Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana
ALLSTATE SUGAR BOWL NATIONAL SEMIFINAL GAME STORYLINES
1. Top-seeded Clemson and fourth-seeded Alabama are facing each other in the College Football Playoff for the third consecutive season when they square off in the semifinals at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 1. The Crimson Tide defeated the Tigers in the national title game two seasons ago before departed Deshaun Watson led Clemson on a dramatic game-winning drive in last season’s championship game. “I think it’s only fitting that to have a chance to advance to Atlanta (for the final), you’ve got a heavyweight matchup here with Clemson and Alabama,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney told reporters.
2. Clemson’s only blemish this season was a loss to Syracuse but the Tigers recovered well to leave no doubt that they were one of the nation’s top four teams. It was a bit more complicated for the Crimson Tide as they lost to Auburn and didn’t reach the SEC title game before landing the final spot over Ohio State. “I really do believe that based on the total body of work, that our team really deserved the opportunity to be in,” Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters.
3. The Crimson Tide’s vaunted defense was torched by Watson (825 passing yards and seven touchdowns plus one rushing score) in the past two seasons and all eyes will be on Clemson junior quarterback Kelly Bryant. Alabama ranks first in scoring defense (11.5) and second in total defense (257.8) and Bryant (2,678 yards, 13 touchdowns passing; 646 yards and 11 scores rushing) can remove himself from the shadow of Watson’s performances by leading his own title run. “The quarterback now may be a better runner, if that’s possible, than the guy we played the last two years,” Saban said at a press conference.
TV: 8:45 p.m. ET, ESPN. LINE: Alabama -3
ABOUT ALABAMA (11-1, 7-1 SEC): Sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts (768 rushing yards, eight touchdowns) is a superb runner but his passing issues again popped up when he went 12-of-22 for 112 yards in the loss to Auburn, although he said he and his teammates are motivated to excel after the long layoff. “I think we got a little more time to heal up, a little more time to focus on the things we need to focus on,” Hurts, who passed for 1,940 yards and 15 touchdowns, told reporters. “How can we show the world we’ve learned? How far have we come? I think we’re trying to get better now.” First-team All-American strong safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (52 tackles, one interception) is the leader of the sturdy defense that also regularly receives stellar outings from junior free safety Ronnie Harrison (team-best 68 tackles, tied for team lead with three interceptions) and sophomore defensive end Raekwon Davis (team-high 6.5 sacks).
ABOUT CLEMSON (12-1, 7-1 ACC): The Tigers have been nearly as good as the Crimson Tide on defense as they rank second in scoring defense (12.8) and sixth in total defense (277.9). First-team All-American defensive end Clelin Ferrell (the sophomore had a team-high 8.5 sacks among his 17 tackles for losses) is one of the headliners along with two second-team All-Americans — junior defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (47 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and senior linebacker Dorian O’Daniel (team-best 99 tackles, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries). Offensively, junior wideout Hunter Renfrow — who caught the winning score in last season’s title game — has a team-best 55 receptions, while freshman Travis Etienne (744 yards, 13 touchdowns) and sophomore Tavien Feaster (659, seven) share the rushing duties.