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CFP - Sugar Bowl Preview
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Rose Bowl

Alabama and Clemson occupy the upper tier of college football’s elite these days. For a third straight season, these storied programs will meet in the College Football Playoff.

In Chapter I of this rivalry that’s rapidly become the best in the sport, Alabama won a 45-40 decision to claim Nick Saban’s fifth national title and his fourth with the Crimson Tide at University of Phoenix Stadium on Jan. 11 of 2016.

However, Clemson star quarterback Deshaun Watson threw one of his four touchdown passes with 12 seconds remaining to give the Tigers the backdoor cover as 6.5-point underdogs.

In Chapter II last season, Watson’s TD pass to Hunter Renfrow with one tick left gave Clemson its first national title since 1981 under Danny Ford. The Tigers nipped ‘Bama 35-31 as 6.5-point underdogs, outscoring the Tide 21-7 to overcome a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter. Watson threw for 420 yards and three TDs without an interception.

Now we’re ready for the rubber match, Chapter III. This time around, they’ll collide in the semifinals at the Superdome in New Orleans for Monday night’s Sugar Bowl. Clemson is the No. 1 seed, while ‘Bama is the No. 4. Nevertheless, Saban’s squad is the favorite in terms of future bets to win the CFP and is listed as a three-point ‘chalk’ over the top-seeded Tigers.

The total was 47 as of early Sunday afternoon, while Clemson was +130 on the money line (risk $100 to win $130). had Alabama’s team total at 25, while the Tigers were at 22.

Since opening the season with a 24-7 victory over then-third-ranked Florida State in Atlanta, Alabama has dealt with injuries at the linebacker position. Two reserve LBs, Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis went down with (regular) season-ending injuries against the Seminoles.

Then in a 31-24 come-from-behind win at Mississippi State, senior LB Shaun Dion Hamilton sustained a season-ending injury. True freshman and five-star recruit Dylan Moses was inserted into the starting lineup in the Tide’s final two regular-season games. He responded well by recording 21 tackles vs. Mercer and at Auburn. However, Moses suffered a foot injury at practice in mid-December and will be ‘out’ vs. Clemson.

On the bright side, Miller and Lewis have now recovered and are ready to play, as is Mack Wilson, another LB who missed a number of games due to an injury.

Alabama (11-1 straight up, 5-7 against the spread) has faced seven opponents who made the postseason, going 6-1 against those foes. Four of those six victories came by margins of 14 points or more. The Tide has been a single-digit ‘chalk’ only twice, going 1-1 both SU and ATS.

We already mentioned the wins over at MSU and vs. FSU. Other big wins on the Tide’s resume include a 27-19 triumph at Texas A&M, a 24-10 home win over LSU and a 41-10 home win over Fresno State.

Sophomore QB Jalen Hurts now owns a 24-2 record in 26 career starts (and he was also key in a non-starting win over USC in the ’16 opener). Nevertheless, he has come under criticism of late, especially after the 26-14 loss at Auburn in the regular-season finale. Other than a TD drive to open the third quarter, Hurts was unable to get Alabama’s offense on track in the Iron Bowl.

Hurts completed 13-of-23 throws for 177 yards and one TD without an interception. Hurts ran for 82 yards on 18 attempts, but he only got the ball to star WR Calvin Ridley for three receptions that netted 38 yards. Damien Harris ran for 51 yards on six attempts, while Bo Scarbrough had 46 rushing yards and one TD on six carries.

Jerry Jeudy had a 36-yard TD catch from Hurts, while Cam Sims had a 65-yard reception. Alabama lost a fumble, though, and it was also slowed by nine penalties that resulted in 65 penalty yards.

For the season, Hurts has connected on 60.7 percent of his passes for 2,005 yards with a stellar 15/1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Ridley has a team-high 55 receptions for 896 yards and three TDs. Hurts needs to get Ridley involved early and often against the Tigers.

