Vegas Golden Knights leading scorer Alex Tuch is from Syracuse, N.Y., and played college hockey for Boston College.
Needless to say, he’s an ACC guy.
That doesn’t mean he’s supporting the conference’s representative in Monday’s national championship game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. After all, the Clemson Tigers — 5.5-point underdogs to the Alabama Crimson Tide — are rivals to both Syracuse and Boston College.
”I can’t pick Clemson, I gotta pick Alabama,” Tuch said Monday morning. “Clemson’s the ACC, I don’t like Clemson.”
With a lot on their plate, like climbing back atop the Western Conference standings with Sunday’s 3-2 win over New Jersey, several of the Golden Knights had no interest in college football, or the title game, and offered no opinion.
Brandon Pirri said he’s an NFL guy, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said it’s hard enough keeping up with the NFL, Oscar Lindberg would rather talk about soccer and Brad Hunt said he’d guess Alabama because, well, “it’s Alabama.”
Then there’s Orlando-native and Central Florida-fan Ryan Carpenter, whose parents are alumni of the self-proclaimed national championship school from 2018. Still stinging from his UCF Knights losing to LSU in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day, the same day his Golden Knights were beating the Los Angeles Kings at T-Mobile Arena, Carpenter chimed in with his pick for Monday night.
”It’s tough not to pick Alabama,” Carpenter said. “They just always seem to be up there and you gotta love [Alabama head coach Nick\] Saban and they seem to have a little swag as a team. Should be a good game, I’m excited to watch it.”
But for Tuch, he said he’s been following the college football race “a little bit” and believes we’re in store for a close game.
”It’s two teams that have really, really good defenses,” said Tuch, who has a team-high 33 points after assisting on Sunday’s game-winning goal by Max Pacioretty. “Everyone knows how good Alabama’s defense is, but I think Clemson’s got just as good a defense. It’s gonna be a hard-fought battle.”
Yet while Tuch said everyone continues to clamor about both defensive units, he thinks it makes sense to believe coaches Saban and Dabo Swinney will have their offensive units primed to move up and down the field on those stop units. After all, that’s the trick — being able to score on a pair of dominating defenses.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence took over as the starter four games into the season and has thrown for 2,933 yards, 27 touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s joined in the backfield by second-team All-American running back Travis Etienne to balance things out. Etienne, a sophomore, emerged as one of college football’s most explosive runners, as he broke free on 22 runs of at least 20 yards — second-most in FBS.
On the other side, Alabama has Tua Tagovailoa, who came off the bench as a freshman to beat Georgia in last season’s championship game. The sophomore quarterback has thrown for 3,671 yards, 41 touchdowns and four interceptions. His top target is Jerry Jeudy, who had 1,176 yards receiving, 14th best in the nation.
”One score, maybe, at the most, I don’t see it being a blowout either way,” Tuch said. “I think, honestly, it’s going to come down to offense. I think it’s going to be who’s going to be able to consistently get the ball down the field and maybe get that occasional field goal.”
And while the Golden Knights’ sophomore forward is rolling with the Tide, defenseman Nate Schmidt likes the other side.
Aside from the fact Schmidt said he likes to get under his brother and future sister-in-law’s skin — she’s a huge Alabama fan — Schmidt said he believes the Tigers were the better team in the semifinals and is predicting an upset.
”I got Clemson by six,” said Schmidt, whose presence has sparked Vegas to an 18-4-3 run since his return to the lineup on Nov. 16. “I think Trevor Lawrence is going to come in big tonight. Only a freshman, shows a lot of ice in his veins, I like him. I also like Clemson’s defense.”
To go along with the nation’s third-best offense, Clemson boasts the No. 2 defense in the nation, with the second-best rushing defense (92.6 yards rushing per game) and 16th best passing D that allows just 182.1 yards passing per game. Most importantly, the Tigers have the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense that has stifled teams to just 12.9 points per game.
Clemson has held eight opponents to 10 points or less this season. Alabama, which has the 13th-ranked defense and 5th-best scoring defense that allows 16.2 points per game, has allowed 17, 21, 28 in its last three games. Tonight, the Tide defense faces the best offense it has seen all season.
History is on Schmidt’s side, too, as the lower-ranked team has won each of the previous four CFP national championship games.
”I love Tua, I think he’s great, but I think he’s gonna be running around a lot tonight and they’re gonna be forced to throw the ball more than they want to,” Schmidt said. “I got Clemson, 32-26.”
W.G. Ramirez is a freelance reporter in Las Vegas who covers the Vegas Golden Knights for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at @WillieGRamirez