It took awhile for the real Clemson to show up this season, but boy did the Tigers show up at exactly the right time. After a 31-0 dismantling of Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal—inarguably the best win anyone has had all season—Clemson is looking like the only team in the country that could beat Alabama.
The fact that we're even at this point, talking about Clemson as one of the undisputed top two teams in the country and as a legitimate threat to Alabama, is pretty impressive. As hyped as the Tigers were headed into the season, following a near-win in last year's national title game, they actually had a pretty inconsistent year—well, as inconsistent as 11-1 can be. They lost to Pitt, would have lost to NC State if not for a missed chip-shot field goal, escaped by six points against Troy, and were taken to the brink by both Florida State and Louisville. That Clemson only lost one of those five games is lucky.
But after watching the Fiesta Bowl against the Buckeyes, it's clear this Clemson team is different than the one we saw for much of the season. This is the team that we knew had a chance to take down the most dominant Alabama team since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa.
Yes, Alabama is the favorite, and the Crimson Tide should be, but there is a very realistic scenario in which the Tigers win the game. It starts on offense. The Clemson offense hasn't been that consistent this year, but with Deshaun Watson at quarterback, it's capable of putting up big numbers on anyone. In last year's national championship game, Watson torched the Crimson Tide defense—a defense that has, at times, struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks—for 478 total yards, and with the offense playing as well as it is right now, there's reason to believe he can do it again. If the bad Watson, who has struggled with turnovers all year, shows up, the opportunistic Alabama defense, which has 11 defensive touchdowns this year, will eat the Tigers alive. But good Deshaun Watson can beat Alabama, and the good one usually shows up in big moments.
However, as Clemson learned last year, the game does not entirely depend on Watson, who was the best player in the 2016 title game against the Crimson Tide. The Clemson defense needs to show up, too. The Tigers' defense has been inconsistent all year, but it put together the best performance of any defense this season in shutting out Ohio State. If the Tigers can consistently defend the run and the secondary keeps playing at an elite level, they just might pull out a win. But if the defense that allowed Pitt to hit deep shots downfield shows up again, this one might be over early.
Alabama should win this game. The Crimson Tide are the best team in the country. But Clemson is in a league of its own as No. 2. If things break their way, the Tigers have the talent and the experience to pull off the upset, and it wouldn't be that shocking.