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Clemson presents serious test for Alabama in College Football Playoff rematch

Clemson-Alabama College Football Playoff game
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

For the third time in as many seasons, Alabama will face Clemson in the College Football Playoff. Though this game won’t be for the championship, as it has been in each of the past two seasons, it’s just as important. The winner of the Sugar Bowl advances to meet the winner of the Georgia-Oklahoma Rose Bowl for the national title.

Being the fourth seed is something new for Alabama, as the Tide previously entered the playoffs as either the No. 1 or 2 seed. The opponent is familiar, but this matchup against Clemson could be the Tide’s biggest test of the three.

Let’s start with the top and work our way down. In the two previous matchups against Clemson, Alabama opened as at least a seven-point favorite. This season, Alabama opens up around a 2.5-point favorite.

Now, I get what Vegas is trying to do here. It’s the oddsmakers’ job to make money. Vegas knows the talent and coaching gap between the teams is smaller than years past.

It will be interesting to see where the line eventually ends up, but for now, Alabama being perceived as just a couple of points better than Clemson on a neutral field is at least noteworthy.

RELATED: Bet the Tide vs. Clemson here!

Clemson has taken a similar path to the playoffs this season. A big non-conference win against an SEC opponent (Auburn) early in the season followed by a close conference loss in October and an impressive November run capped by another ACC title.

The Tigers have achieved this with a first-year starter in Kelly Bryant at quarterback. A drop-off from the brilliant Deshaun Watson was inevitable, but the Tigers still are averaging scoring 35-plus points-per game and Bryant is completing better than 67 percent of his passes.

The Tigers also had to replace leading rusher Wayne Gallman’s 200-plus attempts and 1,100 yards. They did so with a group effort, led by Bryant along with Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster. Etienne and Feaster both have more than 100 rushing attemptsl; Etienne is averaging 7.2 yards per carry and Feaster 6.4 per carry.

Returning receivers Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow have been instrumental in helping Bryant in the passing game, and both have had individual success against Alabama in the past.

Meanwhile, Alabama had its core talent on offense coming back and five-star backups set to take over on defense. While injuries have forced the Tide’s defense to scramble throughout 2017, Jeremy Pruitt has this unit ranked second in the nation. That’s impressive considering the team has lost four linebackers to injury for long periods of time throughout the season, as well as Shaun Dion Hamilton, one of the leaders of the defense, for the year.

New offensive coordinator Brian Daboll took over a unit loaded with talent and had reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year Jalen Hurts returning for his sophomore season. Apart from continued struggles on third down, the Tide’s offense was rolling until the last month. Alabama had to come from behind to beat Mississippi State and put up a meager 14 points against Auburn in the last week of the season.

This was not the lasting impression Alabama wanted to leave on the playoff selection committees’ mind, but here we are.

Even with Alabama entering this game as a favorite, does it feel like this game will be a test?

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