You might've forgotten one of Clemson's toughest tests this season: in the opening weekend at Auburn, when the eventual ACC champions gave the hosts a chance to win at the buzzer. That surprising performance by Auburn's defense in a 19-13 loss opened up some worries about Clemson, which was supposed to steamroll its way to a National Championship rematch against Alabama.
That steamrolling did end up happening, and the rematch is on course. It just took a little bit longer to be realized than we'd expected.
Auburn's game against Bama wasn't nearly as dramatic, with the injured Tigers falling, 30-12, in Tuscaloosa. That's about 10 points more competitive than Bama's average opponent managed this year during the Tide's march to Tampa, at least.
Gus Malzahn is the only coach to face both National Championship contenders this season and has beaten both before as a coach and/or coordinator, in addition to being one of the country's few coaches to have ever reached this stage himself.
So as part of SB Nation's Championship live preview show (7 p.m. ET Monday on Facebook and YouTube), we talked to Malzahn about how to prepare for both teams.
Here's Malzahn's segment in full:
On planning for Alabama and Clemson defenses
Both defenses are extremely talented. We played Clemson first, and Coach [Brent] Venables is an outstanding defensive coordinator. We faced him one other time, when I was at Tulsa, so I was a little familiar with him. He does a really good job of scheming, really trying to take away what an offense does best. We had our plan, but we knew we were gonna have to adjust early in the game, once we figured out what his plan was.
You know Alabama has an outstanding defense. You know a little more of what you're gonna get with them. They're gonna line up and play good, sound football, and they're more probably about adjustments than they are about the scheming parts.
On making adjustments against both of these teams
Usually, it's after the first quarter. We played Clemson the first game of the year, and that's similar to having a bowl prep. There's a lot of time in between, so we just felt like, by the end of the first quarter, we should have a good feel of what their plan is and how they're trying to attack certain things
Alabama's probably the most talented defense in college football, so they can be a little simpler, and you kinda know more of what you're gonna get. It's just a matter of: you have to earn it.
What makes Alabama's defense so tough?
Their ability to rush the passer is really what stood out to me. I've played them a lot of times, but I think their pass rush this year is better than it's ever been since I've been playing them, and that's the key to playing great defense. If you can put pressure on a quarterback while rushing four, and everybody else can cover, that's an ingredient to being a great defense. They'll rush five every now and then, but with four in a pass situation, they usually have pretty good success.
Who's each defense's player you have to account for?
From a Clemson standpoint, we really felt like [linebacker Ben] Boulware was the one that really made 'em go. He's the quarterback on the field, and he set the tone. They had some outstanding, talented guys around him.
From an Alabama standpoint, they got four or five impact players that you've got to account for. Of course I'm very impressed with the Williams kid [linebacker Tim Williams], disrupting things, rushing the passer; he's very tough to block in one-on-one situations. Very impressed with the Fitzpatrick kid [defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick] too, on the back end. Just think he's a difference-maker.
How do you prepare a young QB like Bama freshman Jalen Hurts for the Championship?
The big thing is just trying to get them off to a good start. Asking them to do things that they're comfortable doing, not putting in a bunch of new things that they hadn't done before. I think they've done an excellent job throughout the year, and even though he hadn't played in this game, he's played in some pretty high-pressure games and performed well.
Will Bama's play-caller switch from Lane Kiffin to Steve Sarkisian be a factor?
The big thing is they've been successful on offense, really, the entire season. So just keep doing what they've done before. The coach taking over has been with them and understands what they've been doing. I don't expect that to be too big a challenge.
How does Clemson QB Deshaun Watson impact this game?
Course, I think he's the best player in college football. He's got the experience of the big game before, of actually playing them defensively. He's got that experience to help make plays. I think they'll let him do his thing, and the moment won't be too big for him.