With bowl season in the books, only one game is left standing on the college football calendar: the College Football Playoff National Championship in Glendale, Ariz.
No. 1 Clemson beat Oklahoma 37-17 in the Orange Bowl, and No. 2 Alabama beat Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl. They will meet for the second-ever playoff championship on Monday. No more complaints about New Year's Eve football. No more complaints about the selection committee. All that's left in the 2015-16 season is to decide a national title in a matchup of two highly deserving teams, the ACC champion Tigers (14-0) and the SEC champion Crimson Tide (13-1).
As the lead-up to the championship game gets rolling, here are 10 things you need to know and watch for in Clemson vs. Alabama.
1. Clemson plays for its first national title since 1981
It's no secret how lopsided that national championship matchup is in terms of history. Alabama claims 15 national championships (the NCAA acknowledges 13). Clemson, meanwhile, has one championship to its name: 1981. That season, the Tigers were a surprise champion under Danny Ford. They went 6-5 the previous year and began 1981 unranked, but they gradually climbed the polls over the course of the season. They upset Herschel Walker and No. 4 Georgia in their third game, vaulting to 14th in the AP poll, and they became No. 1 entering bowl season. There, the top-ranked Tigers beat No. 4 Nebraska 22-15 in the Orange Bowl for the school's first and only national title. The defense held seven of 12 opponents to single digits, allowing more than 15 points only once.
While Clemson tasted success during the long reign of Frank Howard from 1940-69, the national championship marked just the second time it had ever finished better than 10th in the AP poll, although it did go 11-0 in 1948 and 9-0-1 in 1950. It's the only time ever that Clemson has finished ranked in the top five … until this season.
2. Alabama pursues fourth national title since 2009
Bear Bryant won six national championships in his illustrious Alabama career, meaning Nick Saban still has plenty of work to do to catch up. But what Saban has done in still a relatively short time frame is hard to match. Saban won a national title at LSU in 2003, and upon taking the Alabama job in 2007, he has claimed championships in 2009, 2011 and 2012. This will be the Tide's eighth straight top-10 finish, and the only time under Saban that they finished outside the top 10 was in his 7-6 debut.
Bryant won three national titles in his first 15 seasons at Alabama. Saban could achieve four in nine years, plus the one that he won in Baton Rouge 12 years ago.
3. Dabo Swinney meets his alma mater
Between the retirement of Bryant after the 1982 season and Saban's arrival 25 years later, Alabama captured one national title. In 1992, the Crimson Tide went 13-0 under Gene Stallings, beating Florida in the first-ever SEC Championship Game, then blowing out No. 1 Miami 34-13 in the Sugar Bowl to claim the national title. On that team, Alabama had a little-known senior wide receiver who began his career as a walk-on.
Dabo Swinney caught only four passes for 48 yards that season, but by the end of his Crimson Tide career he was a scholarship player, a three-time letterman and part of a national championship team. He proceeded to spend eight seasons on Alabama coaching staffs under Stallings and Mike DuBose, first as a grad assistant, then as receivers coach. After two years away from football, Swinney became the receivers coach at Clemson, eventually getting promoted to head coach in 2008 after Tommy Bowden's firing.
Swinney has never faced Alabama as head coach, with one appearance against his alma mater as an assistant. In 2008, preseason No. 9 Clemson lost to Alabama 34-10 in Atlanta to start the year, setting the wheels in motion for Bowden's midseason dismissal and Swinney's unexpected rise to the permanent head coaching job.
4. Alabama defense continues a historically great season
According to Sports Reference, Alabama leads the nation in defensive SRS (Simple Rating System) at 15.51, meaning its defense alone is over 15 points better than the average defense, based on point differential and strength of schedule. Going all the way back to the beginning of major college football, that number would rate this Alabama defense as the 39th best ever, although it's not quite as strong as Saban's three national championship teams, which rank fifth, seventh and 14th in all-time defensive SRS. That number can improve with a strong performance against Clemson, which boasts a Heisman finalist quarterback and ranks sixth in offensive SRS this season.
