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The stage is set for what should be an entertaining national championship rematch between the Tigers and Crimson Tide, who combined to lose just one game all season. Alabama has won 13 consecutive games in the head-to-head series, with Clemson looking for its first win over the tide in more than 111 years.
Here are three mismatches bettors should consider heading into the 2017 national title game:
Tigers' turnover troubles vs. Crimson Tide's ball-hawking prowess
Clemson was a force on both sides of the football over the course of the season, and that was on full display in its 31-0 waxing of Penn State in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day. The Tigers dominated the Buckeyes in total yards (470-215) and first downs (24-9) while holding Ohio State to just 3-of-16 on third and fourth downs. But Clemson did have two turnovers in the rout, and can't afford to be so careless in the national championship game.
The Tigers might have been elite in a number of areas this season, but turnover differential wasn't one of them. Clemson was an ordinary +1 in turnover margin for the season, and would have been dead even were it not for a 3-2 edge vs. Ohio State. Standout quarterback Deshaun Watson racked up 4,173 passing yards and 38 touchdowns, but finished second among FBS QBs in interceptions (17) and has thrown multiple picks in five different games this season.
That could spell serious trouble against a Crimson Tide defense that made life miserable for opponents all season long. Alabama finished tied for ninth in the FBS in turnovers forced at 27 - even with the Tigers - and had three in a 24-7 triumph over Washington in their national semifinal. In a game in which the Crimson Tide struggled to move the football - compiling just 326 total yards against the Huskies - those turnovers made the difference.
Yet, while Alabama and Clemson were even in forcing turnovers, the Crimson Tide took much better care of the football on offense, turning the ball over just 19 times. That +8 turnover differential was tied for the 17th-best rate in the FBS, and speaks to the success quarterback Jalen Hurts had at limiting mistakes; he had a minuscule nine interceptions on the season, and threw multiple picks just twice. If he can execute a similar game plan Monday, Alabama should win the turnover battle.
Clemson's penalty problems vs. Alabama's superior discipline
It isn't uncommon to see great teams succeed despite struggling with penalties - just look at the Oakland Raiders, who were far and away the most penalized team in the National Football League over the course of the regular season but still made the playoffs. Of course, you can get away with those sorts of things against inferior opponents, but more often than not, a lack of discipline against an elite opponent can spell disaster - and that's a major concern for Clemson on Monday night.
The Tigers struggled mightily with penalties during the season, racking up the 21st-most infractions in the nation (92) while ranking 90th in fewest penalty yards per contest (59.64). In its three games against ranked opponents during the season, it averaged 7.7 penalties for 69.3 yards; it won those three contests by a combined 16 points, mostly because its foes were even more undisciplined - averaging 10.7 penalties for 101.3 yards. In the loss to Pittsburgh, Clemson had nine penalties for 101 yards.
The Tigers might have escaped with wins over Louisville, Florida State and Virginia Tech thanks in large part to their opponents' penalty struggles, but they likely won't get away with that against the Crimson Tide. Alabama finished in the middle of the pack in total penalties (77), but those infractions were far less damaging - the Crimson Tide compiled just 578 penalty yards through their first 14 games, good for an average of 41.29 yards per contest - 15th-best in the FBS.
No stretch better epitomizes Alabama's elite discipline than the three-game span in which it faced national powers Tennessee, Texas A&M and LSU from mid-October to early November. The Crimson Tide incurred just 18 penalties for a minuscule 111 yards, winning those three games by a combined score of 92-24. Few teams can maintain a high level of defense while avoiding flags like Alabama, which has a decided advantage if the game is decided by penalties.
Gallman's dismal December vs. Crimson Tide's relentless run D
No one can deny that Clemson running back Wayne Gallman was one of the catalysts for the Tigers' sensational season, compiling 1,087 yards on 218 carries while adding 16 touchdowns on the ground - tied for 15th-most in the nation. Gallman has five 100-yard efforts on the year, and comes into the national championship game having scored 11 times in his previous seven games. But recent history isn't in his favor, particularly with a brutal Alabama defense waiting for him in Tampa.
Gallman was far from his best in the regular-season finale at Virginia Tech, turning 17 carries into a modest 59 yards and a score. He couldn't get untracked against a solid Hokies defense, and was only slightly better against the Buckeyes, finishing with 85 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. He averaged a ho-hum 4.1 yards in those two December games - and if you take out consecutive carries of 20 and 18 yards against Ohio State on the opening two plays of the fourth quarter, that average falls to 3.2.
Clemson is going to need their junior workhorse to be much more effective against the Crimson Tide - and that isn't going to be easy. Alabama is in a league of its own when it comes to rushing defense, leading the nation in opponent yards per carry (2.0) and yards per game (62.0). The Crimson Tide allowed just three rushing touchdowns all season; no other team surrendered fewer than five, and only nine other schools limited foes to double-digit scores.
How tall a task does Gallman face? His own co-offensive coordinator, Tony Elliott, believes all eleven Alabama starters on defense will wind up being taken in the NFL draft. The Crimson Tide D limited Gallman to 45 yards on 14 carries in last year's national title game, and is even better heading into the rematch. Watson should be able to cause havoc with his rushing ability, but unless Gallman can break a big one, he's likely going to be in for a long day.
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