By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 27, 2017
For the third straight year, Alabama and Clemson will meet in the College Football Playoff. For the third straight year, however, TideFans.com will not pick Alabama to win by a score of 23-17.
For whatever reason, this matchup, which on paper looks like two immovable objects heading straight for two irresistible forces, has failed to play to script. In 2016, we liked Alabama 23-17 over Clemson. Final score: 45-40 Alabama. In January of this year, we again liked Alabama 23-17 over Clemson. Final score: 35-31 Clemson.
For that matter, the only thing that came close to 23-17 in either game was the fourth quarter of the 2016 championship, in which Alabama outscored Clemson 24-16. In just the fourth quarter. The ghost of Paul Bryant and the future ghost of Nick Saban could be heard howling into the midnight.
Once again, though, we can’t shake that this looks like a defensive struggle. Clemson is clearly not the offensive team it was in its two prior meetings with Alabama. But is Alabama the same offensive team that faced Clemson the last two years? Until Alabama’s horrible showing at Jordan-Hare Stadium last month, the answer was probably yes. Now? The landscape looks quite different.
Clemson has maintained balance in its offense this year, but the effectiveness of the offense isn’t what it was compared to the last couple of years when Deshaun Watson was triggering it. Clemson is 31st in rushing and 53rd in passing for a total offense ranking of 30th. There aren’t any numbers that jump off the page as being particularly troubling for Clemson, and the offense put together a good close on the season, beginning with the Tigers’ first game in November, a shootout win over North Carolina State. It’s the same spread-based, tempo-heavy offensive system the Tigers have employed in the past, and given how effective it was at exhausting Alabama’s front seven last year, expect more of the same this year.
Alabama brings in its multiple, pro-style attack that is increasingly moving back to a zone-read base. Throw out the Auburn game and there’s nothing to be worried about – particularly given how the offense closed the Mississippi State game out two weeks before. Alabama ranks 19th in total offense, but it’s an unbalanced 19th – 8th in rushing, 86th in passing.
Go back three weeks into the season or so and the discussion wouldn’t be about whether Jalen Hurts was better than Kelly Bryant, but about how much. But that was before Clemson averaged 40.4 points over its last five games, and Hurts played some of the worst football of his career against hated Auburn.
Now analysts are going back over their notes. In regards to raw numbers, Bryant averages less than 4 yards per carry, but part of that might be due to an offensive line that hasn’t been the best at protecting him (sack yardage counts against rushing totals at the college level).
Through the air, Bryant has completed 67.4% of his passes, compared to 60.8% for Hurts, but Hurts has thrown just 1 interception while Bryant has thrown 6 on the season. Hurts’ efficiency rating is much higher than Bryant, and then there is Hurts’ 5.6-yard-per-carry average and his proven ability to take over games with his feet. As such, the two come out about even.
As for backups, despite Tua Tagovailoa’s development this year, Clemson is one team that can argue depth at the quarterback position with just about any team. Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson have combined for 490 yards and 67.7 completion percentage, while Tagovailoa is at 470 and 66.0%. Tagovailoa has thrown for twice the number of touchdowns as Clemson’s duo.
The real question is whether Tagovailoa will play in this game, as the response to Hurts’ struggles against Auburn has been a bit different than struggles earlier in his career. For Clemson, neither Cooper nor Johnson will get in this game absent an injury to Bryant. It remains to be seen whether Alabama remains steadfastly committed to Hurts for every single snap. For now, this one has to be called based on recent results. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson has done a good job, team-wise, of rushing the ball this year, even if the Tigers lack a true bellcow back. Travis Etienne (103 carries, 744 yards, 7.2 avg., 13 TD) has been highly effective in limited carries, and Tavien Feaster (103 carries, 659 yards, 6.4 avg., 7 TD) has been a capable backup.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant is the team’s third-leading rusher, but Clemson also has the experienced C.J. Fuller (58 carries, 217 yards, 3.7 avg., 3 TD) and Adam Choice (62 carries, 312 yards, 5.0 avg., 6 TD) coming off the bench. Etienne’s superb efficiency as a back is worrisome for an Alabama defense that would like to concentrate more on pressuring Bryant into poor decisions.
