By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 8, 2016
The Alabama Crimson Tide is set to play for a national title for the fourth time in the last seven years.
Although that has little to do with the current matchup, such a feat demands to be paid attention. It has been 30 years almost since the Miami Hurricanes appeared ready to run off a similar streak of domination. Nebraska had a brief spike of similar play in the 1990s. But surely, all thought, the days of a handful of teams laying waste to the rest of the competition had come and gone.
Instead, Nick Saban returned to college football after a brief stint in the NFL, and everything old is new again – namely, an Alabama program that once dominated college football in the 1960s and 1970s is again making everyone else hate the program passionately – out of envy.
But Clemson comes into this game doing more than attempting to play a spoiler role. The Tigers, under Alabama alumnus Dabo Swinney, have recruited at a level that suggests the program could have some staying power. Swinney’s offensive imagination, coupled with finally acknowledging the need to hire a premier defensive coordinator and stack talent on that side of the ball, is not an optimum matchup for the Crimson Tide. Clemson will be able to create indigestion for Alabama’s defensive staff thanks to a solid running game and a dual-threat quarterback at the helm. On defense, the Tigers have enough Jimmies and Joes that Alabama will have to step up a level from its Michigan State performance, which started slowly and built up over time.
In fact, a fast start may be the key to winning this game. Swinney’s greatest strength as a coach is also his weakest point: He is an emotional man and believes in emotional motivation of his team, to a degree far beyond what most coaches would attempt. For that reason, if Alabama can put out Clemson’s fire early, the Crimson Tide would be well on its way to the 16th national title in school history.
It’s hard to categorize exactly what Clemson’s offense is, because it has its beginnings way back when Tommy Bowden and Rich Rodriguez used to work on the same Tulane staff. Bowden brought the basics of the offense to Clemson, where Swinney came into the picture as an assistant coach. Now, Swinney runs most of it himself, as he is the de facto offensive coordinator even though those duties are split between at least two assistants. It’s a combination of spread offense, pro-style attack and hurry-up, no-huddle, but it’s still a different animal from Alabama’s 2014 offense with Blake Sims at quarterback.
Clemson ranked 11th in total offense this year, 16th in rushing offense, 26th in passing offense and 16th in scoring. It’s an offense without a clear weakness, except in regards to ball security: Clemson ranked 113th in turnovers lost this year, primarily due to fumbles. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that ranked 51st in total offense, 29th in rushing offense, 68th in passing offense and 33rd in scoring offense.
Alabama has some ground to make up on this side of the ball.
Despite Jake Coker coming off a performance where he threw just 2 unintentional incomplete passes (his other incompletions were deliberate throwaways), it’s hard to make an argument that Coker is equal to or better than Deshaun Watson, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Watson has completed 303 passes in 444 attempts (68.2%) for 3,699 yards, 31 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. In addition, Watson ran for 1,032 yards on 187 attempts (5.5 avg., which included yardage lost to sacks) and added 12 touchdowns on the ground.
Coker, meanwhile, was 247-of-368 (67.1%) for 2,775 yards, 19 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Watson is obviously a bigger part of the Clemson offense by design than Coker is in Alabama’s attack, but it’s a chicken-and-egg discussion: Is Watson more involved because he’s more talented, or does involving him more lead to more production? Either way, Coker is decidedly playing the runner-up role here. Alabama probably has a better bench situation; Cooper Bateman had better numbers for Alabama than the combination of Kelly Bryant and Nick Schuessler did for Clemson, but if any of those guys are playing, it’s probably bad news. Watson simply has better ability. As a runner, he has running back skills and instincts; as a passer, he throws a dangerous deep ball, reads coverages well and knows when to bail out. Alabama needs to focus on containing him, not necessarily besting him. Advantage: Clemson
For all the things Alabama’s Derrick Henry brings to the table, he has no control over the depth situation. In that regard, Clemson leads the way. Wayne Gallman carried 269 times for 1,482 yards (5.5 avg.) and 12 touchdowns, and he leads a list of five backs that could all see time. This doesn’t include the thousand-plus yards his quarterback, Deshaun Watson, contributed in 2015. Zac Brooks, C.J. Fuller, Tyshon Dye and C.J. Davidson all saw plenty of time this year, and backup quarterback Kelly Bryant is also a premier running threat if he gets in.
