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College Football Playoff: Five Clemson Tigers on clock versus Alabama for Sugar Bowl

Jeremy Brevard - USA TODAY Sports

Next week provides college football fans with the trilogy between the University of Alabama and Clemson University at Mercedes-Benz Superdome for one of two College Football Playoff semifinal games. After the last two national championship matchups had everyone on the edge of their seats, the Crimson Tide anticipate being on the winning side this time in New Orleans, La. 

Offensive struggles and injuries on defense have been issues for Alabama; nevertheless, head coach Nick Saban and company find itself in the playoff for a fourth consecutive time since 2014.

Execution from play caller Brian Daboll, as well as attention to details on third down both offensively and defensively, will be expected on Jan. 1, 2018. 

As for Clemson, a new narrative is in place. 

A victory for Dabo Swinney makes him the coach to not only cut into Saban’s unprecedented run, but it also establish him as the new king of the game.

He enters the contest with an efficient offense and a defense that has an elite front line. While both institutions are familiar with each other, Tigers’ quarterback Kelly Bryant embraces this environment for the first time as a starter. 

Even with Las Vegas’ respect for Saban, the majority of national media pundits are going with Clemson to win the game.

In order for the Tide to have success, its coaching staff must be aware of five players. Listed below is a breakdown of Clemson’s five marquee guys. 

Travis Etienne, RB

He’s one-third of Clemson’s backfield by committee, but Travis Etienne is the home run threat of the group. Although Wayne Gallman produced big numbers, Etienne displays sheer acceleration between the tackles and in space. The freshman leads the team in rushing with 744 yards and 13 touchdowns on 103 carries.

Tavien Feaster, Adam Choice and Kelly Bryant all create opportunities in the run game, but everything starts with Etienne in terms of balance. 

Ryan Carter, DB

Mackensie Alexander and Cordera Tankersley started the dominant defensive back play for the Tigers, but senior Ryan Carter has taken it a step forward. He anchors the secondary in pass breakups (10) and interceptions (three), while collecting 30 total tackles on the season. 

The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder will cover Alabama’s standout playmaker, Calvin Ridley.  

Ridley is the most targeted weapon of Jalen Hurts, catching 55 passes for 896 yards with three touchdowns (74.7 yards/game). Should Carter deny him the football, the pressure for Hurts to locate a second or third option builds.

It will be a fun chess match between Carter and Ridley. 

Clelin Ferrell, DE

Whether it’s Jonah Williams or Matt Womack, the Crimson Tide’s offensive line better have an understanding of where Clelin Ferrell is at all times.

He is one of the best pass rushers in college football as he leads Clemson with 17 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and seven quarterback hurries. 

Regardless of being a defensive end, Ferrell is one of the leaders in tackles (62) and has two forced fumbles on the year.

Third down efficiency and penalties have been problems for Alabama’s front line in terms of pass protection. Being able to neutralize Ferrell and others is critical for position coach Brent Key to relay to his group, when it comes to generating balance. 

Hunter Renfrow, WR

He has been the one receiver to kill Alabama. 

Clemson had Mike Williams, Deon Cain, Artavius Scott and Jordan Leggett the last two CFP national title games, but it was Hunter Renfrow that did the most damage. He caught 17 passes for 180 yards with four touchdowns, including the game-winning score in January. 

Renfrow stands as the squad’s second leading target – posting 571 yards receiving yards and three touchdowns on 55 catches. The former walk-on averaged 10.38 yards per reception and excels at running precise routes.

Either Minkah Fitzpatrick or Tony Brown will be called upon to re-route and frustrate Renfrow on the field.

Bryant is very comfortable when he in in action. 

Kelly Bryant, QB

He has yet to be in this moment as a starter, but Kelly Bryant will face the Crimson Tide as the signal-caller next week. After watching Deshaun Watson perform greatness on two different occasions, Bryant will attempt to duplicate the magic at a semifinal game in New Orleans. 

Is he as explosive as Watson? No. 

However, he is more efficient than the first-round pick – seeing how Bryant has just six interceptions while Watson threw 17 picks in 2016. 

Bryant chimes in with a 67.4 percent completion rating (244 of 362) and 2,678 passing yards with 13 touchdowns.

He’s carried the ball 173 times for 646 yards rushing and 11 scores. 

His evasiveness stems off patience.

Bryant normally runs to set up chances to throw, but should the smallest of holes open up – he then picks his spots to be aggressive and run. For Alabama’s defensive front, it must generate pressure and collapse the pocket. If it’s not able to sack Bryant, then at the very least it should have success batting passes down to affect the timing of throws. 

Just like its offense, the Tide’s defense must get off the field on third down. 

Getting Clemson behind the distance and not having self-inflicted mistakes goes a long way in positioning Alabama for a shot to return to the national championship game. Everything starts with making Bryant feel uncomfortable, and for Saban, this must happen with consistency. 

Stephen M. Smith is the managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @Smsmith_TDALMag.

Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 15 years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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