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Who to watch for: Sugar Bowl edition

Kim Montuoro, Photo Editor

Quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) will lead the Clemson Tigers against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day.

In the saga that seemingly never ends, Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide will play Dabo Swinney’s Clemson Tigers in the first round of the College Football Playoffs. This is the first time these teams have met in the first round, though, which could change the dynamic from the previous two matchups. As it is, the “series” is tied at one, but the Tigers have a chance to unseat the Crimson Tide as the best team in the NCAA with a convincing win. Last year, it was a combination of Deshaun Watson and Hunter “Bane of Alabama” Renfrow that helped Clemson win its first championship in 35 years. Let’s take a look at who could be the difference makers this year.
Colin’s Key Players:
Kelly Bryant:
It kind of goes without saying, but Clemson hasn’t been itself without Bryant. The big question this year was whether Bryant could manage the Clemson offense. He has done that and more. The Tigers’ only loss came against Syracuse, a game Bryant had to leave early due to injury. His backup at the time, Zerrick Cooper, never looked comfortable at the helm and it resulted in the loss. Bryant’s talent with his legs as well as with his arm makes him a big threat against Alabama’s defense, which had tons of trouble stopping Deshaun Watson. Watson was a better passer than Bryant, but Bryant has made this offense his own, and one that can be just as dangerous on the ground as it can be through the air.
Deon Cain:
Cain is supposed to have been Mike Williams 2.0, but he has disappointed over the course of the season. At 6’1” and 190 pounds he isn’t as physically imposing as Williams was, but he has a high vertical and a good jump sense. What has plagued him are drops. Too many times has he had an easy first down and let the ball slip right through his fingers or try to turn upfield and have it bounce off of his hands. Renfrow should be well covered which means Cain needs to be on his A-game to help Bryant and the Tiger passing game.
Jalen Hurts:
The true sophomore has not been a large part of Alabama’s offense yet this season, but he will need to step up big in this game for Alabama to have a chance to win. He hasn’t been relied upon to throw the ball much, evidenced by his less than 2000 passing yards on the year. Hurts reached out to Deshaun Watson for advice about playing in this game. Watson’s advice: be fearless. Hurts needs to have the confidence to throw down the field and try to beat Clemson’s man-to-man defenses on the early downs to set up his run game later when they move to zone. If he can do that, Alabama gains an important balance in their offense.
Alabama’s Linebacker Corps:
Freshman linebacker Dylan Moses suffered a season-ending injury during bowl practice and will have to be replaced by Mack Wilson, who will return from a foot injury he suffered last month. Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis are also returning, but have seen very limited practice snaps since coming back from injury. If Alabama’s linebackers falter during the game, Clemson may have a slightly easier path back to the championship. The Tide’s depth has been enough to get by against weaker offense, but they will need to have everybody back in order to slow down Clemson’s multi-faceted running game.
Ryan’s Key Players:

Kelly Bryant:

Going into the 2017 season, the biggest question surrounding Clemson football was, who will fill the void left be Deshaun Watson. A few weeks before the season began, the team announced that Junior Kelly Bryant will be the team’s starting quarterback. No one knew what to expect from Bryant early on, but he has proved that he has what it takes to lead the Clemson offense. Bryant has been successful this season by doing many of the same things Deshaun did during his time at Clemson, attacking defenses with both his legs and his arm. Bryant will face his toughest matchup of the season on Monday night when he goes up against one of the most prolific defenses in the country in Alabama. With all of the expectations and Deshaun Watson comparisons surrounding him, it would be easy for Bryant to try to put the Clemson offense on his back, but in order for Clemson to win, they will need Bryant to play like he has all season and rely on the weapons around him to be successful. The good news for Clemson is that Bryant has shown time and time again this season that he is at his best when he spotlight is the brightest, and in order for Clemson to advance to the National Championship, this trend must continue in the Sugar Bowl.


Hunter Renfrow:

It’s no secret that Hunter Renfrow has had success against the Crimson Tide defense in the past. In their past two meetings, Renfrow has carved up the Alabama defense to the tune of 180 yards and four touchdowns. Once again, Alabama has a formidable pass rush and several playmakers in the secondary that will be looking to prevent big plays in the passing game. One of the biggest keys to the game will once again be Clemson’s ability to move the ball through short passes that allow Kelly Bryant to release the ball quickly. With this in mind, expect Kelly Bryant to look Renfrow’s way early and often on Monday night.

Clemson’s Front Seven:

When analysts look at the 2017 Clemson team and point to the biggest reason for their success, many highlight the front seven. This group has so many elite playmakers including Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dorian O’Daniel, and Austin Bryant that all have the ability to rush the quarterback and stop the run. One of the biggest challenges for this group against Alabama will be containing Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. In last year’s National Championship Game, the defensive line caused Hurts to be uncomfortable in the pocket all night long which caused him to complete only thirteen of his thirty-one pass attempts. Last season, Hurts was a freshman with little big-game experience under his belt. This year, not only is he more experienced, but he is much improved as a passer. Like many previous Alabama teams, this years team once again has a strong rushing game lead by Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough. The Clemson front seven will have a tough task ahead of them trying to keep Jalen Hurts uncomfortable in the pocket while also preparing for the rushing trio of Hurts, Harris, and Scarbrough. If there is any front seven that is up to the task however, it is Clemson’s.


Calvin Ridley:

There is no denying that Calvin Ridley is one of the most talented players in the nation. In his three seasons at Alabama he has compiled nearly three-thousand yards and eighteen touchdowns. His skill set and build have created comparisons to his Alabama predecessors Julio Jones and Amari Cooper. The few times Clemson has looked vulnerable this season it has been because of some blown coverages in the secondary. While Clemson’s secondary is getting healthier and improving each week, one small mistake with Ridley on the field is all it will take for the Crimson Tide to put up six points.  In last year’s National Championship Game, Clemson kept Ridley in check by holding him to only thirty-six yards, but expect Jalen Hurts to look his way more often in this year’s contest.

Minkah Fitzpatrick:

There is a reason why Minkah Fitzpatrick, a junior safety for the Crimson Tide, is virtually a lock to be drafted in the top ten of next year’s NFL draft. Over the past three seasons, Fitzpatrick has compiled 163 tackles, two forced fumbles, and nine interceptions, and four pick-sixes. As long as Fitzpatrick is on the field, Clemson will have a hard time throwing the ball deep. While Clemson does has some elite deep-ball receivers in Deon Cain and Tee Higgins, it is likely that they will focus more on the short passing game in part because of Fitzpatrick looming in the secondary. Fitzpatrick is an incredible athlete that has big-play ability, and a knack for preventing big plays from going the other way, and he will certainly be in the back of Kelly Bryant’s mind whenever he drops back to pass.

Jalen Hurts:

As mentioned earlier, sophomore Jalen Hurts has lead Alabama back to the College Football Playoff in each of his first two seasons. While Hurts is still young, he has already played on the biggest stage in the sport and has never seemed to be affected by the spotlight. Hurts is an improved passer with excellent running ability. In many cases, this style of quarterback at the collegiate level can be prone to turning the ball over. That is not the case with Hurts. This season, Hurts has only turned the ball over twice while accounting for twenty-three touchdowns. In order for Alabama to have a chance on Monday night, Hurts will have to continue to prioritize ball security. In a recent interview leading up to the Sugar Bowl Jalen Hurts revealed that he called former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson to ask him how he handled losing in the National Championship Game in 2015. Hurts said that his biggest takeaway from the conversation was to be “fearless”. While Clemson had success containing Jelen Hurts in last year’s game, they are going up against an improved, motivated, and experienced version of the player they faced in 2016.

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