NEW ORLEANS — Clemson has ridden a dominant defensive line to a No. 1 ranking heading into the climactic College Football Playoff.
Tigers defensive tackle Christian Wilkins sees no reason why Clemson’s semifinal showdown with Alabama in Monday night’s Sugar Bowl should be any different.
Confidence, Wilkins said, is “at an all-time high because we have guys who’ve played in these big-time type of games, who have played against Alabama and just are used to this. We have a lot of confidence in each other. ... We definitely are ready to bring it.”
Indeed, Clemson has the requisite combination of talent and experience to advance past Alabama and into its third straight national title tilt against the winner of the Rose Bowl.
It all starts with a menacing front four that helped Clemson record 44 sacks this season. And it is their matchup against Alabama’s offensive line and mobile QB Jalen Hurts that could very well tip the balance in the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama’s offensive line struggled in its most recent game, a loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Auburn’s defense was credited with two sacks and nine QB hits in a convincing 26-14 victory. Statistically, Clemson’s defense has outperformed Auburn’s this season. Clemson ranks second nationally in points allowed per game at 12.8 and second in sacks per game at 3.38.
“This game is going to be won in the trenches and it starts with us and it ends with us,” Wilkins said. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves as a D-line to be the spark for the team, not just the defense.”
Wilkins said Auburn’s defensive front succeeded against Alabama because of relentless effort in pursuit off Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts, an adept scrambler who has rushed for 768 yards this season.
“We’re just going to have to be relentless. We’re going to have to keep pursuing, keep going after him, because you never know when an extra-effort play like that could be the biggest play in the game,” Wilkins said. “That is a strength of our D-line because we have that mindset of just, ‘Be relentless and keep going.’”
Auburn is one common opponent that Alabama and Clemson had this season. Clemson beat Auburn, 14-6.
On the offensive side of the ball, Clemson has kept rolling this season, despite having to replace quarterback Deshaun Watson, a two-time winner of the Manning Award given to the top quarterback in all of college football. But what new starter Kelly Bryant lacked in experience, he’s made up for with talent.
He has accounted for 3,504 yards and 24 touchdowns from scrimmage this season — 2,678 yards and 13 TDs through the air and 826 yards and 11 TDs on the ground.
“It’s not Deshaun Watson, but I think Kelly Bryant’s more athletic though,” Alabama defensive back Anthony Averett said Saturday. “He’s a lot faster than Deshaun Watson.”
Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow, who caught the winning touchdown pass in last season’s national title triumph over the Tide, echoed Averett’s assessment.
Whereas Watson often scrambled to give him more time to throw, “Kelly scrambles to run a good bit, which is great,” Renfrow said. “Whenever I’m running a route and he’s scrambling, I’m looking to block a little more.”
That might not be an ideal matchup for an Alabama defense whose linebacker corps has been in constant flux because of injuries.
Meanwhile, Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick sounded impressed by Bryant’s decision-making as a passer.
“He makes smart decisions with the football,” Fitzpatrick said. “He has really good athletes on the outside that he can get the ball to — gets the ball deep to Deon Cain, gets the ball and fits it into tight windows with Hunter Renfrow.”
Renfrow has been such a tough cover for Alabama that he has joked that he hoped if he ever got pulled over for speeding in the state of Alabama, the officer would be an Auburn fan. Of course, that went out the window when he made nine catches in the victory over Auburn last September.
When asked about being known as Alabama’s nemesis, Renfrow said, “It’s funny to me because I know I’m not. I know that it’s the entire team it takes to beat a team like Alabama, but it’s cool. Hopefully we continue that on and have another good game.”