Last night, Alabama wrapped up their third National Championship of the College Football Playoff era with a 52-24 victory over Ohio State, giving the Crimson Tide the most titles since the playoff’s introduction in 2014.
If nothing else, the 2021 National Championship reminded us that the sport has essentially turned into a two-horse race between the aforementioned Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers. Clemson and Alabama have won five of the seven playoff-era titles. At least one of the schools has participated in six of the seven championship games. At least one of the two has appeared in all seven playoff brackets.
While this is normally the time to find a team with some value or a diamond in the rough, I don’t think there are many reasons left to do so. These are the two teams who are consistently alive at the end of the year, and I’m high on Clemson (+350), who will be looking to end their modest two-year title drought.
Strength Under Center
Some of the country’s top team will have to replace the roster’s most important position: their quarterback. Clemson is no different; the best quarterback they’ve ever had — Trevor Lawrence — will soon be a Jacksonville Jaguar. But, unlike Alabama, Ohio State, and the other national powerhouses, Clemson’s understudy gained some valuable experience in 2020. That will allow him to hit the ground running in 2021 and beyond.
When Lawrence was forced to miss two starts with COVID-19, freshman D.J. Uiagalelei filled in admirably with six touchdowns (two rushing) and no interceptions. His loss to Notre Dame may have been more significant than his win over Boston College, too. Why?
First, he had the opportunity to square off against a strong defense, something he’ll have to do frequently should Clemson head to the 2021-22 Playoff. The ACC doesn’t exactly offer the stoutest defensive competition, so for Uiagalelei to battle against a top-flight defense for four quarters is paramount in his maturation as a young quarterback.
Secondly, he played really well. He completed nearly 66% of his passes for over 400 yards — and he did it on the road. The environment in South Bend wasn’t nearly as hostile as it usually is with fans, but Uiagaleilei showed a ton of poise in a still-difficult situation. He’ll have to do that often in potential playoff matchups.
Alabama and Ohio State will also turn to new quarterbacks after the respective departures of Mac Jones and Justin Fields. In contrast, neither of their understudies has any meaningful game experience, and they may take some time to get into a rhythm. It’ll be much harder to do so against the stiffer competition in the SEC and Big Ten, as opposed to the relatively light schedule the ACC presents to Clemson.
Experience on Defense
The one item that gives me pause is the Clemson defense, which allowed over 340 yards per game in 2020, a nearly 50-yard increase from 2019. That said, they were extremely young this year, lost a ton of talent to the NFL during the last offseason, and have a rock-solid defensive coordinator in Brent Venables to iron out the wrinkles.
Perhaps their two best players, Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee, were just freshmen this year, but they still led the way along the defensive front. Both Murphy and Bresee tied for second on the team with four sacks apiece, while Murphy led the defense with 10.5 tackles for loss. Bresee finished third on the team with 6.5 tackles in the backfield. Those two highly-touted recruits, along with soon-to-be-juniors K.J. Henry and Tyler Davis, should form a nightmarish front four for the 2021 Tigers.
Finally, I love how (relatively) clear Clemson’s path is to a seventh-straight playoff appearance. With Notre Dame likely returning to the Independents, there isn’t a single ACC team even close to the talent-level of Clemson.
This year, Clemson outscored ACC-opponents not named Notre Dame by 235 combined points. That’s an astounding 29.4-point average margin of victory in-conference. Historically, Clemson has dominated the ACC as well — they have a 79-7 conference record over the last 10 years. At this point, they should feel comfortable about booking their hotels for the ACC Championship game far in advance, and a conference title basically guarantees them a spot in the Playoff.
On the other hand, one loss in the SEC, Big Ten, or any other Power 5 conference could potentially cost a team their playoff berth. With Clemson’s chances of losing a conference game so much lower than any other Power Five school, I’m happy to play the favorable odds and bet on the Tigers at (+350) to roll through the regular season and take home the 2022 National Title.
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Mike Wagenman is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive.