Clemson preview: Tigers look for revenge, Tide looks for continuity

Jan 5, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Workers put up signs at Raymond James Stadium where the College Football Championship will be played between the Clemson Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide on Monday night. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 5, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Workers put up signs at Raymond James Stadium where the College Football Championship will be played between the Clemson Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide on Monday night. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Washington Huskies running back Myles Gaskin (9) is brought down by Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman Jonathan Allen (93) during the second quarter in the 2016 CFP Semifinal at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 31, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Huskies running back Myles Gaskin (9) is brought down by Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman Jonathan Allen (93) during the second quarter in the CFP Semifinal at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-

DEFENSE

Clemson operates from a 4-3 base and put up solid numbers across the board in 2016: 8th in total defense, 19th in rushing defense, 17th in raw pass defense, 4th in pass efficiency defense and 7th in scoring defense. Alabama still managed to best the Tigers with its 3-4 over/under scheme, 1st in three categories (total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense), 5th in pass efficiency defense and 14th in raw pass defense. Most probably thought last year would result in a defensive struggle, but it didn’t work out that way; this year, a defensive struggle seems much more assured.

DEFENSIVE LINE
The Tigers are huge up front, and there’s a rare sight – a 300-pounder playing end in a 4-3. Christian Wilkins goes 310 and mans the weakside defensive end spot, something that doesn’t even seem possible, much less optimal. But there he is, with 13.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and 17 QB hurries. Tackle Carlos Watkins, who starts next to Wilkins, has 12.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks and 12 QB hurries.

Tackle Dexter Lawrence and rush specialist Clelin Ferrell round out the starting group, which helped Clemson rank 5th in sacks and 3rd in tackles for loss this season. Scott Pagano, Albert Huggins, Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin add depth, and all can play well, making a strategy of wearing out the defense tougher than against most teams. Alabama will start Da’Ron Payne in the middle, flanked by Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson. Those three were as responsible as anyone for the strong showing against last week, and ’s line play for the entire season has been superb.

Alabama managed to make it here without a lot of injuries – a freak hunting accident, which ended Dakota Ball’s season early, was the only one of note – but there is still concern if someone goes down in this game. Da’Shawn Hand and Joshua Frazier are the only two reserves getting time at the moment, and with Ball out, the next man up would be true freshman Raekwon Davis, who has played only in blowouts. Alabama ranked 3rd in sacks and 9th in tackles for loss this season, which effectively ties them with Clemson, but the Crimson Tide did it against better opposition. Clemson has the edge in depth, but Alabama has more star power when the starters are on the field. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
All three of Clemson’s starters have made first-rate contributions to its defense, as have all four of Alabama’s starters for this game. For the first time all season, Alabama’s dominance at the linebacker position is seriously challenged. Clemson will start Kendall Joseph in the middle, flanked by Ben Boulware and Dorian O’Daniel – who usually is the one to come off the field in nickel situations – outside him. Boulware and Joseph have combined for 136 tackles, with O’Daniel pitching in another 55, including 10 behind the line of scrimmage.

The one thing Clemson lacks versus Alabama is at least one player who can put consistent pressure on the quarterback from the second level.

While Alabama’s outside linebackers, and Tim Williams, have combined for 33 tackles for loss and 17 sacks, no Clemson linebacker has more than 4 sacks. Up the middle, Alabama will start Reuben Foster and Rashaan Evans. Evans did a solid job replacing Shaun Dion Hamilton in his first start last week, but the offense is more straight-ahead and less option-based than Clemson’s base front, and Evans has had issues against spread teams when playing an inside post. Jalen Williams, Tre Lamar and J.D. Davis offer depth for Clemson, but there’s a big dropoff from the starters.

Alabama’s second unit of outside linebackers – Christian Miller, Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Hall – can rotate in without much degradation of quality. Not so the case with inside linebacker, which right now is either Keith Holcombe or Mack Wilson; neither has played much outside of games against lesser opposition. Clemson has the edge here in health, but in all other facets, Alabama is just a tick better at each spot. Good enough to win this matchup, at least. Advantage: Alabama

Oct 29, 2016; Tallahassee, FL, USA; Clemson defensive back Jadar Johnson (18) intercepts a second quarter pass over Florida State Seminoles wide receiver Auden Tate (18) at Doak Campbell Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 29, 2016; Tallahassee, FL, USA; Clemson defensive back Jadar Johnson (18) intercepts a second quarter pass over Florida State Seminoles wide receiver Auden Tate (18) at Doak Campbell Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Beil-


Clemson CB might be the best player on the field for the Tigers and would be the best cornerback for Alabama if he played for the Tide instead. He’s a Dee Milliner clone in terms of size and athleticism, and his well-rounded abilities against both run and pass make him a dangerous asset for the Tigers. Free safety Van Smith has 111 tackles on the year and is better in coverage than most at that position.

