Will tonight’s sequel be Empire Strikes Back or Jaws 2?
How’d we get here?
Clemson was slow out of the blocks this year and really struggled to put complete performances together for a good chunk of the season. They seemed to spend much of the season stumbling between good and bad halves and even good and bad quarters, and it finally caught up with them in early November when Pitt’s Chris Blewitt failed to live up to his name by nailing a game-winning FG as time expired. However, they’ve seemed to grow in confidence with each of their 4 wins since then, and if last weekend’s 31-0 destruction of Ohio State was any indication, they’re playing their best football at the right time.
Bama, on the other hand… Bama has been in ROLL DAMN TIDE God mode since August, and cut a nearly unprecedented swath of destruction on their way to 14-0, with an astonishing 12 of those 14 wins coming by more than two touchdowns. Their dominance has been simply mind-numbing this year, to the point where it’s almost become sadistic watching them grind opponent after opponent into dust.
When Bama has the ball…
This is probably where we’ll see the most notable difference from a year ago. Alabama is marginally better offensively than they were last year, showing improvement in both total yards and points per game. The biggest change has been in the run game, not so much in its potency as in the extra dimension added by QB Jalen Hurts. His dual-threatability has given the Tide a more varied and explosive attack, as evidenced by their 6.52 yards per play (up from 5.9 last year). They’ve also become more efficient on a points per possession basis, and overall it’s easy to see that going away from the “Derrick Henry” model (where they relied on just a few guys for a majority of their offensive production) has improved the offense as a whole.
However, Clemson’s defense has also been excellent. The Tigers are again ranked Top 10 in total defense (8th, 306.9 ypg), sacks (3rd), tackles for loss (2nd), and 3rd down defense (6th), but this year’s group has vaulted into the Top 10 nationally in points allowed per game (7th, 17.1) and passes defended (8th), as well. They’ve also gotten a bit better at generating turnovers (1.92 per game vs 1.66 last year). The defensive line has been particularly good despite losing Lawson and Dodd to the NFL, and has three members with over 10 tackles for a loss, which is something that not even Alabama can boast. The point here is, this unit is more than good enough to give Alabama some trouble.
The key will be who wins first down. Despite their general stinginess, Clemson’s defense has actually surrendered some considerable yardage on first down, particularly against the run where they’re giving up 4.8 ypc (69th nationally). This could be a problem against an Alabama team that averages 5.2 ypc in similar situations. However, if Clemson is able to buckle down and get Jalen Hurts into some obvious passing situations, they’ll be able unleash that pass rush that’s one of the few in the country that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Tide’s. Hurts hasn’t been bothered a lot this year, but his statistics show a drastic decrease on the rare occasions when he has. Creating those opportunities will be crucial to a Clemson victory.
When Clemson has the ball…
We’ve seen enough superlatives regarding Alabama’s defense that I won’t waste too much of your time with more. Suffice it to say that they’ve been historically good, and they lead the nation in more of the traditional yardage and advanced percentage statistics than the field does. However, they also haven’t played anybody that even approaches Clemson’s level in terms of talent and execution.
The Tigers have high-level NFL talent at just about every offensive position, and they do things with it that most SEC teams aren’t even capable of. Out wide is the ridiculous Mike Williams (90 catches, 1267 yards, 10 TD) and his equally ridiculous supporting cast, which includes Deon Cain, Artavis Scott, Ray-Ray McCloud, and Hunter Renfrow. Those four have combined for 189 catches, 2113 yards, and 20 touchdowns, and they’re complimented perfectly by NFL prototype Jordan Leggett, who’s caught 39 balls for 641 yards and 7 TD of his own. Wayne Gallman has actually regressed a bit this year, but is still dangerous behind one of the better lines the Tide will have faced. Everything starts though, with QB DeShaun Watson.
Watson ran it both a bit less and a bit less effectively this year, but he’s still spinning it as well as ever and was one of just a handful of guys to go over 3000 yards passing and 500 yards rushing on the season. He was also the only one to go over 4000/500. He has better weapons now than he did a year ago, too, but his most valuable asset has to be the fact that he stared down this same barrel a year ago and absolutely carved the Tide up. Seeing Bama as mortal is the first step to beating them (see: Ole Miss hanging with them this year), and there aren’t many teams who will understand that more than Clemson.
The key will be whether or not Clemson is able to generate big plays. Nobody consistently sustains drives on Alabama, so to beat them you have to be able to hit splash plays and pick up yards in chunks. Fortunately for Clemson, they led the nation with 265 scrimmage plays of 10 or more yards, and were one of 18 teams that were able to generate more than 80 plays of 20 or more yards. More importantly though, they’re very good at generating those big plays through the air, ranking 4th nationally with 67.
Alabama was by far the best team in the country at limiting those big plays overall (129 total through 14 games), but they are susceptible to being attacked vertically in the passing game. The 41 big plays they allowed through the air (defined as passes of 20+ yards) rank all the way down at 63rd nationally, tying them with the likes of East Carolina, Oklahoma State, and BYU, and there aren’t many teams better-equipped to take advantage of those deficiencies than Clemson. None of this this will matter if Clemson can’t protect the QB, but I think we’ll have a good idea about what kind of game we’re getting by the end of the 1st quarter because I expect Watson and Co to test that secondary early and often.
Both of these teams predictably have solid special teams play. The Tide are very strong in both the punt and punt return games, ranking 2nd in average distance per kick and 5th in yards per return, while also taking 4 back for touchdowns this year. Clemson’s punt coverage game is very strong and they haven’t allowed a single return of more than 20 yards this year, but considering who they’re facing they still may be better served to just boot the thing out of bounds. The Tigers have also blocked 4 kicks this year, which could turn into an interesting subplot in the right situation.
One surprising note: neither team seems to have a very good kicker, which could make things interesting if the game is as close as we all hope.
The Tide won last year with by surprising Clemson with that onside kick, and ambushing them with OJ Howard. Those things probably won’t work two years in a row, so you have to wonder where that edge is going to come from. It could’ve potentially been Bo Scarbrough, but the Tide chose to play that card last weekend. Some people are looking at the Kiffin/Sarkisian thing as something that might throw a wrench in Clemson’s plans, but if I were him I think I’d hesitate to change too much considering the situation (first game as OC with a freshman QB in his first national championship game).
On the other side, the Tigers undoubtedly have the playmakers and athleticism to cause Bama some problems on the outside, but it remains to be seen whether the guys up front are going to be able to give Watson the time he needs for big plays to happen. It seems like the kind of game for some early trickeration, if only to try to knock the Tide off balance. If Clemson falls into the “2nd and long -> 3rd and long” rhythm that Bama forces on so many teams, it could end up being a long night.
Last year’s contest was an instant classic; I expect the same tonight. Bama is probably a little bit better and a little bit deeper, but Clemson has a ton of playmakers and went toe-to-toe with the Champs a year ago. I think that experience gets them over the hump. Hold on to your butts.
Clemson 37 Alabama 35