The college football national championship game on Monday night matches two undefeated teams, Alabama and Clemson, both 14-0. It may seem hard to separate two teams that have swept all before them. But there are ways, and in the end, they point to one clear favorite in the game.
Whom Did They Beat?
Alabama and Clemson turned aside quite a few solid teams. Clemson had a slight edge, meeting 10 bowl teams to Alabama’s nine. But it isn’t difficult to make a bowl game these days. Using more exclusive criteria, Alabama clearly played a tougher schedule. It faced six teams in the final College Football Playoff top 25; Clemson faced three.
Computer evaluations of schedules agree: Jeff Sagarin’s, for example, ranks Alabama’s schedule as the 28th toughest in the country and Clemson’s 45th.
How Badly Did They Beat Them?
Both teams dealt out some whippings this season: Clemson won games by 61 and 60 points, Alabama by 55 and 50. Their average margins of victory were quite close, both about 31.5 points per game.
But whether a team wins by 50 or 60 proves less about its inherent quality and more about its style of play, its use of substitutes and its thirst for the jugular. The closer games are more revealing.
Each team had two games that it won by fewer than 20 points. Alabama beat Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game by 7. It beat Oklahoma in the national semifinals by 11. Both of those teams are in the top five in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Clemson’s close games were less impressive. It beat Texas A&M by 2 and Syracuse, at home, by 4. Those teams are ranked 19th and 20th in the playoff rankings.
Did They Have Common Opponents?
Yes, two. Both teams hammered Louisville — Clemson by 61 at home and Alabama by 37 at a neutral site. But their more challenging common matchup was Texas A&M. With the caveat that Alabama was at home and Clemson was on the road, the wins were drastically different: Alabama won by 22 and Clemson by 2.
Offense and Defense
Does a deeper plunge into statistics turn up some good signs for Clemson?
Alabama was significantly more successful in the passing game. It averaged 11.3 yards per pass and gave up only 5.9. Clemson’s figures were 8.1 and 6.3. The gap in their differentials is huge: +5.4 for Alabama and +1.8 for Clemson.
Clemson will have to make up this deficit with the running game: The Tigers outperformed Alabama offensively on the ground, 6.8 yards per carry to 5.3, and defensively, 2.4 to 3.4. Travis Etienne had more than 1,500 yards rushing for Clemson.
Rushing is still a big part of the college game, but its influence wanes a little more every year, especially in closer games. Clemson will not want to fall behind Alabama and have to turn to the pass.
On the other hand, one of Clemson’s biggest rushing efforts came in its close game against Syracuse: Etienne had a career-best 203 yards.
What Happened in Their Semifinal Games?
At first glance, Clemson might have seemed to have the better semifinal, beating No. 3 Notre Dame by 27, while Alabama topped No. 4 Oklahoma by 11.
In fact, despite the rankings, Oklahoma was a more formidable opponent than Notre Dame. Looking at the Irish’s undefeated season under the same microscope we are applying to Alabama and Clemson does not yield an impressive picture. Notre Dame played three top-25 teams and only one in the top 10. It had six games decided by 10 or fewer points, including home games against Vanderbilt and (oof) Ball State.
(Central Florida, unbeaten until the Fiesta Bowl, also comes up short by these metrics: no top-25 teams on the schedule and a mere 1-point win over Memphis.)
How Do Their Conferences Stack Up?
Few would argue that the SEC is not the best conference in the country. Sagarin rates the SEC West, which includes Alabama, first and the SEC East second. The divisions of the Atlantic Coast Conference rank seventh and eighth, behind both divisions of the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 North.
The second-best team in the A.C.C., Syracuse, is ranked 28th by Sagarin. That’s behind nine SEC teams.
What Does It All Add Up To?
There are plenty of people making computer rankings for college football, using a slew of methodologies. Kenneth Massey tracks 110 of them, and their choice is clear: Alabama is favored in 82 of them, and Clemson in 27. (One, mysteriously, goes for Notre Dame.)
And the bookmakers agree. Alabama is favored by 5 to 6 points.
Two perfect teams. But one is just a little more perfect.