The betting public is favoring Alabama in the College Football Championship Game for two distinct reasons: (a) SEC schools posted an impressive 8-2 SU and ATS record this bowl season, and (b) the Crimson Tide dismantled Michigan State 38-0 before a national viewing audience. As for the former reason, the SEC’s dominance in postseason play does not come as a surprise in that SEC schools have covered the point spread in eight consecutive BCS championship affairs between 2006 and 2013.
Alabama has won the college football BCS Championship three times under head coach Nick Saban (2009, 2011 and 2012), successfully covering the point spread in each of the three games with an average score of 33-12. Saban is 6-3 SU and ATS overall in postseason play with Alabama and is 4-0 SU and ATS mark in national championship games dating back to his coaching days at LSU.
The Crimson Tide’s resume also boasts double-digit wins over Georgia, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn, Florida and Michigan State, among others. Alabama’s opponents were an incredible 120-50 this season, 71 games above .500! In contrast, Clemson’s opponents were 32 games above .500 at 97-65. Eleven of Alabama’s fourteen opponents ended the season at least two games above .500, and the Tide were 10-1 SU and 7-4 in those contests.
Alabama’s performance in the national semi-final game was impressive to say the least, limiting Michigan State to just 29 rushing yards (1.1 yards per carry), while outgaining the Spartans by over 200 yards. The Tide finished the 2015-2016 campaign ranked #1 in college football by allowing 167 yards per game less than their opponents averaged.
Not to be outdone, Clemson ougained the Sooners by over 300 yards in its national semi-final game and finished third in the FBS in averaging 157 yards per game more than their foes allowed. The undefeated Tigers also finished ranked 8th nationally in allowing 106 yards per game less than their opponents averaged.
Clemson has won and covered its last four bowl games, all as underdogs against Ohio State, LSU and Oklahoma (twice). The Tigers are also a perfect 6-0 ATS in neutral site games and are once again playing the disrespect card once for being installed as underdogs despite being the lone undefeated team in the country.
Clemson takes the field with an explosive offense that is averaging 38.4 points and 512 total yards per game at 6.4 yards per play against teams that would combine to allow just 5.4 yards per play. The Tigers are also 7-0 on the road this season where they are averaging 41.4 points and 544 total yards per game at 6.5 yards per play.
Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson is and above-average downfield passer, ranking 11th in college football in vertical yards per attempt (12.5) and 16th in stretch vertical yards per attempt (14.8). Watson was also second in college football in both vertical (17) and stretch vertical touchdown passes in 2015.
Those statistics are significant in that the Tide’s secondary struggled against vertical passes this year, ranking 27th in vertical yards per attempt (9.6) and 51st in vertical yards per completion (26.0). I expect Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney to open up the playbook a bit by taking some shots downfield with Watson’s cannon arm.
Alabama’s attack is predicated upon a bruising ground game behind Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry that is averaging 4.8 yards per rush attempt against teams that would combine to allow 4.1 yards per rush play. The Tide’s ground attack will be challenged by a very good Clemson front seven that is 1.2 yards per rush attempt better than average this season (3.6 yards per rush play to teams that would combine to average 4.8 yards per rush play).
Clemson will now have to factor in Alabama’s aerial attack after Jake Coker’s impressive performance against Michigan State. Will Coker’s arm be good enough to loosen Clemson’s defense in order to open lanes for Henry and the Tide’s powerful ground game? In Saban’s last three college football Championship appearances, his Alabama squad defeated Texas by 16, LSU by 21 and Notre Dame by 28. Meanwhile, Clemson is using the underdog label to fuel its success in postseason play.