By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 2, 2018
Lost in the month of hand-wringing over whether Alabama QB Jalen Hurts was capable of leading the Crimson Tide past Clemson, was the fact that the Clemson Tigers of 2017 weren’t the Clemson Tigers of the past two years.
All teams ebb and flow, and perhaps no team did a better job covering up the ebbs than Clemson and its coach, Dabo Swinney. When Swinney’s Clemson career is judged 10 years from now, this might be his best coaching job of the period.
Gone from the last two teams was Wayne Gallman, who while held to modest per-carry numbers in both Alabama games, always seemed to be able to make a play when it counted most. Gone were defensive stars Ben Boulware, Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson, instinctive players all. Receiver Mike Williams, who gave Alabama a matchup headache that all the BC Powder in the world couldn’t quell, was no longer there. And most importantly, quarterback Deshaun Watson, who appears to have a bright NFL future ahead of him, wasn’t under center.
In their place were talented players, but perhaps not talented enough, or at least not dynamic enough. Nowhere was that more evident than in the passing game, where Kelly Bryant spent 60 minutes Monday imitating Jalen Hurts’ first career play against Southern Cal over and over again.
Clemson’s best playmakers were supposed to be Bryant, and Hunter Renfrow, whose prior success was as much due to Mike Williams’ presence as his own skills. Renfrow cannot carry a passing game, particularly with Bryant unable to help him carry it.
And why was this so? Because Alabama brought a devastating gameplan and executed it to near-perfection.
It could have been perfection, but Alabama again lost a pair of starters to injury. Right guard Lester Cotton will miss next week’s game against Georgia. More importantly, linebacker Anfernee Jennings, who played the game of his dreams, is almost certainly a scratch as well, and if by some miracle he is able to play against Georgia, he will likely be significantly limited.
Beyond those items – which, unfortunately, have become the norm in Tuscaloosa rather than the exception – Alabama finally delivered on the defensive showdown this game was supposed to have been all along.
If anyone was concerned about Jeremy Pruitt lacking focus on the gameplan while preparing for his exit to Tennessee, those concerns proved ill-founded. The defensive gameplan rivaled that of another great Alabama Sugar Bowl defensive gameplan. It is fitting that on the night Gene Stallings was inducted into the Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame, Alabama more or less copied the 1993 Sugar Bowl domination of Miami right down to the last dot on the last “I”.
For that matter, you could have copied the third quarter of the 1993 Sugar Bowl and pasted it onto the third quarter of this game. Like in 1993, Alabama came out of the half with a slim lead (10-3 here versus 13-6 there), and turned the game on two interceptions. In 1993, it was Tommy Johnson and George Teague. In 2018, it was Da’Ron Payne and then Mack Wilson, with an assist on the former from Anfernee Jennings and on the latter from Levi Wallace. Like in 1993, one interception was taken back for six (Teague/Wilson) while the other set up a short touchdown drive (Johnson/Payne). A notable difference was that Payne later got to finish off his own score by catching a pass out of the backfield for a touchdown out of Alabama’s “Jumbo” package.
The end result in both games was the same: Alabama’s opponent went from down close to down far, and both games were essentially over after the second turnover.
If Alabama’s gameplan this time out was to control Renfrow and confuse Bryant, it came up aces. Renfrow caught 5 passes for 31 meaningless yards, a function of a special combo coverage scheme that centered on Minkah Fitzpatrick serving as Renfrow’s personal shadow. Alabama didn’t always stay in man-to-man alignment after the snap, though, and Bryant never really figured it out. Besides the two interceptions he did throw, at least two others went right through Alabama hands, including one on the same route and the same coverage that resulted in Wilson’s pick-six. The game simply got too big for Bryant; he’ll certainly improve as he gets older, but there would be no miraculous Clemson comeback Monday as there was in January 2017.
Alabama’s expert gameplanning wasn’t just contained to the defensive side. Alabama’s offensive plan wasn’t flashy, but Alabama was determined to attack Clemson’s middle and it stuck to the plan. Alabama also found a flaw in the Clemson secondary – the ability to fight through outside screens – and used short passes in the flat to its advantage, the prettiest of those going to true freshman Najee Harris. Except for the final two drives of the first half and the opening drive of the second half, Alabama looked competent and comfortable.
No one who watched college football Monday could have avoided the Oklahoma-Georgia shootout, and what the implications could be for Alabama this week. Alabama’s offensive plan for Georgia might need to be tuned up a bit, but Georgia is unlikely to find Alabama’s defense as forgiving as Oklahoma’s.
For now, most of the noise is coming from offended pundits who can’t stand the thought of the College Football Playoff setting up the exact scenario it was designed to prevent. And for those upset about an all-SEC title game, they are basically admitting they don’t really want the best teams. Instead, they want conference welfare, where lesser teams get picked because it’s “fair.” Both Alabama and Georgia earned their shots. This is a meritocracy, not kindergarten kickball.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Clemson:
1. Alabama’s defensive gameplan targeted Clemson’s offensive tackles, getting DEs upfield and forcing Bryant to step up. Anfernee Jennings was the true defensive player of this game, not Da’Ron Payne, although Payne played very well. His four-minute dream sequence that ended in a tiptoe touchdown catch made him the media favorite for the award, but Jennings flat-out abused Clemson’s tackles on nearly every snap. Terrell Lewis also played well coming from the other side, but seemed to tweak an ankle in the third quarter and his effectiveness was cut a bit after that. Clemson’s OL weakness, as profiled by TideFans.com prior to the game, was in pass protection and specifically the tackle slots.
