By Sean Gregory
January 11, 2016

In the second year of the college football playoff, the semifinals were a bit of a dud. Neither game was particularly compelling, and TV viewership decreased dramatically as the games shifted from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve. But that bad taste could be erased with a thrilling title bout. As No. 1 Clemson (14-0) and No. 2 Alabama (13-1) kick off tonight in Glendale, Ariz., at 8:30 e.t., here are three things to watch for:

Can Clemson Carry? Alabama’s defense has stonewalled its opponents. The Crimson Tide has allowed just 45 rushing yards over the last two-and-a-half games. Clemson offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain has called Alabama’s front-seven defensive players “absolute monsters.”

But Clemson’s ground game is a formidable weapon. Their outstanding dual-threat quarterback, Deshaun Watson, has run for over a hundred yards in five of Clemson’s last six games. And overall, the Tigers average 229 rushing yards per contest.

What will give in Glendale?

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Henry Heisman. Alabama’s backfield features this season’s Heisman Trophy winner. Derrick Henry broke the SEC record, held by Herschel Walker for 34 years, for most rushing yards in a single season, racking up 2,061 yards and 25 touchdowns. He also had four 200-plus yard rushing games. Walker and Bo Jackson are the only other SEC backs to run for over 200 yards four times in one season.

However, Henry rushed for just 75 yards in Alabama’s 38-0 victory over Michigan State in the national semifinals as Michigan State loaded defenders at the line of scrimmage. But this strategy opened up the passing game, and Alabama took advantage. Freshman wide receiver Calvin Ridley finished with 138 yards and two touchdowns.

In the run-up to the title game, Clemson safety Jayron Kearse has talked a good game, saying “I know (Henry) can be stopped.” Kearse has also insisted that Watson, not Henry, should have won the Heisman. “(Henry) may have the hardware, but we’ve got the Heisman winner,” Kearse told ESPN after Clemson defeated Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The game may come down to whether Kearse’s predictions come true.

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Clemson-Crimson Connection. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has deep ties to Alabama. He grew up in the state and attended Alabama, where he walked-on the football team before eventually earning a scholarship and winning a national championship in 1992. Swinney was an assistant coach at Alabama for eight years before the staff was let go in 2000. He spent two years as a real estate leasing agent before his old position coach in college, Tommy Bowden, offered him an assistant’s job at Clemson. Alabama coach Nick Saban tried to hire Swinney for his staff, but Swinney stayed at Clemson.

Swinney’s shooting for his first national championship. Saban is trying to win his fifth, and stake his claim to another title: best college coach of all-time.

 

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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