The one part of Etienne’s game that is missing is his value as a receiver; he has just 5 catches on the year, although the other backs, especially Feaster, have been more active in that regard.
Alabama will start Damien Harris and use Bo Scarbrough as his chief backup, while Joshua Jacobs will play a third-down role along with other package work. Harris could hit the 1,000-yard mark for the season with a good game here, but Scarbrough has lacked the effectiveness in 2017 that made him such an integral part of Alabama’s gameplan for January’s Clemson matchup. Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr. add depth, but both players have fallen out of the tailback rotation in big games.
With Jacobs being an effective neutralizer for Fuller and Choice, if not pulling ahead of them in terms of pure running ability, the question then becomes how Harris and Scarbrough compare to Etienne and Feaster. All four are quality backs, but Scarbrough has given Clemson trouble in the past, and Harris has been the most consistent out of any of the four. Etienne’s ability to serve as an equalizer, though, must not be overlooked. Advantage: Alabama
While Deshaun Watson was certainly one of the biggest thorns in Alabama’s side the last two years, the performance by Clemson’s wide receiver corps in the two previous meetings shouldn’t be overlooked. Just the mention of the name Hunter Renfrow sends Alabama fans scrambling for the antacid.
Renfrow, Clemson’s slot receiver, has looked quite pedestrian in 2017 – just over 10 yards per catch, averaging just 5 receptions per game, scoring only 3 touchdowns – but Alabama doesn’t care one little bit. How to cover him is probably the biggest single issue for Alabama’s secondary. Deon Cain and Rar-Ray McCloud have chipped in another 98 receptions and 1,161 yards between the two of them. Tee Higgins, Diondre Overton, Amari Rodgers and Trevion Thompson all have double-digit receptions off the bench. Tight end Milan Richard hasn’t been used much, but he’s put up good numbers when he has been targeted and has 17 total catches on the year.
For Alabama, it’s basically been Calvin Ridley and not much else. While Ridley is the most talented receiver on either side – and by a fairly long shot, at that – the supporting cast has not found a way into the box score with nearly enough regularity. And even Ridley – who has 55 catches for 896 yards on the year, a 16.3-yard average – has been mostly kept out of the end zone, as he has just 3 touchdown receptions.
Cameron Sims and Robert Foster form the other two-thirds of the starting cast, but it’s reserve receiver Jerry Jeudy who has shown the most promise of breaking out soon. What has to happen is for Jalen Hurts to involve them more in the game, because Clemson is going through similar gastric pains over the issue of stopping Ridley that Alabama is over trying to out-scheme Renfrow.
Other under-utilized reserves like Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith could be called upon by Alabama, while the tight end duo of Hale Hentges and Irv Smith Jr. need to continue their strong play as of late. If anything, Alabama’s group has shown superior deep-threat capabilities to Clemson, while the Tiger receivers have been more effective on short and intermediate routes.
Alabama also has far superior height, as a group. But until Alabama proves it can do something with Clemson’s slot receivers – most notably Renfrow – we’ll bet the horse we know. Advantage: Clemson
The one potential weakness of the Clemson team that doesn’t get talked about enough is the offensive line. The sack count is up in 2017, and the ability to hold back tackles for loss, while not terrible (38th nationally), is not on par with what Alabama has done for its running game (4th).
The issue seems to be at tackle, especially on the right side, where Sean Pollard and Tremayne Anchrum have passed the starting job back and forth all year. Anchrum isn’t typical tackle size anyway (6’2”, 290 at best), which sort of speaks to the concern over Pollard’s performance. Mitch Hyatt draws the left tackle assignment. Up the middle, Justin Falcinelli starts at center with Taylor Hearn on the left and either Tyrone Crowder or Maverick Morris on the right side.
Another issue here is depth, as Anchrum is also the backup at left tackle and Morris the likely backup at both guards. Alabama cleans up in a depth discussion, as the Crimson Tide can field more than three complete platoons of scholarshipped athletes.
For this game, Bradley Bozeman starts at center, with Ross Pierschbacher returning from an ankle injury to start at right guard and Lester Cotton drawing the left guard assignment. Jonah Williams and Matt Womack start at the tackles. While Clemson is probably better than it has shown, the fact is Alabama just has better numbers top to bottom, and a more settled lineup. Advantage: Alabama
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