NEW ORLEANS — Deshaun Watson has moved on to the NFL.
That sigh of relief you hear is from Alabama.
Watson lit up the Crimson Tide’s stellar defense in the last two national championship games, but Kelly Bryant will be lining up at quarterback for Clemson in Monday night’s Sugar Bowl semifinal.
Not having to face Watson, combined with Alabama’s punishing ground game, a healthier linebacker corps and plenty of motivation should be enough to carry coach Nick Saban’s team to its third straight title game.
“This is kind of like a redemption game for us,” linebacker Rashaan Evans said.
Two years ago, Watson set a national championship game record for total yards by passing for 405 and four touchdowns, and rushing for another 73 . Fortunately for the Tide, the special teams recovered an onside kick and returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to pull out a 45-40 victory.
Watson would not be denied a year ago, even after Alabama raced to a two-touchdown lead. He passed for 420 yards and three TDs — breaking his own record for passing yards in a title game — and rushed for an 8-yard score. With one second remaining, Watson hooked up with Hunter Renfrow for a short TD pass that gave the Tigers a 35-31 victory .
“The loss last year is definitely on our minds and in our hearts,” Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison said.
Bryant has provided the same sort of dual threat as Watson, passing for 2,678 yards and 13 touchdowns and running for 646 yards and 11 TDs. The offense had hardly missed a beat, averaging 35.4 points a game.
“I really don’t see a drop off,” Harrison said. “They are both efficient on the ground and through the air. They both make the offense go.”
But it’s too much to ask of Bryant — anyone, really — to provide the same sort of team-carrying performances as his predecessor, so look for Alabama to get a shot at its fifth national title in the last nine seasons.
Of course, the Tide must do a better job of keeping its defense off the field.
Clemson’s go-go offense did a marvelous job of controlling the clock a year ago, running a staggering 99 plays (to just 66 for Alabama) and piling up a nearly 10-minute edge in time of possession. By the end of the game, when the Tide desperately needed a stop, the defense was totally gassed.
Jalen Hurts has been inconsistent through the air, so the Tide will likely have to rely heavily on the ground game. It won’t be easy sledding against Clemson’s stout defensive front, but Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough provide a punishing 1-2 punch, and don’t forget Hurts’ ability to turn a busted play into a big gainer with his legs.
Alabama’s defense was ravaged by a series of injuries that hit mainly at the linebacker position . It took a toll, especially toward the end of the season, but that group appears to be in much better shape after being off for the past five weeks.
The Tide has gotten back three potentially important members of its linebacker corps. Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis should bolster an edge pass rush that has been relatively anemic this season by Alabama standards, while inside backer Mack Wilson will surely be more effective than he was in his return for the regular-season finale against Auburn.
“We’ve certainly had our share of challenges,” Saban said. “Sometimes you can overcome injuries when you have one here, one there at different positions because you have enough depth. But it’s created some issues for this group.”
If nothing else, the Crimson Tide should be a very driven team.
Not only does Saban’s team have plenty of bitter memories about the way last season finished, it’s also coming into the playoff for the first time after a loss. Alabama lost its regular-season finale to Auburn 26-14, which knocked the Tide out of the Southeastern Conference championship game after it had been ranked No. 1 all season by The Associated Press.
In a hotly debated decision, Alabama still got into the playoff as the fourth seed ahead of a two-loss Ohio State team that won the Big Ten championship and looked very impressive in a Cotton Bowl victory over Southern Cal.
Saban has surely reminded his team that this is their chance to answer the critics.
“You don’t want to waste a failing,” he said. “You want to learn from the mistakes that you made and grow from those things.”
Prediction: Alabama 24, Clemson 14.