This has the feel of Clemson’s 1981 national title game, so I’m taking the Tigers


Alabama wins national titles just out of habit, but I’m thinking Clemson tonight.

Bama has the Heisman Trophy winner in Derrick Henry, but I’m picking Clemson and quarterback Deshaun Watson, who finished third in the voting.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) scores in the second quarter against Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl at SunLife Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015. Clemson won, 37-17. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson scores in the second quarter against Oklahoma in the Capital One Orange Bowl on Dec. 31, 2015. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS)

Bama is driven by Nick Saban, a living statue in the hall of great coaches, and Clemson’s boss is Dabo Swinney, who had to walk on at Alabama during his playing days, and yet I’m taking the Tigers.

It’s not solely because picking the Crimson Tide is boring, or because a little bit of Saban goes a long way, or even because I was at Sun Life Stadium the day Clemson beat Miami 58-0.

All of these are fine reasons for making a prediction that nobody is going to care about tomorrow, unless of course I miss by a mile, in which case the social network will become very anti-social in its treatment of this so-called expert.

In reality, though, I really do see Clemson as the most complete team Alabama has faced, and the loosest when it comes to taking on the Tide. In some ways this has the feel of Clemson’s 22-15 win over Nebraska in the 1981 national championship game.

The Tigers were unbeaten and ranked No. 1 that season. Nebraska had a couple of losses and was ranked No. 4, but still everyone just figured Clemson would be unable to match the Cornhuskers’ power and big-game experience. Instead, Nebraska, a four-point favorite, wound up looking like the team that wasn’t quite ready.

Of course, the events of three-plus decades ago have not impact on tonight’s title game in Arizona. It does sound familiar, though.

Alabama was supposed to handle Ohio State in last year’s national semifinals. Wrong assumption.

Oklahoma was the consensus pick to steamroll Clemson in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Again, that was a case of downgrading the Tigers on the basis of not seeing them all that often on the biggest stage.

Clemson has shown, however, an ability to fight back this year. They trailed FSU 10-6 at halftime and wound up winning by 10 points. They trailed Oklahoma at halftime of the Orange Bowl but outscored the Sooners 21-0 in the second half, shutting down a prolific Big 12 offense in the process.

[When Huizenga hired Cam Cameron, he wondered ‘Could this thing blow up on us?’]

[When’s the last time FSU, UM and UF all lost their bowl games?]

[Bill Belichick’s primer on how long it takes a new coach to fully install a program]

Beating Alabama, if it happens, will be more about countering Henry’s relentless power over four quarters with fresh waves of defensive depth. Clemson has the athletes to do that. On the other side of the ball, Clemson’s spread attack and Dabo’s ingenuity will stress the Alabama defense in ways that Michigan State couldn’t.

So make it 19-17 Clemson, and if that’s wrong, at least this blog was posted at the last minute, which might limit the volume of ridicule it engenders after the fact.

And maybe I’ll get a few brownie points for correctly picking Clemson over Oklahoma.

Or not.