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College Football Playoff: Alabama vs. Clemson, Part II

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11:  O.J. Howard #88 of the Alabama Crimson Tide runs the ball after catching a pass to score a 51 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Clemson Tigers during the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) 595505413
GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11: O.J. Howard #88 of the Alabama Crimson Tide runs the ball after catching a pass to score a 51 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Clemson Tigers during the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) 595505413
Published Jan. 1, 2017

ATLANTA — The College Football Playoff is down to two: No. 1 Alabama and second-seeded Clemson.

The teams meet Jan. 9 in the national title game at Raymond James Stadium. Here are three early thoughts on that matchup:

1 Let's hope this game is as good as the last one. The Tigers and Crimson Tide met in Arizona for last year's national championship game, and it was a classic. Alabama needed an onside kick and a breakout night by tight end O.J. Howard to come away with a 45-40 triumph. Even in defeat, Clemson's Deshaun Watson put together a masterpiece — 478 total yards — that might have surpassed Texas' Vince Young as the best performance by a quarterback in a championship game. The teams have changed since then, but much of the core talent remains the same. That includes head coaches Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, two of the best in the game.

2 Can Clemson's receivers exploit Alabama's secondary? The Tide's weakness — a relative term, mind you — is its secondary. Entering Saturday, Alabama had surrendered 40 passes of at least 20 yards. That's 60th in the country, and that could mean trouble against the Tigers. Clemson might have the nation's best receiving corps, even better than the Washington unit Alabama faced Saturday. Mike Williams is a likely first-round pick, and East Lake High product Artavis Scott will leave as one of the most prolific receivers in school history. Sickles High alumnus Ray-Ray McCloud is explosive, and Tampa Bay Tech's Deon Cain will be aiming for a big game in his hometown. He was suspended for last year's championship game and could be a difference-maker with redemption at stake.

3 The game within the game will be Clemson's run defense against Alabama's rushing attack. Before the semifinals, Alabama was averaging 5.7 yards per rush (top 10 nationally in Division I-A) thanks to four players with at least 500 yards (Damien Harris, Jalen Hurts, Joshua Jacobs and Bo Scarbrough). Clemson's defense was giving up 3.5 (20th) and has two of the best young tackles in the country (Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins). The Tide still relies on the run, so Clemson's best hope for success is to find a way to stop it. If the Tigers force Hurts to pass regularly, they can force turnovers against a freshman who has been prone to some mistakes — he fumbled against Washington — and will be playing on the biggest stage of his life.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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