Alabama’s Henry carried 359 times for 2,061 yards (5.7 avg.) and 25 touchdowns, meaning when Gallman’s production is scaled up to match, only in touchdowns scored does Henry maintain a significant margin. Kenyan Drake will likely be the only backup used, while Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough are available in case of emergency. Alabama has more flexibility in regards to looks out of its backfield thanks to Michael Nysewander at fullback (Clemson has no such player, although Garrett Williams can play H-back), but this one basically comes down to Henry against Gallman. The tipping point here might be the fumble situation, as Alabama showed much better ball security in 2015. Advantage: Alabama
About a month ago, this wouldn’t have been a close call. Alabama, behind Calvin Ridley’s explosiveness, would have taken this category easily. But down the stretch, Clemson began to develop its depth. The team’s leading receiver, Artavis Scott (89 catches, 868 yards, 9.8 avg., 5 TD, still lacks a lot of big-play ability and was basically a possession receiver in 2015. The emergence of Deon Cain, Charone Peake, Hunter Renfrow, Germone Hopper and Ray-Ray McCloud slowly began to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately for Clemson, Cain will miss this game due to a suspension, which brings Trevion Thompson into the picture. The Tigers have gotten excellent production from tight end Jordan Leggett, who leads the team with 7 touchdown catches. Hopper may be the best big-play threat among the players left.
In addition to Ridley, Alabama has developed an excellent starting trio with ArDarius Stewart and Richard Mullaney at the other two spots. Unfortunately for Alabama, the depth stops there. Only Cameron Sims and Derek Kief have played much off the bench recently, and they’ve combined for 7 catches. Tight end O.J. Howard is coming off probably his best career performance, and his 33 receptions nearly matches Leggett’s 35. Alabama has better depth at tight end, with Brandon Greene, Hale Hentges, Dakota Ball and Ty Flournoy-Smith all legitimate options. This one is now very close, closer even than the running back comparison. Advantage: Alabama
Statistically, Clemson would seem to have this one in the bag. The Tigers have yielded fewer sacks – although both teams perform well in this category – but the Tigers rarely get caught behind the line of scrimmage in the running game, whereas Alabama struggled with this aspect right up until the postseason began. A closer look, though, reveals Alabama holds a fairly decided edge in personnel, especially at tackle, where Dominick Jackson and Cam Robinson are more consistent than Clemson’s Joe Gore and especially Mitch Hyatt, who is a true freshman. Inside, Ryan Kelly anchors the Bama line, flanked by Alphonse Taylor and Ross Pierschbacher.
Clemson will start Jay Guillermo at center, with Eric MacLain and either or Tyrone Crowder or Maverick Morris at the guards. Center has been somewhat of a concern at times. Alabama has far more depth on its bench, especially at the guard and center spots. The real issue for Clemson is the Tigers haven’t faced anyone yet who can exploit the weaknesses in their current line. Alabama can. Advantage: Alabama
The Tigers use a fairly conventional 4-3 base alignment, but the amount of talent in the front seven allows Clemson to be flexible with its fronts. Coordinator Brent Venables is regarded as one of the 10 best coordinators in the game at the moment, and his Oklahoma connections mean he’s experienced success against Alabama in the past. Clemson ranked 6th in total defense in 2015, 18th in rushing defense, 9th in raw pass defense, 6th in pass efficiency defense and 16th in scoring defense. Alabama counters with its familiar 3-4 over/under scheme that accounted for rankings of 2nd in total defense, 1st in rushing defense, 18th in raw pass defense, 4th in pass efficiency defense and 1st in scoring defense. Most importantly, Clemson held the top four offenses it faced this year to only around two-thirds of their normal production. This game could end up being a low-scoring slugfest.
Clemson had to replace all seven starters in the front end of its defense in 2015. Suffice to say, those replacements took. Clemson ranked 8th in sacks and 5th in tackles for loss on the year, with Carlos Watkins, Scott Pagano, Christian Watkins and D.J. Reader being the reason for much of that success.
While the tackles didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time in opponents’ backfields, they did occupy offensive linemen enough to allow Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson to grow into a pair of terrors at defensive end. The two ends combined for 42 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks. Fortunately for Alabama, Lawson won’t be 100 percent for this game. He injured a knee against Oklahoma and has just been upgraded to probable from questionable for the game. Reader may also be out at tackle due to what Clemson is terming “personal reasons,” which would mean Roderick Byars would have to step in at tackle. Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin provide depth at end.
