Sugar Bowl: Will the third-straight Alabama-Clemson matchup rival the first two?

Dr. Saturday

Allstate Sugar Bowl [College Football Playoff semifinal]
No. 4 Alabama (11-1) vs. No. 1 Clemson (12-1)
8:15 p.m. Jan. 1, New Orleans (ESPN)
Alabama -3, O/U 47

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Alabama: Without playing in the SEC Championship Game. Alabama is perhaps the best example of the playoff format’s (relative) lack of recency bias compared to the BCS. Not only did Alabama not play in the conference title game it also lost its final game of the regular season. That loss at Auburn meant the Tigers won the SEC West and Alabama was playing at home.

It ultimately worked out for Alabama. With a Georgia win, Auburn ended up with a third loss. That, coupled with Wisconsin’s loss in the Big Ten Championship Game, put Alabama in position to be chosen over Ohio State for the final playoff berth.

Before losing to Auburn, Alabama had beaten just one team in the top 15 at the time of the game. That was in Week 1, when the Tide beat then No. 3 Florida State 24-7. We all know how Florida State’s season went from there.

Clemson: The Tigers crushed Miami 38-3 in the ACC Championship Game to not only win the ACC but also take the top seed in the College Football Playoff. The defending national champions’ only defeat of the season came at Syracuse, but it’s clear the committee put an asterisk of sorts on that loss.

Clemson QB Kelly Bryant wasn’t healthy for the start of that game, played on a Friday night. After he clearly wasn’t at 100 percent because of an ankle injury, he then left the game because of a concussion.

The Tigers also were boosted by their top-15 wins. Clemson beat (No. 13 at the time) Auburn in Week 2, Louisville in Week 3 (No. 14) and Virginia Tech in Week 5 (No. 12). The Tigers also took care of business against ranked opponents North Carolina State and South Carolina on the road.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Alabama running back Damien Harris (34) works through drills at NCAA college football practice for the Sugar Bowl against Clemson, Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, in New Orleans, La. (Vasha Hunt/AL.com via AP)
Alabama running back Damien Harris (34) works through drills at NCAA college football practice for the Sugar Bowl against Clemson, Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, in New Orleans, La. (Vasha Hunt/AL.com via AP)

Damien Harris, RB, Alabama: It’s too easy to pick QB Jalen Hurts for the Tide. Instead, we’re going to go with the guy who’s averaged over eight yards a carry as Alabama’s primary runner in 2017. Many, including us, thought Bo Scarbrough would be the go-to running back for the Tide. Nope, that’s been Harris.

Harris has rushed for over 100 yards in just three games in 2017, but he’s done it extremely efficiently each time. He had 12 carries for 151 yards and three scores against Vanderbilt, 14 carries for 124 yards and a score against Texas A&M and nine carries for 125 yards and two touchdowns against Arkansas.

Yeah, those stats were buoyed by big runs in each game, but Harris may be needed to break one or two of those Monday night. Clemson’s rushing defense allows just 3.12 yards a carry while Alabama averages six yards a carry as a team. 94 yards puts Harris across the 1,000-yard mark for the season. And if he breaks that threshold, Alabama’s got a pretty good shot.

Clemson’s Deon Cain pulls in a reception for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Citadel, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
Clemson’s Deon Cain pulls in a reception for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Citadel, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

Deon Cain, WR, Clemson: Much like Hurts, Kelly Bryant would be an easy choice here too. But since you know all about the quarterbacks in this game, we’re going to focus on another player who could give his team an edge with a big game.

Cain is Clemson’s leading receiver in terms of yards. He’s got 52 catches for 659 yards and six touchdowns. It’s a sign of Clemson’s offensive balance that he’s had just one 100-yard receiving game this season and it came against The Citadel, when he had five catches for 140 yards.

With other established wide receivers like Mike Williams around the last two seasons, Cain served as the team’s primary deep threat in 2015 and 2016, averaging 17.1 and 19.1 yards per catch in each of those seasons. This year his average has dropped to 12.7, but he’s had multiple catches in every game this season and developed into a reliable target.

Four of his six touchdowns have also come over the past six games, including one against Miami. If Cain gets a seventh touchdown Monday — especially if he’s matched up against Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick for most of the game — Clemson’s got an edge.

WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH/WHAT’S ON THE LINE

The what’s on the line part is pretty self-explanatory here. The winner is going to the National Championship Game.

The why you should watch could be 1,000 words if we wanted. First, it’s the third-straight playoff matchup between the schools and the first of them that didn’t come in the title game. Alabama beat the Tigers after the 2015 season while Clemson got revenge a year ago. Both games have been thrillers. Will the third one live up to the standard they set?

Alabama coach Nick Saban and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney have also established themselves as the two best coaches in college football thanks to those championships. And while both of their teams have thrived on overwhelming defenses, the offensive gameplans by each of their staffs over the past two seasons have turned the games into shootouts. It’s easy to see all of the NFL talent on the defensive side of the ball for both teams and assume the first team to 20 will win. But that hasn’t come close to happening in this series.

PREDICTIONS

Nick: Clemson 38, Alabama 23
Sam: Clemson 27, Alabama 24

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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