By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 6, 2017
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Leave it to Lane Kiffin to potentially be the biggest X-factor in a game without even showing up for it.
The departure of Kiffin – decided upon mutually or otherwise – has thrown this game into a vortex of uncertainty, and has given any national pundit looking for a reason to say something critical about Alabama’s chances a window of opportunity to put the Crimson Tide on blast.
The two teams couldn’t have looked any more different in their semifinal matchups if they’d tried. Clemson dominated Ohio State, winning 31-0 and throwing even more gas on the fire that erupted in Big Ten country when the Buckeyes were selected over Penn State and Wisconsin to represent the conference. But given the performance of other Big Ten teams during bowl season so far, perhaps the whole conference was just a raging trash fire all along?
Meanwhile, Alabama didn’t exactly struggle to put Washington away, but the Tide certainly won no style points in a 24-7 win that had all the grace of Harpo Marx on roller skates.
Those two outcomes triggered an explosion of criticism from the media, some probably emanating from honest assessment of where these two programs are, but more than just a little bit of it from Bama-fatigued crusaders who saw cracks in the Tide’s armor and believe it’s enough to finally drive a killing ax blade through. And once Lane Kiffin was metaphorically escorted to the front door of the football complex earlier this week, those same critics now believe blood is flowing from the Tide’s wounds.
The unfortunate side effect of such reaction, or overreaction, is this Alabama team is not perfect and there are holes Clemson could exploit. But for the same reason Alabama’s offense could be hampered by the loss of Kiffin, so could the offense benefit from a clean slate.
Clemson is not a perfect team, either. The Tigers not only lost to Pitt, but also had close calls against Troy, North Carolina State, Auburn, Louisville and Florida State. The Tigers have had issues running the ball and turnover management has been spotty. On the other hand, last year’s 45-40 result and score were unexpected, as the Tigers showed up in Arizona looking like a different – and stronger – team than it had all season. It bears mentioning, though, that 40 of the game’s 85 points were scored in the fourth quarter, something no one expects a repeat of.
The same dynamic exists this year as last: Clemson will use a talented dual-threat quarterback to trigger an offense that has its roots in spread football and tinted by pro-set alterations, while Alabama will base from a multiple, pro-style attack that has been dabbling with the spread. Clemson ranked 12th in total offense in the country in 2016, but was unbalanced, ranking 7th in passing offense but just 62nd in rushing offense. The struggles on the ground didn’t affect the scoring pace, though, as Clemson finished 13th there. Alabama flipped the results, finishing 31st in total offense mainly on the strength of a rushing ranking of 11th against a passing-game ranking of 81st. The latter number has surely been affected by struggles in the postseason thus far.
When Alabama fans talk about who they most want Jalen Hurts to look like in two or three years, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is the guy they pick. Watson was 352-of-523 (67.3%) for 4,173 yards and 38 touchdowns on the season. He also carried the ball 144 times for 586 yards (4.1 avg.) and 8 sacks, which includes yardage lost to sacks.
The Heisman Trophy eluded Watson, however, and one particular stat – his interception total, which ended up at a whopping 17 – may have been to blame. Watson did improve a bit from the player he was as a junior, but the high turnover count was either the result of sloppiness or evidence that he’s close to tapping out his physical capabilities. Either way, he’s too developed at this point to expect much variation, up or down, this late in his final year. Watson was a cool customer last year against Alabama, probably the most relevant characteristic he brings to the rematch.
Alabama’s in-your-face defense never seemed to affect him much, and certainly didn’t demoralize him. For the Tide, Jalen Hurts outrushed Watson (891 to 586) but threw for 1,500 fewer yards and 16 fewer touchdowns. Moreover, although Hurts threw just over half the number of Watson’s interceptions (9), the INT-to-attempt ratio wasn’t that far off (39.0/1 for Hurts to 30.8/1 for Watson). Whether it was regression on Hurts’ part, Lane Kiffin’s increasing indifference to the job, or simply that Hurts began facing tougher defenses down the stretch, the end result is the same: Alabama can’t rely on him to win the game with his arm.
The best thing that could be said for Hurts’ chances here is that Clemson has struggled to contain dual-threat quarterbacks at times in 2016.
As for backups, Clemson’s Nick Schuessler is probably a better option than Alabama’s Cooper Bateman, but the difference isn’t substantial. Given how much better Watson is than Hurts at this point in their respective careers, however, makes this category not very close at all. Advantage: Clemson
Wayne Gallman had about the quietest 1,087-yard season a running back could have this year, especially given he rushed for 16 touchdowns. But Gallman appeared less explosive at times than in past seasons and rather than Clemson being a true two-headed monster, the 2016 team has a more defined role gap between the bellcow Watson and Gallman, the supporting player. Alabama also neutralized Gallman in last year’s game, holding him to 45 yards on 14 carries, a 3.2-yard average – and this year’s Tiger OL isn’t nearly as good as the one from a year ago.