Since Clemson is, at heart, a spread team, Alabama will counter with either A’Shawn Robinson or Jarran Reed at nosetackle, with the other starting at end opposite Jonathan Allen. Darren Lake, Daron Payne and Josh Frazier provide depth inside, while D.J. Pettway, Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Shawn Hand bolster the end positions. Clemson has overachieved the entire season; Alabama has consistently destroyed people. Advantage: Alabama
Unlike a lot of teams Alabama has faced this season, Clemson’s top linebackers have lived in opponents’ backfields. Middle linebacker B.J. Goodson and weakside backer Ben Boulware each have stat lines that Alabama would prefer not to see. Travis Blanks will start at strongside linebacker and probably get more work than he’s accustomed to, thanks to Derrick Henry’s presence. Jalen Williams, Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel provide depth, but they’re all very young.
Alabama will counter with Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton rotating at inside linebacker, with Denzel Devall, Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, Dillon Lee and Rashaan Evans at outside linebacker. Statistically, Clemson is one of the few units in 2015 that has been able to stand toe-to-toe against Alabama, but the experience factor strongly favors the Tide. The one concern Alabama might have here is whether the linebackers responsible for edge containment can stand up to the challenge Deshaun Watson will bring. Otherwise, Alabama has a modest lead all around. Advantage: Alabama
This unit was expected to be Clemson’s strength heading into 2015 and the results didn’t disappoint. What is striking about Clemson’s secondary is the raw size: Safety Jayron Kearse is built more like former NFL star Jevon Kearse. Jayron Kearse is 6’5” and 220 pounds, making him the largest defensive back Alabama has played since probably the Virginia Tech opener to the 2009 season, when the Tide had to deal with then-Hokie and current Seattle Seahawk Kam Chancellor.
Off-safety T.J. Green is 6’3”, 210, while cornerback Condrea Tankersley goes 6’1”. Corner Mackensie Alexander is the “runt” at 5’11”, 190. If there’s a weakness here, it’s that the Tigers don’t intercept many passes. The Clemson secondary had just 10 on the season and Tankersley got 5 of those by himself. The starting safeties had none. Overall, depth is in decent shape, with Adrian Baker and Ryan Carter at corner and Jadar Johnson and Van Smith at safety.
Alabama will counter with Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey at corner, and Eddie Jackson, Geno Matias-Smith, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, Maurice Smith and Jabriel Washington at safety. Alabama’s corners have turned into steel shields, and the safety play has been game-changing at times. It’s hard to pick against either team, but Alabama just has better results, however slim they might be. Advantage: Alabama
Clemson’s kicking game has been just absurd. Placekicker Greg Huegel has missed 5 PATs on the year but is 25-of-29 (86.2%) on field goals, including 6-of-9 (66.7%) from beyond 40 yards out. Clemson had to scramble a bit for a kickoff specialist after Ammon Lakip was dismissed from the team prior to the Oklahoma game, so either Huegel will have to do it, or perhaps Alex Spence. Punter Andy Teasdall was all over highlight reels following the Oklahoma game for his successful fake punt, but he averages only 39 yards per kick and Clemson ranks 64th in net punting. The return game has been terrible; Clemson is 126th in punt returns and 52nd in kickoff returns.
For Alabama, Adam Griffith has turned into a reliable placekicker and a weapon as a kickoff man after a rough start to both for the year. Punter J.K. Scott has his groove back, but a couple of long returns have killed Alabama’s net average. Alabama has been a horrid 109th on kickoff returns, but is 20th in punt returns and Cyrus Jones has returned 4 for touchdowns since the beginning of November. This category is about as one-sided as the quarterback battle. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in seven categories, Clemson in one. It’s a shocking conclusion but when laid out on paper, it’s what the numbers dictate. However, only in special teams does Alabama have a decided unit edge. The greater, practical edge comes up in the OL-DL matchups; for Alabama’s OL, it’s a push against Clemson’s DL thanks to the injury to Shaq Lawson. Alabama’s DL holds a significant edge over Clemson’s OL.
Taken by itself, the above paragraph would suggest a three-score margin of victory. But this isn’t a Week 6 game with the playoffs far in the future; this is the battle for the national championship, and with so many close calls on the board, don’t expect a blowout win for Alabama.
In fact, the Deshaun Watson factor renders most of this analysis extremely theoretical. If Watson gets on a hot streak, history has shown that Alabama doesn’t deal well with a mobile quarterback playing out of his head. If that happens here, Alabama will struggle to win the game by any margin.
It’s imperative that Alabama strike first, strike often and demoralize Clemson to the greatest degree possible. Teams that rely on too much rah-rah tend to fold when things go against them early on. If Alabama sticks to the plan and couples consistency with early success, it will be difficult, if not impossible for Clemson to deny Bama its 16th title.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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