The key matchups
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson vs. Alabama OLBs/D-ends
Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist, is the type of dual threat that can flummox even the best defenses, and his mobility will be crucial to breaking down the seemingly impenetrable wall that is Alabama's front seven. Trying to move Alabama's big and sturdy linemen such as All-America A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen off the line of scrimmage consistently is just not happening.
"The more you can spread them out the better opportunity you have of creating a seam in the defense to run the ball," Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said.
Don't expect a ton of north-south power running by Clemson. The Tigers are more likely to attack at the edges of Alabama's defense, led by DE/OLBs Dillon Lee, Denzel Devall, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams.
"You've got to have some imagination and some smoke-and-mirror mentality for sure," said Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, whose team handed Alabama its only loss this season.
As the games have become more important for Clemson, Watson has been used as a ball carrier more. He has surpassed 20 carries in each of the past three games, including a season-high 24 for a season-best 145 yards in the Orange Bowl victory against Oklahoma.
Alabama RB Derrick Henry vs. Clemson's run defense
After going away from its Heisman Trophy winner to beat Michigan State, expect Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to lean on Henry in the national championship game. Clemson would be better off in a high-scoring game, with lots of possessions for its up-tempo offense. Alabama wants to avoid that.
"Ball control. Manage field position. Put your defense in as many good spots as you can," said Cole Cubelic, former Auburn offensive lineman who now works as an analyst for ESPN.
Key for Clemson will be linebackers Ben Boulware and B.J. Goodson and safety Jayron Kearse.
The Tigers also have a talented and tough defensive line, led by defensive end Shaq Lawson. Plus, their top-notch corners enable defensive coordinator Brent Venables to get safeties, such as the 220-pound Kearse, involved in stopping the run.
"The traditional running game against them is very hard," Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. "They give you very few run-friendly boxes."
Clemson has been susceptible to long runs. The Tigers have allowed 22 runs of 20-plus yards, tied for 83rd in FBS. Those are often the result of overpursuing, sloppy tackling and taking bad angles. The Tigers can't let a 5-yard run by Henry turn into a 35-yarder.
Clemson TE Jordan Leggett vs. Alabama defensive backs
Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart moved Eddie Jackson and Geno Mattias-Smith, smaller defensive backs with cornerback skills, to safety so the Tide it could better match up with spread offenses. Basically, Alabama will be in a nickel defense with five defensive backs most of the game against Clemson.
Leggett, at 6-5, 255 pounds, is a matchup problem, and Clemson likes to send him down the middle on run-pass option plays. He caught 35 passes and led the team with seven touchdown receptions.
Alabama WR Calvin Ridley vs. Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander
The freshman Ridley is Alabama's next great receiver, following Julio Jones and Amari Cooper. Against Michigan State, the Tide took advantage of a secondary that had no match for Ridley (eight catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns).
Alexander doesn't get quite as much publicity as some of the nation's other shutdown corners, but make no mistake: He is as talented as any of them.
"He's good enough to say let's not mess with it on that side," said former Syracuse coach Scott Shafer, who is now the defensive coordinator at Maryland.
That explains why Alexander had no interceptions this season. The other corner, Cordrea Tankersley, led the team with five picks and is no slouch, either. Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables leans on his cover guys.
"You're going to have to win against man coverage," Clawson said.