other view.

“In recent years, Alabama losses usually an opposing quarterback that’s mobile and an offense that can speed up the tempo,” Khan said. “I get the sense they’ll hit the gas pedal in an effort to wear down Alabama’s vaunted defensive line.”

These views represent the prevailing thought among those who cover the sport for a living. Most agree with Aschoff.

Both are complete teams, but there are a few players who can make game-changing plays. Henry and Watson both have the spotlight on them. The AP first-team All Americans demand the full attention of opposing defenses.

On the defensive side, the Tide has two first team All-Americans in tackle A’Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reggie Ragland. Clemson has defensive end Shaq Lawson.

To help slow down Henry, Clemson needs a fully-functioning Lawson, but that is not the case. The 6-3, 275-pound junior is dealing with a knee injury, but “expects to play.” Even if he does, there is no way he could be near 100 percent.

Clemson also lines up a true freshman on the offensive line at left tackle. Mitch Hyatt has performed well covering Watson’s blind side, but he has not yet faced a defensive front 7 as intimidating as the one he will see tonight. Hyatt will somehow need to hold his own.

Should Clemson somehow succeed in slowing down Henry, quarterback Jake Coker proved to Michigan State and the rest of the football world that he can make plays if he must. Coker would be another one to benefit from a physically impaired Lawson.

Despite the Tide’s favored status, anything can happen when a fast-paced offense is the opponent. Remember Ohio State last year and Mississippi this year?

Alabama Coach Nick Saban certainly does. He seems to have his team playing as though they are driven. Talent and motivation are a tough combination.

Former Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard made a great point in a Tweet on Monday. Recalling the massive upset Coughlin’s New York Giants pulled on Belichick’s New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

“Nick Saban is college football’s Bill Belichick. Will Dabo Swinney become college football’s Tom Coughlin tonight? #CFBPlayoff.”

Unlike the Super Bowl, the unbeaten team is the big underdog tonight. Other than that, Howard’s comparison is spot on.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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