The Alabama defense is a great unit no matter how you want to quantify it. It leads the nation in Football Outsiders' S&P+ defensive ratings. It is second in yards per play, first in points allowed, first against the run, fourth in defensive passer rating, fifth in third-down percentage, 11th in red-zone touchdown percentage and first in sacks per game. Across the board, Alabama is dominant, combining an improved secondary with one of the best defensive fronts we have ever seen.
Led by players like A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen, Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson, Alabama is loaded with elite talent, size and athleticism up front. It's not just the starters; it's the unmatched depth that Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart (now the new Georgia head coach) have amassed. Alabama has allowed more than 20 points just twice all season, and one of those games (Ole Miss) featured five Alabama turnovers.
5. Rebuilt Clemson offensive line faces biggest test of the season
One of the biggest stories of the Orange Bowl was the rise of the Clemson offensive line. After left tackle Isaiah Battle entered the supplemental draft in the spring and center Ryan Norton got hurt in September, the Tigers were left to replace their entire offensive line, a rebuilding project overshadowed by the losses of All-America caliber players on the defensive front. But offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell and co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott have done a terrific job reshaping the unit into a stellar group that has paved the way for the Tigers' success.
While Clemson's passing game had middling success against Oklahoma, the run game took over, with the line opening holes and creating room for tailback Wayne Gallman to punish the Sooners. The Tigers controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, ultimately cruising to a playoff semifinal win. The Tigers have allowed just 16 sacks in 14 games, Gallman is second in the ACC in rushing yards per game and Watson has surpassed 1,000 rushing yards.
A line featuring true freshman left tackle Mitch Hyatt, senior Eric Mac Lain, junior center Jay Guillermo, sophomore right guard Tyrone Crowder and senior right tackle Joe Gore entered this season with six career starts between them. And yet the unit has been excellent.
Of course, there is no greater test in college football this season than the Alabama defensive front. Clemson saw some solid defenses -- Louisville, Boston College, Notre Dame, Florida State, Oklahoma -- but there is nobody that compares to Alabama in terms of depth and talent. Hardly anyone has consistently moved the ball on the Crimson Tide, and while the Clemson offensive line deserves a ton of credit for its maturation this season, there will be a ton of pressure on the unit on Monday.
6. Derrick Henry aims for playoff statement
Since the start of the BCS era in 1998, Henry will be the 12th Heisman Trophy winner in 18 years to participate in the national championship game. Just four of those players have actually won the national title game in the same season as their Heisman win -- Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, Mark Ingram and Matt Leinart -- while seven have lost, including Marcus Mariota in the first playoff title game a year ago. So, winning both the Heisman and the national title in the same hasn't actually happened often in recent history in the era of undisputed national champions.
After a strong finish to the season in which he got a high volume of carries and put up big numbers against SEC opponents, Henry was actually quiet in the 38-0 playoff semifinal win over Michigan State. Instead of running into Michigan State's excellent defensive line, Alabama opted to put the game in the hands of quarterback Jake Coker on offense. Henry ran 20 times for just 75 yards with two touchdowns, his fewest carries against an FBS opponent since September.
The performance still allowed Henry to crack 2,000 yards for the season (359 carries for 2,061 yards and 25 touchdowns), but he had an underwhelming night while fellow Heisman finalists Christian McCaffrey (Rose Bowl) and Deshaun Watson (Orange Bowl) both shined in bowl wins. Alabama's game plan will be interesting in Arizona against Clemson, as the Tigers are again one of the nation's best all-around defenses, with a great pass rush and one of the nation's best defensive backfields.
7. Deshaun Watson solidifies position as college football's best QB
Watson had an off night as a passer in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, but he ran for nearly twice as many yards as Henry did in the Cotton Bowl. Watson had 24 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, in addition to completing 16 of 31 passes for 187 yards with a touchdown and a pick. He entered the season with the talent to be college football's best quarterback, and by the end of the calendar year he had proven himself as the most complete quarterback in the nation.