Alabama was able to get consistent pressure across the front all night, but it was the ends and the Jack and strongside linebackers that really brought the house down. Bryant is better rolling out than stepping up into the pocket and it was one of those plays that touched off Payne’s interception in the first place, with Jennings coming upfield and then from behind to make the initial hit. After about a quarter of dealing with this, Bryant’s eyes began coming down about two seconds after receiving the snap, meaning if his primary read was covered, he was either going to run, throw the ball away or make a poor decision. He nearly repeated his pick-six throw in a later possession. For that matter, Clemson’s last drive was successful only because the Tigers ran the ball a few times and forced Alabama to get out of pure dime coverage.
2. Offensive plan was to run downhill, then attack the flats in the passing game, and worked well. With the notable exception of Alabama’s next-to-last offensive possession, which saw the Tide throw it twice with seven minutes left up 18 points, this was one of Bama’s best gameplans of the year, if not the best overall. While Clemson’s offense is retooling, its defense is still one of the best in the nation. It is more or less a copy of last year’s unit, with one notable exception – cornerback play. We gave the edge to the Clemson secondary in our preview based on the struggles Alabama had against Auburn’s passing game, but Alabama more than corrected its issues. Clemson’s, however, remained.
Alabama utilized passes to the running backs – 7 of the Crimson Tide’s 16 completions went to backs, a departure from recent results – and Clemson had a hard time getting through receiver blocks to stop those throws. While the yardage gained from those throws wasn’t great, it forced Clemson to consider committing resources at safety to cover noise in the flats, which helped open up the middle a bit for a running game that more than pulled its own weight. In a game where both teams were committed to minimizing backbreaking mistakes, the fact Alabama outrushed Clemson 141-64 was an advantage that went far beyond the raw numbers. Alabama was able to control field position just enough to keep Bryant from getting any short-field drive attempts. And when he did finally make mistakes, Alabama made him pay dearly for them.
3. The month off made Alabama’s defense great again. It was never a bad defense at any point in the season, but Alabama was finally able to again show what a fully-operational battle station looks like with all the parts in place. Regrettably, Jennings’ injury again sends Alabama back to the drawing board somewhat, but a healthy Terrell Lewis, a healthy Mack Wilson, a healthy Da’Shawn Hand, etc., showed everyone what this defense could have done over and above the results it got had half the team not been med-evac’ed out of the Florida State opener.
Christian Miller still looked a bit tentative in this game; he’s the player most likely to get the bulk of Jennings’ work next week, and Jamey Mosley goes back to being a regular after being a spot player against Clemson. It isn’t the ideal scenario, but it’s what Alabama has to work with at the moment. The best news was that Alabama didn’t play too many snaps Monday, its defensive line is running at optimum levels (and LaBryan Ray will be fully available next week), and having Hand healthy allows Alabama to do some up/down stuff with its base ends package that might help against Georgia’s fantastic running game.
4. Issues of concern: running back health, wide receiver production, placekicker. Now that the evidence is in, something is up with Bo Scarbrough in 2017. Alabama hasn’t mentioned any injuries, but Scarbrough had the same month off the defense had and it made no difference. He ran 12 times for 24 yards against Clemson and showed very little vision and no burst. Joshua Jacobs played a lot early in the game, but spent the entire second half on the bench. Jacobs reportedly injured a hamstring in practice this week, and his second-half absence was either due to a re-aggravation of that injury, or the coaches are simply trying to save him for next week. If he’s no better next week, it leaves Alabama with one healthy, productive back out of its A-rotation (Damien Harris) and a lot of question marks. Najee Harris looked superb in his very limited work, but there’s virtually no chance Alabama will change up the rotation now. It’s basically on Jacobs to stay healthy and Scarbrough to put on a show. At receiver, much was made this week of the frustration some receivers were having with Alabama’s suddenly-limited passing game, but at the same time,
Cameron Sims dropped a well-thrown, sure first down on Alabama’s opening drive, and Robert Foster couldn’t come up with what would admittedly have been a very tough catch later in the game. At some point, those plays have to be made, and to that end, Henry Ruggs III was able to make one of those plays. At placekicker, the injury that kept Andy Pappanastos out of the Mercer game may or may not be to blame, but he hasn’t been striking the ball as well since, even on his successful kicks. The sequence at the end of the second quarter, with a short field goal blocked – and then re-tried, thanks to a fortuitous Alabama penalty, but ultimately missed anyway, is problematic. Fortunately, he’ll be kicking in a dome this week again, but Alabama might need to give J.K. Scott an extra-long look in practice this week just in case.
5. In the end, Clemson wasn’t quite what Alabama thought they were. While pundits were busy tearing into the CFP committee over allowing Alabama into the final four in the first place, what was missing was an honest deep dive into the 2017 Clemson program and whether the Tigers belonged. Clemson had, by far, the worst loss of any of the four playoff teams, a 27-24 defeat at Syracuse, a program that lost its last five games to finish the year 4-8. Clemson ultimately proved to be Syracuse’s last win of the year. Alabama and Georgia both lost to Auburn, while Oklahoma lost to Iowa State, an improving program that finished off an 8-5 season by winning its bowl game.
Perhaps the most damning thing to come out of Clemson’s Syracuse loss was how the Tigers scored 24 points but somehow Wake Forest was able to score 64 and Louisville 56 against the Orange within the month that followed. The explanation, of course, is that the Clemson offense took a massive step back in 2017, even if statistics didn’t show the full extent of it. To some degree, it’s a sign of Dabo Swinney growing up: Clemson is no longer the trick-play maven, damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead program it was five or even three years ago. For most of Monday’s game, in fact, Alabama appeared to be the tempo team, while Clemson was more methodical and cautious. Clemson never looked like a bad matchup for Alabama, but Alabama probably wasn’t expecting the ease by which it dispatched the Tigers. Did Clemson belong in the playoff? By resume, it probably did. Was this the No. 1 team in the country? Absolutely not.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN