From the moment Alabama started celebrating on the field at University of Phoenix Stadium after beating Clemson last Jan. 11, we have been analyzing and arguing about who might claim the next national championship in Tampa on Jan. 9, 2017 (8 p.m. on ESPN).
That entire year has led us back to the same game, just in a different location. Alabama and Clemson ended the 2015 season ranked Nos. 1 and 2 (they began the 2016 season ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in August). And now, with one more game left, they are back where they started, set to duel for another national championship.
How will Monday's game play out? Here's our best guess.
When Clemson has the ball
There is nothing rarer in college football in the past decade than individual offensive players putting up gaudy numbers against Alabama's defense. Deshaun Watson is one of the few players who knows what it feels like -- joining the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Johnny Manziel and a few others -- and now he's back for more.
Alabama had the nation's best defense last year. In the final game under defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who had already been named head coach at Georgia, the Crimson Tide found themselves in an usual situation: often out of position and struggling to find answers. Watson completed 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards, four touchdowns and an interception and rushed 20 times for 73 yards. He was so spectacular that Alabama resorted to a bold -- and ultimately successful -- onside kick that changed the game in the fourth quarter, because Nick Saban wasn't confident enough in his defense slowing down Watson, a great quarterback who was playing the game of his life.
Clemson was ranked No. 2 this preseason because so much of that offense returned. Watson is back, and he finished second in the Heisman Trophy vote after claiming third place in 2015. He has completed 67.3 percent for 4,173 yards, 38 touchdowns and a concerning 17 interceptions while rushing 144 times for 586 yards and eight TDs. Watson's rushing numbers are down and his turnovers are up, but he improved as a downfield passer over the course of the season and can be expected to run as much as necessary against Alabama after Clemson protected him when it could during the regular season.
Watson is playing behind an offensive line that has taken a slight step back, even if it still has impact players in Mitch Hyatt, Jay Guillermo and Tyrone Crowder. But he does have a more complete receiving corps than he did a year ago, thanks to the return of potential first-round pick Mike Williams from a neck injury that cost him the 2015 season, plus the return of deep threat Deon Cain after he was suspended during the last playoff.
Clemson's running game has regressed -- Wayne Gallman is still potent, but he hasn't had as much room to run -- and it's committed too many turnovers, but at its best, this is still as dangerous as any offense in the country thanks to Watson's combination of arm strength, accuracy, pocket poise and dynamic running and the deep group of receivers at his disposal, also including Hunter Renfrow, Artavis Scott, Ray-Ray McCloud and tight end Jordan Leggett.
While Alabama said goodbye to several key defenders, several key players also decided to return for another season, including DL Jonathan Allen and LBs Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson. The result is a defense that has managed to get even better, giving up an average of 3.9 yards per play and two yards per rush. When All-America safety Eddie Jackson went down with a season-ending injury in October, Alabama proceeded to go four games without allowing a touchdown. There's seemingly no limit to the quality depth that new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has to work with.
There are times when Alabama's defense, with its 11 touchdowns, seems to have a better chance of scoring itself than allowing the opponent to score. Allen, Ronnie Harrison and Minkah Fitzpatrick all have multiple defensive touchdowns, and it's become surprising when Alabama doesn't actually score on defense or special teams in a game.
The Alabama defense has gotten lighter and even quicker -- Foster, the Butkus Award winning linebacker, dropped to 228 pounds from 240 -- and Allen, Williams, Anderson and others have terrorized opposing backfields with 50 sacks and 112 tackles for loss. Alabama isn't invulnerable to giving up big plays, but it is so dominant up front that staying on schedule on offense is nearly impossible. The Crimson Tide take away interior running, create negative plays and pounce on mistakes on passing downs.
Last year, Watson appeared to solve the Alabama defense. Now, he's tasked with the seemingly impossible challenge of replicating that performance against a defense that seems to have more of an advantage in the trenches in Tampa than it did in Arizona, and even more of an ability to force mistakes.
When Alabama has the ball
Last year, Alabama had a fifth-year senior quarterback, Jake Coker, paired with Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry. Both are gone, and Alabama averages 0.63 more yards per play, jumping from 49th to 20th nationally.
It's done that with a true freshman quarterback in Jalen Hurts, who won SEC offensive player of the year and rushed for 891 yards -- far more than a Saban quarterback has ever rushed for -- but is still a somewhat limited passer, as shown by a rough outing against Washington's terrific defense in the Peach Bowl.
It's done that with a group of previously inexperienced running backs. Damien Harris led the way most of the season, averaging 7.2 yards per carry, but the new star is the monstrous Bo Scarbrough, who has shaken off a slow start to his career and bulldozed Washington for an Alabama bowl-record 180 rushing yards, including the Crimson Tide's only two offensive touchdowns of the game.
The backfield looks new, as does the play-calling. New Florida Atlantic coach Lane Kiffin was pushed out in the middle of the playoff, leading to Saban installing ex-USC head coach Steve Sarkisian into the play-calling role a game earlier than expected. Sarkisian served as an offensive analyst for the Tide this season, but this is his first week involved in the day-to-day coaching of the players and play-calling. It comes in the biggest week of the season, entering the national championship against another spectacular Clemson defense under coordinator Brent Venables.
Seven Clemson defenders were drafted last spring, and yet the Tigers rank fourth in yards per play allowed and just handed Urban Meyer the first shutout of his head coaching career. There is talent in the back seven -- LB Ben Boulware, CB Cordrea Tankersley and SS Jadar Johnson leading the way -- but the anchor of the defense is an absurdly talented line led by senior DT Carlos Watkins and rising star underclassmen Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell.
This looks like the type of defensive line Alabama has had in its best seasons. These are all highly recruited players who have lived up to the hype, and they're coming off a game in which they overwhelmed the Ohio State offensive line and shut down the Buckeyes' ground game on top of putting a ton of pressure on J.T. Barrett and the passing attack.
Clemson has been better against the pass than the run, and yet Ohio State was equally ineffective trying to move the ball in both ways. Alabama is similar to the Buckeyes in some ways, but it has a few advantages: Its receivers are better, featuring Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and tight end O.J. Howard, who torched Clemson for 208 yards and two TDs last year. And its offensive line is better, led by All-American Cam Robinson.
Alabama's offense isn't close to being on the same level of dominance as its defense, but this is still a unit stockpiled with blue-chip talent. It just needs some more passing success, and it needs a successful transition from Kiffin to Sarkisian in a unique mid-playoff play-calling change before facing the steep challenge that the Clemson defense presents.
Clemson WR Mike Williams vs. Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey. Williams didn't play in last year's game, but now the possible first-round pick meets an Alabama corner with his own first-round dreams. Successful passing to Williams could open the door to even more Watson running.
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson vs. Alabama LB Reuben Foster. Foster is the nation's best linebacker and Alabama's best weapon against a diverse offense like Clemson's. He has sideline-to-sideline range, he hits hard and he can cover, making him a valuable asset against not only Watson's dual-threat ability, but Wayne Gallman running and catching passes out of the backfield and star Tigers tight end Jordan Leggett coming over the middle.
Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough vs. Clemson LB Ben Boulware. If Alabama rides the hot hand and gives the bulk of the carries to Scarbrough, all eyes will be on Boulware, the leader of the Clemson defense. Scarbrough showed a knack for breaking tackles and running over defenders against Washington. Boulware will lead the charge in attempting to stop him from gaining too many yards after contact.
Alabama C Bradley Bozeman vs. Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence. Really, it's Alabama's entire offensive line against Clemson's entire defensive line. We'll highlight the middle, where Bozeman has done an admirable job replacing All-American Ryan Kelly and Lawrence looks like a budding Ndamukong Suh.
Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson. Renfrow was Watson's best friend in the first half of last year's game, getting the best of five-star Alabama DB Minkah Fitzpatrick and catching seven passes for 88 yards and two TDs. With so much attention on Williams and Cain on the perimeter, the door could be open for Renfrow to play a key role again.
Clelin Ferrell, DE, Clemson. Watkins, Wilkins and Lawrence were All-ACC picks. Ferrell became the secret weapon. A redshirt freshman four-star recruit, Ferrell has emerged with 11 ½ tackles for loss, three of which came against Ohio State to earn him Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP honors.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama. Howard returned for his senior season after his 200-yard performance in the national title game last year. He's a terrific blocker, and he sometimes feels underutilized in the passing game, as he's caught 41 passes in 14 games. When Alabama needs to lean on him, though, we've seen that he's more than capable of coming through in big moments. He's a vital weapon for Hurts.
JK Scott, P, Alabama. Yes, the punter! Scott actually punted seven times in the 45-40 game last year, and Alabama may need to lean on him more in what could be a lower-scoring matchup. Scott averages 47.4 yards per punt and is one of the best field-position weapons in college football, as if the Crimson Tide didn't have enough talent advantages at practically every other position against most opponents.
National Championship prediction
Alabama 27, Clemson 23
If anybody can beat Alabama, it's Clemson. The Tigers are ranked No. 2 for a reason. They have Watson, who has had the best performance of the past two years against Alabama. They have a great receiving corps and a great defensive line. They can knock the Crimson Tide offense out of sync, and they have the offensive firepower to capitalize.
But … picking against Alabama usually backfires. The Crimson Tide are unlikely to win if they give up 40 points to Clemson again, but … they're probably not going to give up 40 points again. Watson is spectacular, but this could be one of the best defenses in college football history. Thus, the bet here is that, despite the offensive coordinator drama, Alabama follows its script: It runs the ball well, it stifles the opposing run game and it forces a game-changing turnover or two.
Alabama still owns college football.