This is it.
The entire season has led up to the National Championship matchup between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Clemson Tigers. This rematch from last year's finale features a ton of great individual matchups, some of which I covered on the College Draft Podcast with Ross Tucker, where we also hit on a lot of the latest underclassmen news in the NFL Draft. But let's look at this title game (Monday at 8 p.m. on ESPN from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida) and break down the five most important matchups that fans should keep their eyes on.
1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson vs. Alabama Defense
Ultimately, this is the biggest matchup in this game when you boil down to it. Alabama's defense is the best in the nation, and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is the point guard of one of college football's most explosive offenses. Last year, Watson made some of the best throws a coach could ask for in this game, but he also struggled with his poise in certain situations. He will need a more steady, even performance - dare I even say a "perfect game" - to come away with the W. Watson has endured a lot of adversity in the 2016 season, but when it comes down to it he is one of the most talented quarterbacks in this draft class. He could help out his draft stock by going out on a high note against this legendary defensive unit.
Watson's athleticism will be key in this matchup. But he's got a pretty good arm, is able to be accurate and, most importantly, he's able to throw with anticipation. Nick Saban's defense will throw everything it can at the third-year starter, and he will need to be ready for it behind an offensive line that includes three first-team All-ACC players in Mitch Hyatt, Jay Guillermo and Tyrone Crowder.
We're getting all of the familiar faces on Monday night with this Alabama front seven. Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen is getting the buzz of a potential top-10 pick because of his instincts, athleticism, relentless nature and precise technique in the trenches. He can win both inside at tackle and outside at end, depending on what personnel grouping is on the field for the Tide. When Allen is outside at end, the player who will be typically playing opposite him is senior Ryan Anderson. The well-rounded edge player who will be at the Senior Bowl later this month, Anderson has a high motor, knows how to use his hands and is as strong run defender as he is a savvy pass rusher.
In Alabama's subpackage, expect fellow senior Tim Williams to take the field. Williams is one of the most explosive pass rushers in the country with an electric first step, rare flexibility in his lower body, and the ability to run the hoop and sack the quarterback in a hurry. Senior nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson isn't known for his ability to rush the passer, but the Senior Bowl attendee will be active against the run inside.
2. Clemson RB Wayne Gallman vs. Alabama LB Reuben Foster
For obvious reasons, a lot of people think of Watson and wide receiver Mike Williams when it comes to the Clemson Tigers' offense, but it would be foolish to forget about Gallman. The second-team All-ACC selection almost entered last year's NFL Draft after a productive sophomore season, but he chose to return for this exact moment. Some analysts question whether or not Gallman is a feature back in the NFL, but he certainly has intriguing traits. The junior runner is big, strong and competitive between the tackles. One of the more well-rounded backs in the draft class, he doesn't have top-end vision and instincts, but he has the look of a player who will certainly stick at the very least as a primary backup capacity once he reaches the league.
Gallman will be seeing a lot of Alabama's "other" potential top-10 pick in the front seven in one of the Tide's team leaders, Reuben Foster. A few weeks ago on the College Draft Podcast, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock compared Foster to All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, one of the best in the game. Foster is explosive, instinctive, a ferocious tackler, a gap-sound run defender and a pretty good coverage player to boot. How Gallman fares against Alabama's sideline-to-sideline star will be one of the interesting "games within the game."
3. Clemson Pass Catchers vs. Alabama Secondary
One name that pretty much every Eagles fan who is already excited about the NFL Draft knows about is Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams, who is considered by many analysts to be the top receiver in the upcoming draft. At 6-3, 225 pounds, it's easy to see why. Williams is explosive, a beast at the catch point, can make plays down the field as well as after the catch and is a big-time talent. While he does need some polish as a route runner and will have to get medically cleared after missing the 2015 season due to a neck injury, he is almost certainly going to be a high first-round selection in April. Williams didn't play in this game a year ago, so I'm excited to see how he impacts the matchup.
