Michigan State’s game plan against Alabama in the Cotton Bowl was fairly straightforward: line up, play smash-mouth football and hope that toughness and desire would win the day.

That didn’t work so well.

“Michigan State attempted to beat Alabama at their own game. They were not able to do that,” Alabama radio analyst Phil Savage said on CBS Sports Radio’s Gio and Jones. “They had to win at the line of scrimmage. They had to dominate the line of scrimmage. They certainly came nowhere close to being able to accomplish that against Alabama’s defensive front.”

The result was a 38-0 loss.

No. 1 Clemson probably won’t be as straightforward in the national championship game Monday night.

“With Clemson, they don’t have to win the line of scrimmage,” Savage said. “They only have to get a tie because the ball is going to come out very quickly with Deshaun Watson – and typically when they do run the ball, it’s when they have a numbers advantage. Clemson is always right offensively because their runs and passes are paired together, so Alabama is going to have to do a great job with disguises. They’re going to have to make their looks very muddy for Deshaun Watson so he can’t get a clear box count. And what they’re going to have to do is hope their defensive line can not only dominate Clemson’s offensive line, but they’ve got to be able to get off the blocks and make tackles because often times, the numbers advantage, Clemson is always right. So this is going to be a different type of challenge.”

Watson, a Heisman finalist, has been otherworldly for much of the season. He terrorized Oklahoma with his legs in the Orange Bowl, rushing 24 times for 145 yards and a touchdown. In fact, Watson and Wayne Gallman combined for 50 carries for 295 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and three touchdowns.

Still, Savage believes the Tide will be able to contain Watson in the pocket.

The dual-threat quarterback has given Alabama problems at different times over the last few years,” he said, “but this defense is a level or two better than any one that they’ve had under Nick Saban.”

Alabama is aiming for its fourth national title in seven years, while Clemson is playing for the national championship for the first time since 1981. The average fan might give Alabama a huge advantage in the “been there, don’t that” department, but how much does that really matter in a game like this?

“I think it counts a little bit, but in all reality, it doesn’t matter so much,” Savage said. “Nick Saban, he’s a cerebral coach. He coaches from the head. I’ve said for two weeks – really, all season – I’ve known Dabo Swinney really all his professional life, and he coaches from the heart. Clemson is on an emotional run right now, but they’ve got the talent to back it up. I don’t think they’ll shy away at all, and I think if they run into problems, look for them to get sparked by a trick play, a gadget of some kind. You look at that fake punt against Oklahoma. That really turned the game around. If they’ve got those kind of things in their pocket, Alabama’s got to be prepared for that, and you’re not able to play as aggressive maybe knowing that they have the capacity to have a fake punt or a fake field goal or some surprise onside kick.

“I think Clemson needs to play out of the ordinary,” Savage continued. “If they just try to play Alabama straight up, I think Bama’s got the better team. But the reality of it is this Clemson team has beaten Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Florida State over the last number of years. They’ve got a lot of confidence, so I don’t know that it really matters in terms of the experience at this level tonight.”


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