LOS ANGELES: Derrick Henry, the University of Alabama’s Heisman Trophy-winning running back, is expected to dazzle on Monday (Tuesday in Manila) as the Crimson Tide take on the unbeaten Clemson Tigers in the College Football Playoff National Championship game.
Henry, who could be playing his last college contest should he opt for a move to the NFL, is one of the main reasons that longtime powerhouse Alabama has relegated the Tigers to underdog status even as they try to become the first 15-0 champions in US college football history.
“I know if we beat them, we can’t really be doubted anymore,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said as he looked toward the showdown at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona — the same venue that hosted Super Bowl 49 last February.
“I know people will still find a way to doubt us, and if we win, [say]‘Alabama played a bad game or so and so did this or so and so did that.’
“We’ll still be doubted, so I’m not really worried about it,” Boulware concluded. “I’m just focused on doing my job and focused on beating them.”
Alabama have been crowned the country’s college football champions 15 times, including three titles since 2009 under current coach Nick Saban.
But this is their first chance to claim a title under the College Football Playoff format inaugurated last year.
The system gives the college game, which inspires passions that often outstrip those felt for pro teams, the kind of knockout playoff system beloved of US sports fans.
Critics argued the old Bowl Championship Series system, which pitted two teams in a title game based on human polls and computer rankings — was mathematically flawed and biased toward teams in historically powerful regions such as Alabama’s Southeastern Conference.
An element of opinion remains in the playoff system, with semi-finalists selected by committee.
Clemson reached the title game with a dominant 37-17 victory over the University of Oklahoma while Alabama crushed Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl.
A different animal
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Alabama’s rout of Michigan State, storied history and a player of Henry’s caliber, can’t help but make the Tide the popular pick.
“He’s a whole different animal,” Swinney said of Henry, although Clemson’s stingy defense, which has given up just 124.36 yards per game on the ground, could prove the unit to stop the third-year star, who has scored a touchdown in 19 straight games — six of them in the Crimson Tide’s final four games.
Last year’s move to the playoff system was deemed an unqualified success, thanks in large part to sensational television ratings.
Ohio State’s semi-final victory over Alabama became the most-viewed program in cable television history with 28,271,00 viewers for ESPN and the University of Oregon’s victory over Florida State drew 28,164,000 viewers.
The success of those semis even sparked talk of expanding the playoffs from four to eight teams.
But the blowout wins for Alabama and Clemson this season, and the shift of both games to New Year’s Eve, rather than the traditional college football showcase of New Year’s Day, also hurt ratings this time around.
Industry journal Broadcast and Cable reported Friday that ESPN could owe $20 million in make-goods to advertisers after failing to hit ratings estimates.