Making plays around Williams will be junior Artavis Scott, who was a first-team All-ACC selection in '15 with Williams on the sideline and has already declared for the draft. Scott projects as a slot receiver in the NFL, where his quickness, reliable hands and ability to create after the catch will all be valuable assets. Senior tight end Jordan Leggett, who caught a late touchdown from Watson in the championship game last year on a beautiful throw and catch, has been a playmaker all year long. Leggett has athletic ability to get down the seam and make an impact in the deep and intermediate parts of the field, and has some of the most reliable hands at the position in this draft class. Clemson will need all three of these players to show up in this matchup against a tough Bama secondary.
Like the front seven, Alabama's secondary is busting at the seams with prospects at both cornerback and safety. Expect to see a lot of redshirt sophomore cornerback Marlon Humphrey over Williams on the outside. Humphrey has first-round buzz and could be the best cover corner who not enough people talk about, though he has yet to actually declare for the draft. True sophomore Minkah Fitzpatrick started opposite Humphrey at cornerback until safety Eddie Jackson fractured his leg. Fitzpatrick is athletic, instinctive, tough and versatile. The New Jersey native is on track to be a first-round pick in 2018. Expect to see a lot of Fitzpatrick on Leggett.
With Scott in the slot, it wouldn't surprise me at all to see cornerback Tony Brown matched up on him in man-to-man situations. Brown has seen increased reps lately, and while he doesn't have a ton of starting experience he's a former five-star recruit with big-time speed and is probably best equipped to run with Scott in the open field. Keep in mind that on third down the Tide love to play a lot of Cover 2 Man with the safeties patrolling in the deep part of the field, allowing those cornerbacks to be extra aggressive. This will be a big test for Clemson's receivers and tight ends.
4. Alabama TE O.J. Howard vs. Clemson S Jadar Johnson
Last year in this very game, the MVP wasn't Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, freshman All-America receiver Calvin Ridley or senior quarterback Jake Coker. It was the junior tight end O.J. Howard, who hadn't caught a touchdown all season long but busted out for five catches, 208 yards and a pair of scores against the Tigers to help the Tide roll. This year, Alabama's offense has been more focused on the run game led by all-everything freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, but Howard has been more productive. The senior tight end led the team with 44 yards receiving a week ago in the Peach Bowl against Washington, and has caught 41 passes for 489 yards and two touchdowns on the year. One of the biggest questions going into this game is how different will the offensive scheme look with Steve Sarkisian replacing Lane Kiffin as the coordinator? It will make for a very interesting first half to see how the Tide come out on offense.
How will the Tigers stop Howard, a likely first-round pick? The answer to that question is "in multiple ways," but one player who I expect to be involved heavily is first-team All-ACC safety Jadar Johnson. The senior from Orangeburg, South Carolina recorded five interceptions this year, his first as a starter, and is itching to play this game after not even showing up in the stat sheet the last time these two teams played. I'd expect senior linebacker Ben Boulware to also be involved in defending Howard in the short and intermediate areas. Regardless, Clemson has to find a way to not let Howard beat them for the second straight year with the trophy on the line.
5. Alabama Offensive Line vs. Clemson Defensive Line
There are a couple of heavyweight underclassmen and former big-time recruits on both sides of this matchup. First, let's start with Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson, a five-star player out of Louisiana who has great size and looks every bit the part of a starting NFL tackle when he runs out of the tunnel. He's got really light feet, heavy hands and the ability to completely lock down the opposing team's top pass rusher. Consistency has been Robinson's issue throughout his career, but he appears to have turned that around in this, his junior season. Last year in this game, Robinson gave up a sack to future first-round pick Shaq Lawson, and I'm interested to see if he improves on that performance this time around.
Opposite of Robinson is a true freshman right tackle in Jonah Williams. At 6-5, 296 pounds, Williams is still a bit green, but looks the part of a future high draft pick. He's athletic, technically sound and tries to embarrass people in the run game. Redshirt junior center Bradley Bozeman has stepped in for former first-round pick Ryan Kelly at center and is playing at a very high level as well, giving the Tide three strong blockers up front in this matchup.
