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September 22, 2017

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National championship by the odds: Vegas preview of Alabama vs. Clemson

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David J. Phillip / AP

Alabama’s O.J. Howard tries to get past Clemson’s T.J. Green after a catch during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship game Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz.

On the surface, the formation of the College Football Playoff should cloud attempts to forecast the national championship game.

Adding an extra variable in another game a team must win to reach the championship inherently increases the number of potential outcomes. It’s ironic, therefore, that the four-team playoff produced the first official national championship rematch in college football history only three years into its existence.

Alabama and Clemson thundered far above the rest of college football, with many suspecting as much from well before the season got under way. The Tigers and Crimson Tide opened as the favorites in the futures to win this year’s national championship less than 24 hours after they played last season.

They cycled between rolling past and falling behind each other in the ensuing six months until the start of the season. Whether Alabama or Clemson sat on top of the odds depended on which sports book a bettor patronized.

But it was always these two teams, and that’s the remarkable part ahead of their meeting tonight. This is the first time since the 2005-2006 season that the two preseason favorites held up to reach the decisive game.

The underdog won in that affair, as Texas overcame a 7-point spread to beat USC 41-38 in a Rose Bowl for the ages. There’s more good news for Clemson: The underdog also won the rematch in the closest thing college football has ever seen to the same national championship game in back-to-back years.

Colorado lost to Notre Dame 21-6 as 2-point underdogs in the 1990 Orange Bowl, a game where the Buffaloes would have clinched the national championship with a victory. They came back and finished the next year, beating the Irish 10-9 in a pick’em for the program’s only title.

Can Clemson similarly discover vengeance while preventing Alabama from building on its dynasty?

Check for Talking Points’ pick below. The blog has gone 24-16 against the spread in bowl season to make the record 116-108-8 picking every big game this year.

College Football Playoff National Championship Game: Clemson plus-6.5 vs. Alabama, over/under: 51

5 p.m. Monday, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

Alabama was so far and away the best team in college football that for the final half of the season, it looked like the Crimson Tide may never lay less than double digits on the betting line. When offshore sports books started spreading potential playoff point spreads in November, Ohio State and Michigan appeared to be the only teams capable of dipping below that plateau. They were both around 10-point underdogs with the exact number depending on the shop. With five fortunate escapes of less than a touchdown, Clemson trended closer to getting two touchdowns in a potential rematch with Alabama. That was seemingly locked when the Tigers lost at home to Pittsburgh, 43-42, as 21.5-point favorites, in Week 11. Then the rise came. Clemson began to restore its top-shelf power rating from the beginning of the season with three consecutive wins, and then surpassed it by crushing Ohio State 38-0 as a closing 1-point underdog in the semifinals.

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Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware (10) cheers during the award presentation after his team won the Orange Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game against Oklahoma, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Clemson defeated Oklahoma 37-17.

That has delivered the Tigers to an identical standing to a year ago — a touchdown underdog to the Crimson Tide in the national championship. The matching betting line fits with the overall narrative of the game, as many are hailing it as a straight rerun of last year. That’s obviously an oversimplification. Even Clemson, which is correctly regarded as the more experienced side, only lists 11 players at the top of its official depth chart that started in last year’s 45-40 loss in the title game. Alabama will start nine of the same players.

Neither Alabama nor Clemson are mirror images of last year in terms of statistical profile either. The Tigers’ offense, which stunned the Crimson Tide last year, has been worse — only slightly worse, but worse still. Clemson averaged 6.23 yards per play going into last year’s game and is down to 6.13 yards per play this year.

The Tigers make up for it with a minor improvement on defense — surrendering 4.39 yards per play this year to 4.52 last year — except for in one area. And it’s the one area where it’s worst to be shaky against Alabama. Clemson has fallen to No. 26 nationally against the run by S&P ratings, as opposed to last year, when it was No. 7. Last year’s Heisman winner, Derrick Henry, racked up 158 yards and three touchdowns for Alabama against Clemson, but it came on 36 carries. Clemson leading tackler Ben Boulware’s butt-poking isn’t going to be enough to hold Alabama’s featured backs to 4.3 yards per carry tonight.

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Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough, right, runs over Florida defensive back Chauncey Gardner during the second half of the Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, in Atlanta.

Not if sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough runs with half the intensity he did in Alabama’s 24-7 semifinal win over Washington as 14.5-point favorites. Scrabrough had 180 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. And he had been Alabama’s third-most effective back during the regular season behind both sophomore Damien Harris and freshman Joshua Jacobs.

Largely due to the switch from pocket passer Jake Coker to dual-threat Jalen Hurts at quarterback, Alabama has been much more explosive in the run game this year. The Crimson Tide’s average is up to 5.8 yards per carry from 4.8 last year. That’s the bear with Alabama: A team that already won the championship last year has gotten better, and gotten better everywhere.

Defensively, Alabama downed both its average yards allowed per rush and pass while upping its sack rate this year. No quarterback is ever better under pressure, and that includes Clemson junior Deshaun Watson, who will have to navigate perhaps the nation’s best pass rush. Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson combined to notch 26 sacks for the Crimson Tide. They’re chapped by the Watson-led 550 yards and 31 first downs Clemson gained on them last year, continually citing it as motivation. So as much as Clemson wants to avenge its loss last year, Alabama wants to atone for one of the worst defensive performances under coach Nick Saban.

And the Crimson Tide should get it done to give Saban a fifth title at Alabama and fourth in the past six years. A favorite hasn’t covered in the national championship game since Saban’s third championship team beat Notre Dame 42-14 laying 9.5 points four years ago. Alabama won’t win by that much, but this year’s team is even better than the 2013 squad. It’s superior to any other Alabama team in recent years. That’s what separates the Crimson Tide from the Tigers.

Pick: Alabama minus-6.5

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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