If you’re looking for a preview of the College Football National Championship Game with an eye on the 2019 NFL Draft (and 2020 draft, let’s be real), look no further. You’ve reached your haven of prospect analysis, and boy is it glorious.
Most will be enjoying Alabama-Clemson because it’s probably going to be a tremendous football game, but for those who will be studying the players and how they’ll translate to the next level, this piece is for you. And don’t worry, I still threw in a few game-related nuggets as well.
When Clemson has the ball
Alabama’s secondary has faced some exceptional wide receiver play this season, but this test is going to be next level. None of Clemson’s wide receivers are draft-eligible outside of slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, but Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Amari Rodgers form a trio of wide receivers who will get first round consideration over the next two years.
That’s a big test for draft-eligible defensive backs Saivion Smith, Shyheim Carter and Deionte Thompson, who will each be tasked with major responsibilities on Monday night. If Clemson has a path to win, it is by attacking an Alabama secondary that hasn’t been at its’ normal level of dominance all year long, especially after losing Trevon Diggs at midseason.
Renfrow against Carter is the one to watch in my opinion. The nickel defender did a good job against A.J. Brown early in the season, but Renfrow is a crafty test who can uncover quickly and make catches you think he has no chance of reeling in. He’s the guy Trevor Lawrence looks for on third downs, and if he’s locked up in the middle of the field, things get tougher for Clemson.
With Diggs out, Higgins is going to have a significant size advantage over the rest of Bama’s corners, so we’ll see who he draws in coverage. I think freshman Pat Surtain and Smith are in for a long night if Lawrence settles in early. Clemson’s receivers have unreal vertical ability, and both corners have been a mixed bag in that area this season.
As for Thompson, his aggressiveness caught him slippin’ against Oklahoma late in the game when he allowed a touchdown over his head, a mistake he has rarely made this season. His range, ball skills and explosiveness could change any game, but especially one like this where Clemson will likely be airing it out and needing every possession to count. If Thompson wants to stay in consideration as a top 20 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, he’ll need a big game in the Natty.
Out of the backfield…
Travis Etienne is an elite college running back with three other fully capable backs waiting in the wings behind him. Clemson has a monster backfield and the best offensive line they’ve had during their recent run, but the test is also formidable. Alabama’s linebackers are a little more inconsistent, but their front five defensively are as devastating as ever.
With Mack Wilson reportedly heading back to school, and Etienne and Bama’s other linebacker Dylan Moses not draft-eligible yet, there isn’t much to see here from a 2019 draft perspective, but the football should be fun to watch nonetheless, as all three could be potential Round 1 players in the future.
In the trenches…
Let’s start with Mitch Hyatt, the All-American by way of pure bribery (just a guess) who is finishing off a rough senior campaign at Clemson. He’ll see some Anfernee Jennings no doubt, but if Christian Miller is healthy, I believe he can really test Hyatt’s set-point range, or lack thereof. To me, Miller is the x-factor for Alabama’s defense in this game. It’s also a huge opportunity for him to continue to build his resume as a prospect after a hot start against Oklahoma and with the Senior Bowl just around the corner.
Junior right tackle Tremayne Anchrum probably heads back to school, but he’s powerful and a better prospect than Hyatt already, even if he looks better suited for guard at the next level. Center Justin Falcinelli is considered a day three prospect at best, but shut down Quinnen Williams and you might get bumped up a couple rounds (kidding, but seriously). Also, good luck sir. You will need it.
Raekwon Davis, Isaiah Buggs and Williams are a monster interior trio that will move gaps, twist, stunt and generally make your life a living hell. If Clemson’s offensive line can’t control those three, this one could get ugly. Lawrence is good, but get after a true freshman early and the Tigers may never recover.
When Alabama has the ball
Tua isn’t draft-eligible yet, but most of the conversation in this game will surround he and Lawrence, and which one has a brighter NFL future. Tua wilted in the SEC Championship Game, and frankly wasn’t very good as a passer in last year’s national title game outside of his game-winning throw, but against Oklahoma (and almost every other game this season) he was sensational.
If he’s healthy and locked in, the task is unenviable for Clemson’s secondary. It’s a solid group for sure, but Trayvon Mullen hasn’t really played up to his first round billing when I’ve watched him, and safeties Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace probably go back to school as day three types. Alabama might have four 4.3-fast receivers, and I just don’t know if Clemson can stop the big plays, especially after watching them bumble through trying to slow down South Carolina’s passing attack a few games back.
Out of the backfield…
Before this season, everyone would have said Harris without hesitation, but that may simply be because Jacobs wasn’t getting the ball enough. Down the stretch, Jacobs workload on the ground has nearly drawn even with Harris, and the former has been the more dynamic third down receiving option as well.
Both are good backs, and there are plenty of analysts on both sides of the fence in the debate between who is a better NFL prospect. I like Jacobs’ skill set and running style enough to have him as my current RB1, but I’ve got a lot more work to do on the class. It also remains to be seen if he’ll even declare.
Watch out for Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons, who balled out against Notre Dame with a sack and two pass breakups to put himself on the NFL radar as a redshirt sophomore. The safety convert has rare size and speed to go with his team-leading 75 tackles, but he can definitely get lost in coverage and make mental mistakes due to his inexperience. He could be matched up against ultra-athletic Crimson Tide tight end Irv Smith, who would be one of the top prospects at the position if he decides to declare.
In the trenches…
Here’s my quiet key to the game that I’ll probably look stupid for saying on Tuesday: Alabama’s offensive line is good, not great. Sure, Jonah Williams is the best left tackle in the country, but Clelin Ferrell ain’t half-bad either. Last year when the two met, Williams shut him down handily, and if Clemson has any hope of pulling off the upset with their secondary, I think Ferrell has to make a splash play or two. He’s not the bendiest edge rusher, but he has the pass rush arsenal and elite hand usage to win 1v1.
Jedrick Willis has had a great sophomore campaign, but down the stretch this season he’s struggled a bit more. Clemson left defensive end Austin Bryant is limited, but his first step could give Willis issues on long and late downs. Don’t sleep on true freshman defensive end Xavier Thomas either. The interior offensive line for Alabama is average; Lester Cotton and Alex Leatherwood are people movers who can struggle in pass protection, while Ross Piersbacher hasn’t ever developed into the dominant player many hoped he would be.
If Dexter Lawrence were playing, I would feel great about Clemson’s chances of winning this battle, especially against Bama’s ground game. But with the big defensive tackle suspended, the onus now falls on Christian Wilkins and Albert Huggins, a potential day three pick, to dominate inside. I still think Clemson can win this matchup, especially with some creative blitzes, and they’ll probably need to win it in order to slow Bama’s success through the air.
I felt like being wild on yesterday’s podcast, and even though I think Alabama is clearly the better all-around team and would win this matchup more often than not, I think they come up short on Monday night. I’m picking Clemson, 38-35. So go all in with your bets on ‘Bama.