One player I expect to hear a lot about in this game is defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, who isn't draft-eligible but has been a terror for the Tigers up front all season long. At 6-4, 310 pounds, the initial plan was for the true sophomore from Massachusetts to play defensive tackle this season, but injuries at defensive end forced the staff to slide him outside. He responded in a big way. A major disruptor off the edge with power, technique and a high motor, Wilkins will see most of his time against Williams, in a matchup that many, many evaluators will be watching next summer in preparation for the 2018 NFL Draft. Further inside for the Clemson defensive front is senior Carlos Watkins, who can defend the run and uses his high motor to make plays in pursuit as well. The second-team All-America tackle recorded two sacks in the team's blowout win over Ohio State last weekend, so expect to hear a lot about his matchup inside with Bozeman throughout the evening.
I typically try to focus on one player in particular who has caught my eye, but as the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl draw closer, it's time to start stacking some of these players against one another and see who stands out. I did just that this week with two of my favorite defensive backs in the entire class - LSU's Tre'Davious White and Tennessee's Cameron Sutton.
Both players are four-year starters in the SEC at their respective schools. They look like NFL starters, who will make their future teams really happy. But how do they compare? Sutton, who is confirmed for the Senior Bowl, stands at 5-11, 186 pounds, and is a smart, athletic corner with good instincts on the back end to go along with really disciplined ball skills. One example of that came this year against Virginia Tech, when early in the first quarter the senior bit on a double move and was beaten badly at the snap, but he didn't panic. Sutton recovered and, just how a coach would draw it up, watched the receiver's hands, and shot his hands through the catch point to force a pass breakup downfield. It was a textbook play, and one that I like to see from college defenders because it isn't always pretty in the NFL. Getting beaten is a fact of life, but I want to see how they react. Sutton passed that test with flying colors, making a play "out of phase" (meaning when he's in catch-up mode after getting beaten) to get the ball on the ground.
White, who has similar size at 5-11, 195 pounds, is also very smart, very athletic and very instinctive. Like Sutton, the senior has very good ball skills. However, unlike the Tennessee Vol, he has confirmed versatility in the secondary, lining up at cornerback, slot and safety throughout his career (Sutton has just been an outside corner). White, a former teammate of Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills, is a skilled cover corner who excels at both man and zone coverage, and his instincts on the back end have been evident for as long as he's been in the starting lineup.
In fact, White first stood out to me back in 2014 (when I was, coincidentally, watching Mills). It was a game against New Mexico State, and the offense called a Post-Wheel combination to White's side. White, in zone coverage, followed the post route initially, which is exactly what the offense would want him to do so that the receiver running the wheel route can run scot-free down the sideline. What the offense did not expect was for White to peel off, pass the post route to the safety, take away the wheel route and attack the ball in the air down the field for an interception.
Both players look like future starters in the NFL in my eyes. I don't think a team could do wrong in selecting either of them, but I believe White has the edge at this point, as he looks like a better athlete on the field with slightly better recovery speed. The LSU corner is not confirmed at this point for the Senior Bowl, so it remains to be seen whether or not I'll be able to do a similar comparison down in Mobile, Alabama.
Before I get to the Senior Bowl, I have to first make a trip to St. Petersburg, Florida for the East-West Shrine Game, where Eagles such as Brandon Brooks, Rodney McLeod and Beau Allen all got a jump on their NFL careers. One player who stood out to me in my preparation for that trip comes from the small-school ranks, a tight end from the FCS level in Eric Saubert. At 6-5, 251 pounds, the senior was extremely productive for Drake University out in Des Moines, Iowa playing in the Pioneer Football League, a non-scholarship conference at the FCS level.
Saubert is a pretty good athlete who catches the ball with ease, is productive after the catch and is ferocious as a blocker. He was a basketball player in high school whose natural ball skills show up when you watch him play on the football field. I'm excited to get a closer look at Saubert in St. Petersburg as he gets matched up against defenders from a higher level of competition, but he looks like one of the early sleepers of a very talented draft class at the tight end position.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.