Backups C.J. Fuller, Tavien Feaster, Adam Choice and Tyshon Dye have varied between just OK and promising, but none of them are going to scare Alabama just by coming into the game. All five backs are in the 5’11, 210-pound range, meaning size won’t be an issue for Clemson like it was for Washington a week ago. Of the backups, Fuller is the most relied-upon but Feaster probably has the most playmaking ability.
Alabama, meanwhile, suddenly has the (T)iger by the tail, pun intended, as Bo Scarbrough’s “carry management” is a thing of the past and now he’s rested, ready and healthy. Scarbrough’s record-setting performance against Washington – most yards of any Alabama running back in a bowl game – means Alabama has the potential not to just use all-around slasher Damien Harris (who finished on par with Gallman at 1,016 yards), but also to bring the hammer in the form of Scarbrough, who is essentially a defensive end that records carries.
Alabama’s depth extends to Joshua Jacobs, and perhaps even down to walk-on Derrick Gore, who wasn’t a factor against Washington but did get relevant time against both Auburn and Florida. Gallman certainly has the longest resume of anyone on either team, but Alabama has comparable depth and is on a roll right now, to say the least. Advantage: Alabama
This is somewhat of a replay of last week’s matchup: Clemson lacks the size of Alabama’s roster – particularly down the depth chart – but more players are involved in the offense and the numbers are much better on the Tigers’ side. Washington couldn’t do anything with its production advantage, however – but Clemson’s depth, at a level better than just about every school in FBS, should at least forestall the fatigue factor. Mike Williams, the lone big receiver on the Tiger roster, intimidates all opponents. At 6’3” and 225, his production (90 catches, 1,267 yards, 14.1 avg., 10 TD) is not a mirage.
Alabama won’t physically dominate him the way the Tide dominated Washington’s John Ross. Tight end Jordan Leggett, Deon Cain (the only other receiver over 6’0”) and Artavis Scott all punched through the 600-yard barrier this year, and Ray Ray McCloud, who Alabama has targeted in practice this week for his abilities on jet sweeps and in the running game, is going to be a factor. Hunter Renfrow doesn’t physically scare anyone but he has been lethal at times as a possession receiver. About the only place Alabama has an edge is depth at tight end behind the starters, where Hale Hentges, Brandon Greene and Miller Forristall are better options than Clemson’s Garrett Williams.
Although starting tight end O.J. Howard tore up the Tiger defense in 2016, the situation at quarterback for the Crimson Tide probably negates a repeat. ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley play bigger than their size and both players, especially Stewart, have been feared in 2016. A key for Alabama is for reserves Gehrig Dieter, Cameron Sims, Trevon Diggs and others to provide enough of a breather for the starters. Once Alabama gets into its bench, there is a height edge to the Crimson Tide, but the massive production edge for Clemson this year can’t be ignored. Advantage: Clemson
Alabama’s offensive line is coming off arguably its worst performance of the year, but word is miscommunication between the line, Jalen Hurts and Lane Kiffin had a lot to do with the struggles. Given the success Alabama found against Florida and Auburn, we believe Alabama is unlikely to see a repeat of Washington week.
Bradley Bozeman will start at center with Korren Kirven and Ross Pierschbacher at the guard slots, while Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams start at tackle. Alabama didn’t get into its bench against the Huskies, so there’s still no word on exactly what Alabama would do in the interior if Kirven or Pierschbacher get hurt (or if they play as poorly as they did against Washington). Dallas Warmack and Brandon Kennedy appear to be the most likely options inside, with J.C. Hassenauer at center and Lester Cotton and Matt Womack at the tackles.
As for Clemson, here again is a situation where an opponent has better stats in regards to sack avoidance and tackles for loss allowed, but the level of competition appears to have played an unequal role between the two teams in identifying who was on more solid ground.
Clemson will start Jay Guillermo at center, Tyrone Crowder and Taylor Hearn at the guard slots, and Mitch Hyatt and Sean Pollard at the tackle spots. Tackle is where Alabama pulls strongly ahead here, as neither Hyatt nor the freshman Pollard are viewed as consistent forces yet. Guillermo has improved from a year ago, but is still fairly pedestrian. Maverick Morris will act as a swing reserve and gives Clemson good experience in the role. Neither team is expecting flawless football but Alabama was more consistent throughout the year. Advantage: Alabama