So many reasons to pick Clemson in tonight’s national championship game:

• The Tigers have the veteran quarterback, one who can beat you with his arm or his legs. Deshaun Watson, Clemson’s trigger man, will be the best offensive player on the field for either team.

Rick Cleveland Credit: Melanie Thortis

• Alabama will be playing its first game without offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who was told his services were no longer needed just seven days ago. Steve Sarkisian takes over the play-calling duties.

• Clemson easily could have beaten Bama in last year’s title game. Indeed, the Tigers dominated statistically, rolling to 31 first downs compared to only 18 for Bama. Watson out-gained Bama by himself.

• Precious few teams – actually, one – can match up athlete for athlete with the Crimson Tide. That team is Clemson.

• The law of averages: Sooner, or later, somebody is going to beat Bama.

And so, my pick is . . . Alabama 41-38. Overtime would not surprise.

Why?

Because Alabama is still Alabama and the coach is still Nick Saban. That’s why. Really, there is every reason to pick Clemson and the Tigers are the popular, trendy pick, but I can’t pull the trigger.

I would also offer this reasoning: Yes, Clemson looked like a juggernaut in thrashing Ohio State 31-0 in the semifinals. In my mind, that has caused many to overlook some other things that happened along the way to that impressive showing.

No. 1, Clemson did lose a game and it was at home to a Pitt team that finished 8-5 and lost to Northwestern in the Pinstripe Bowl.

No. 2, Clemson struggled to beat Auburn, which held Clemson to 19 points.

No. 3, Clemson could easily have lost to Troy but won 30-24 with the help of at least one glaringly bad officiating call.

Nos. 4, 5, and 6, Clemson also won close games over North Carolina State in overtime, Florida State by 3 and Virginia Tech by 7.

No. 7, Ole Miss was the only team to play Alabama a single-digit game.

Granted, most of Clemson’s close calls came early in the season. Still, of the two, Alabama has been by far the more dominant team.

Maybe some day I will predict Alabama to lose. Today is not that day.

• • •

Hugh Freeze, who has Alabama’s number as no other, picks Bama in a close one.

Rick Cleveland

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 12 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.