NEW ORLEANS — Deshaun Watson is now in the NFL.
That sigh of relief you hear is from Alabama.
Watson lit up the Crimson Tide’s defense in the past two national championship games, but Kelly Bryant will be at quarterback for Clemson in tonight’s Sugar Bowl playoff semifinal.
No Watson — combined with Alabama’s punishing ground game, a healthier linebacker corps and plenty of motivation — might carry coach Nick Saban’s team to a third straight title game.
"This is kind of like a redemption game for us," Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans said.
Two years ago, Watson set a national championship game record for total yards by passing for 405 and four touchdowns, but the Tide escaped with a 45-40 win. Last year Watson passed for 420 yards and three touchdowns, and rushed for an 8-yard score in the Tigers’ 35-31 victory .
Bryant has provided the same dual threat, passing for 2,678 yards and 13 touchdowns and running for 646 yards and 11 scores.
Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts has been inconsistent passing, so Alabama will likely have to rely heavily on its ground game. It won’t be easy against Clemson’s stout defensive front, but Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough provide a punishing 1-2 punch.
Alabama’s defense was ravaged by injuries that hit mainly the linebackers in the regular season. But that group appears to be in much better shape after being off for the past five weeks.
In a hotly debated decision, Alabama got into the playoff as the fourth seed ahead of a two-loss Ohio State team that won the Big Ten championship. This is the Tide’s chance to answer the critics. "You don’t want to waste a failing," Saban said. "You want to learn from the mistakes that you made."