Jadar Johnson has been a mixed bag at strong safety, not as productive against the running game as one might expect but exceptionally opportunistic in pass coverage, leading the team with 5 picks. Off-corner Ryan Carter stands just 5’9”, 170, but he plays bigger than his size and given Alabama’s starting receivers are both in the 6’0” range, he won’t have an issue with height differential. Mark Fields and Marcus Edmond provide depth at corner while Denzel Johnson and K’Von Wallace offer safety depth. Fields and Edmond are the team’s typical nickel and dime backs.

Alabama will start and Anthony Averett at corner, with and Ronnie Harrison at the safety spots. With Clemson in a three-wide all day, look for Laurence Jones and Tony Brown to be on the field almost constantly. Humphrey’s season at corner hasn’t gone the way he would have hoped, but Clemson knows better than anyone how he can step up at a big moment in a game. Averett was all over the field against and he seems to be able to handle whatever is thrown his way in terms of assignments. Fitzpatrick is a bit out of position now that he’s no longer Alabama’s regular Star safety, but he was dominant against the Huskies a week ago and his ability to read quarterbacks’ eyes is uncanny.

The key is Harrison, who lacks recovery speed and has been singled out by spread teams often. Clemson has been more opportunistic than Alabama and has somewhat of a depth edge, although it’s minimal. More important for Alabama is having Humphrey and Harrison hitting on all cylinders against this brand of offense. A close call here that really could go either way. Advantage: Clemson

SPECIAL TEAMS
Special teams were profiled as a Clemson weakness in this same article last year and that observation proved correct. It’s the same story this year albeit not as wide a gulf between the two teams. Placekicker Greg Huegel has been solid, and almost a carbon copy of Alabama’s Adam Griffith. Both have hit around 75% of their kicks, both have missed kicks from a variety of distances and neither has attempted a kick from beyond 50 yards. Alabama holds a substantial edge at punter, though, with J.K. Scott a weapon and Clemson’s Andy Teasdall struggling along to a 38-yard clip. This game being outside, rather than in the punter-enhancing Georgia Dome, will accentuate the differences between the two players.

Clemson has been mediocre in both punt and kickoff returns, while Alabama has struggled on kickoff returns but has been a force on punt returns behind first Eddie Jackson and then Trevon Diggs. Clemson is 95th in net punting, mostly a function of Teasdall’s low gross punting average, as punt return defense is solid. Kickoff return defense is adequate. Alabama has struggled with both containment teams and has relied on its kickers’ talent to get the job done.

It mentioning that has used special teams as his wild card for trick plays in multiple national title games, with the onside kick in this game last year his crowning achievement. You can bet Clemson won’t have overly tight alignments on kickoffs this year, and it might be more difficult to make a game-changing play now that the element of surprise is gone. Advantage: Alabama

January 10, 2016; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney and Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban pose in advance of the College Football Playoff championship at JW Marriott Camelback Inn. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports
January 10, 2016; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Clemson Tigers head coach and Alabama Crimson Tide head coach pose in advance of the championship at JW Marriott Camelback Inn. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-

OVERALL

Alabama leads in five categories, Clemson in three, but the defensive back category could easily swing to and give the Tide a 6-2 edge. Both teams’ defensive lines win their respective OL-DL matchups, with Alabama winning its matchup by a wider margin.

So we’re right back to where we thought we’d be at this time last year, looking at two teams with stellar defenses and trying to figure out where the points were going to come from. In the end, Alabama and Clemson together found 85 of them last year, and there’s certainly enough offensive talent out there for a repeat performance … but will it happen?

The answer is, not likely. One of the least-talked-about developments on this year’s game is that of a new coordinator for Alabama – and we’re not talking about Steve Sarkisian filling in for Lane Kiffin. It’s Jeremy Pruitt, who took over for Kirby Smart in 2016. It also mentioning that Smart was a lame duck in this game a year ago, having accepted the Georgia job prior. And Alabama underachieved severely on game night, perhaps because of it.

Perhaps the memory was fresh on ’s mind when he didn’t exactly erect barricades to keep Kiffin from heading to Florida Atlantic a week early. In Sarkisian, Alabama gets a playcaller who figures to be less dynamic, but more mindful of the Tide’s potential strength as a power running team. In Pruitt, Alabama has gotten a coach who is more aggressive, and who has been more effective defending spread offenses than his predecessor.

For those reasons, it’s time to think conservatively again about the scoring pace in this game. As opportunistic as Alabama’s defense and special teams have been, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Alabama pull away in the end. In fact, it would be more likely to see that outcome than to see a repeat of last year’s track meet.

On the other hand, Clemson is also built to do well in a closely-held matchup thanks to its own superb defense. This is the national championship, after all, and if nothing else, Alabama and Clemson definitively proved last week that they were the two most worthy teams to be playing this game. The fashion in which they took down their respective opponents left no room for debate.

In a game of strength on strength, bet on to be the difference maker. He’s moved all the right chess pieces so far.

Alabama 23
Clemson 17

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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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