He has completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 3,699 yards with 31 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and he has rushed 187 times for 1,032 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has done this with a new offensive line, new offensive coordinators and a receiving corps that lost standout Mike Williams to an injury in Week 1. Watson combines fantastic arm strength, accurate deep passing, command of the offense, poise under pressure and running ability that few other quarterbacks can match.
Now, he'll face his greatest test in trying to beat this Alabama defense. If any quarterback can have success against the Crimson Tide, it's a multi-dimensional player like Watson.
8. Shaq Lawson hopes to play after knee injury
Clemson lost nearly its entire first-team front seven from the nation's top defense in 2014, and yet it has still played at a top-10 level this season. Depth from last year paid off, and nobody has become more of a star than Lawson, the ACC's defensive player of the year. Lawson has 11 ½ tackles for loss in a rotational role last season, but with Vic Beasley gone, he emerged as the team's most high-profile defender, with 56 tackles, 23 ½ tackles for loss and 10 ½ sacks.
However, Lawson exited the Orange Bowl with a sprained knee in the first half. The Clemson defense still managed to turn in an excellent performance, getting plenty of pressure on Baker Mayfield, but Lawson's health is a big story as Clemson prepares for Alabama. On the field after the game, a confident Lawson said that he'd be ready to play but would undergo a precautionary MRI. On Tuesday, Lawson said that he wouldn't be able to play if the game was tomorrow but that he's still optimistic he'll be ready to go by Monday. If he's healthy, a matchup with Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson would be one of the best individual showdowns of the season.
9. Mackensie Alexander meets Calvin Ridley
No cornerback in college football is more confident in his own ability to take a receiver out of the game than Clemson's Alexander, and for good reason. Alexander's combination of natural ability and intense preparation have allowed him to thrive in quietly anticipating a receiver's every move. He took Will Fuller out of the game in Clemson's win over Notre Dame, and while Oklahoma had some success in the passing game, it did not come at the expense of Alexander. Alexander doesn't fill stat sheets -- he has zero career interceptions -- but that's because nobody throws at him. Very players are capable of impacting receivers like Alexander.
After meeting Sterling Shepard against last week, now Alexander runs into rising star Calvin Ridley. The Alabama true freshman has quickly blossomed into the Tide's top receiver, catching 83 passes for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns, including eight catches for 102 yards in the SEC title game and eight catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl. Much of the attention will be on the matchup of Clemson's D-line against Derrick Henry, but Alexander vs. Ridley will a fascinating part of the game.
10. Jake Coker's long journey comes to an end
Coker was hardly a superstar recruit, but he gradually became one of the most hyped quarterbacks in the country despite not playing. Rated a three-star recruit out of Mobile, Ala., in 2011, Coker signed with Florida State. He redshirted as a freshman and then sat behind E.J. Manuel as the third quarterback in 2012, and while coaches liked his arm strength and pure passing ability, he was no match for Jameis Winston in the 2013 quarterback competition. Winston won the Heisman as a redshirt freshman, with Coker attempting 36 passes in mop-up duty as Florida State went undefeated and won the national title.
Instead of sitting behind Winston for another year, Coker graduated and decided to transfer with two years of eligibility left. When he made the decision, Florida State coaches talked him up, causing hype to skyrocket. When he chose Alabama, he was assumed to be the inevitable starter for Lane Kiffin's first season as offensive coordinator. Instead, after an early-season debate, the Tide built their offense around senior Blake Sims and earned a playoff bid.
Coker finally got his chance to start this season, and he hasn't actually lost a game as a starter, as the Tide gave Cooper Bateman a shot at the beginning of the Ole Miss loss. Coker ranks 33rd nationally in passer rating, completing 67.1 percent for 2,775 yards with 19 touchdowns and eight picks. The offense has mostly been placed on the shoulders of tailback Derrick Henry, but Coker did have his finest outing on the biggest stage. In the semifinal win over Michigan State, he completed 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns and no picks, helping to lead Bama's dominant shutout of the Spartans with a highly efficient night.