Harris has run for a team-best 906 yards and 11 TDs while averaging 8.2 yards per carry. Hurts has run for 768 yards and eight TDs, averaging 5.6 YPC. Scarbrough has rushed for 549 yards and eight TDs with a 5.1 YPC average. Scarbrough was on his way to a big game vs. Clemson last year before breaking his leg.

Alabama is ranked 17th in the nation in total offense, eighth in rushing yards and ninth in scoring (39.1 PPG). But the Tide is only 83rd out of 130 FBS teams in passing yards.

Alabama is ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense, run defense and scoring ‘D,’ allowing opponents merely 11.5 points per game. The Tide ranks sixth in the country in pass defense. This unit is led by junior safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has recorded 52 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, one blocked punt, one forced fumble, one interception, three QB hurries and seven passes broken up.

Junior safety Ronnie Harrison has a team-best 68 tackles along with 2.5 sacks, one TFL, three interceptions and three PBU. Senior LB Rashaan Evans has registered 57 tackles, five sacks, 5.5 TFL’s, seven QB hurries, one forced fumble and two PBU.

Clemson (12-1 SU, 8-4 ATS) is in its first underdog position of the year. The Tigers have been underdogs in seven straight postseason games, going 7-0 ATS with six outright wins. Furthermore, the five victories that came against teams not named Alabama were all blowouts.

Dabo Swinney’s club hasn’t missed a beat since losing the school’s best all-time QB in Watson. Junior Kelly Bryant has proven to be a playmaker with his legs and arms. In his first season as the starter, Bryant completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 2,678 yards with a 13/6 TD-INT ratio. He has run for 646 yards and 11 TDs with a 3.7 YPC average.

Clemson took its only loss of the season, a 27-24 setback at Syracuse in a Friday night game (on a short week when star QB Eric Dungey was healthy for the ‘Cuse), when Bryant was bothered by an ankle injury and limping around until he was knocked out of the game in the second quarter with a concussion.

Since then, Clemson has won six in a row while cashing tickets at a 4-1-1 clip. The Tigers have covered the spread in four straight, winning by at least 17 in each contest, including a 38-3 beatdown of Miami at the ACC Championship Game.

Bryant was extremely sharp against the Hurricanes, connecting on 23-of-29 throws for 252 yards and one TD without an interception. He also had a rushing score vs. UM. Ray-Ray McCloud had six catches for 100 yards, while Clemson’s defense limited the ‘Canes to only 214 yards of total offense.

Deon Cain is Bryant’s favorite target, hauling in 52 receptions for 659 yards and six TDs, while Renfrow has 55 catches for 571 yards and three TDs. McCloud has 46 grabs for 502 yards and one TD.

Clemson is four-deep in the backfield. Travis Etienne, a true freshman, has run for 744 yards and 13 TDs while averaging 7.2 YPC. Tavien Feaster has rushed for 659 yards and seven TDs, averaging 6.4 YPC. Adam Choice has 312 rushing yards, six TDs and a 5.0 YPC average, while C.J. Fuller has run for 217 yards and three TDs with a 3.7 YPC average.

Clemson is ranked fifth in the nation in total defense, seven in pass defense, 12th at defending the run and second in scoring ‘D’ (12.8 PPG). This unit is loaded with future NFL players like sophomore DE Clelin Ferrell, who has 62 tackles, 8.5 sacks, 8.5 TFL’s, two forced fumbles, seven QB hurries and one PBU. Junior DE Austin Bryant has 47 tackles, one interception, 7.5 sacks, seven TFL’s, eight QB hurries, one PBU and a pair of forced fumbles.

Clemson is third in the nation in sacks with 44. Alabama’s defense has only tackled the QB 31 times.

The ‘under’ is 8-4-1 overall after cashing in back-to-back games for Clemson to close the regular season. The Tigers have seen their games average combined scores of 48.2 PPG.

The ‘under’ is 7-5 overall for ‘Bama, 5-2 in their past seven games. The Tide’s games have averaged combined scores of 50.6 points per game.

Kickoff is scheduled for Monday night at 8:45 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.

Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.

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