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Why Deshaun Watson is again the most critical player in the Bama-Clemson Championship

The Tigers will likely have to be one-dimensional against the Tide. But he’s one hell of a dimension.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 31 CFP Semifinal - Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Clemson probably can’t run the ball effectively against Alabama. So in Monday’s National Championship (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Tigers will have to throw it.

Clemson’s running game is fine. The Tigers are No. 30 in the country in Rushing S&P+ and No. 62 in yards per carry (4.5). They’ve had a few dominant running days this season, but more often, they’ve just been OK on the ground.

Now they’re coming up against a Tide defense that’s No. 1 against the run by both S&P+ and average yards per carry, a ridiculous 2.0, almost a yard better than anyone else.

Bama hasn’t allowed more than three yards per rush to any opponent all year. Its last two, Florida and Washington, got a combined 44 yards on 59 attempts. Filter out nine Bama sacks in those games, and the Tide have still only given up 118 yards on 50 runs, a 2.4-yard average that’d still rank No. 1 over a full season, even with sacks counting for everyone else. The Bama run defense is not beatable.

So it’s a really good thing Clemson has Deshaun Watson.

Watson’s line against the Tide in last year’s National Championship will be oft-repeated: 30-of-47 passing (63.8 percent) for 405 yards (8.6 per throw), four touchdowns, and one interception, with just two sacks for 14 yards. Watson added 20 runs for 73 yards, or 18 for 87 if you charge those two sacks against the pass.

Alabama might have the best defensive coaching staff in college football. It’s a safe bet that Nick Saban and coordinator Jeremy Pruitt have clues on what Watson did to them and hints at how to prevent a sequel. But Watson, the two-time Heisman finalist, can’t always be game-planned for.

On one play in last year’s game, Alabama had a linebacker spying Watson to prevent a scramble and two defenders near tight end Jordan Leggett. The Tide had one defensive back running with Leggett and a safety nearby. But Watson made a sublime throw, and that was that. The Tide couldn’t do anything about it.

Watson’s still good enough to make those throws. This year, he has even more weapons to help him.

Clemson receiver Mike Williams, who missed last year’s game, is one of the sport’s best deep threats. Leggett is dangerous down the seam. Artavis Scott and Ray-Ray McCloud can run like the wind and are reliable. Both have caught 79 percent of their targets this year. Slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, who surprised the Tide with two touchdowns last year, is likely to make one or two important catches.

That’s the group that will help Watson against a Bama secondary loaded with five-star talent and led by a first-team All-American safety, Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Third downs will be particularly important.

Alabama makes a third-and-four as hard for its opponents as a normal defense makes a third-and-14. Anything longer than a yard or two on third down means an obvious passing down, so Bama’s defense can zero in on Watson. The Tide have allowed conversions on just 30 percent of opposing third downs all year, No. 7 in the country. (Clemson ranks one spot ahead, but that’s another matter.)

Bama can help its chances by getting pressure on Watson, causing a few sacks and a lot of quick releases.

But Clemson’s offensive line has shined all year in pass protection. The Tigers are 26th nationally in Standard Downs Sack Rate and second on passing downs. They’ve allowed 16 sacks in 14 games, mostly keeping Watson clean.

The Tide are No. 12 in sack rate on passing downs, up from No. 26 on standard downs. They ramped up the heat with those nine QB takedowns against Florida and Washington. Four of those sacks came on third-and-longs.

Watson is not infallible. He’s thrown 17 interceptions in 14 games, and plenty of them have been his fault. The Tide might be able to figure him out this time, while they’re on a run of strong pass-rushing. We’ll see how well Watson hits back at them.

If the teams play like they have all year, this will come down to Watson.

Watson should have a least a little time to throw most of the night. He’ll have to throw a lot, because running back Wayne Gallman won’t make headway against Alabama’s front, and because Alabama brings up third downs where passing is the only option. He’ll have to execute some tight throws in some high-leverage spots.

The title will hinge on how precisely Watson throws the ball, on a night when Alabama will know it’s coming. This is what best-on-best looks like.