By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 4, 2019
If you’re into comparative analysis, the big question heading into the College Football Playoff championship round is whether this Clemson team more resembles the Clemson of 2016, which defeated Alabama on the final drive to win the title that year, or the Clemson of 2017, which bore more of a resemblance to its in-state rival South Carolina than the Tiger team that had defeated Alabama 12 months prior.
In New Orleans last year, Alabama held Clemson ’17 under its thumb the entire game, and the Tigers never really challenged. Then-Clemson QB Kelly Bryant was made to look completely incompetent. Jalen Hurts had a better game than most Alabama fans wanted to give him credit for at the time, but it wasn’t a dominating performance. He didn’t need to be dominant, anyway. Alabama’s defense – especially OLB Anfernee Jennings – wrecked the Tiger offense and Alabama sailed through to its epic matchup against Georgia for the title.
This year, Alabama gets a Clemson team that is somewhere in between the last two versions. The question is how much like Clemson ’17 can Alabama make Clemson ’18 look.
Both teams make great use of RPOs and spread formations as part of a hybrid offensive style that is suddenly becoming the norm. Clemson ranks 3rd in total offense, 10th in rushing and 24th in passing, while Bama’s numbers are 4th, 34th and 6th in those same categories. Clemson is 4th in scoring offense and 16th in passing efficiency; Alabama is 2nd and 1st there. Alabama’s superior talent in the wide receiver corps – and a more experienced quarterback – has allowed the Crimson Tide to be a little more dynamic, but it’s not a wide gap. Both offenses are capable of scoring on any given play on any given possession.
Dabo Swinney pulled a Nick Saban early in the year and benched Kelly Bryant, who subsequently quit the team, for the more talented but far less experienced Trevor Lawrence. In doing so, he immediately made the Tigers more dangerous in the downfield passing game. Bryant’s QB rating of 146.9 wasn’t far off Lawrence’s 155.2, but Lawrence has been able to complete drives with greater success, throwing 24 touchdowns against just 4 interceptions. He also seems to have better poise and field vision; his durability may trail that of Bryant, however.
Lawrence isn’t going to be the running threat that Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray was last week, but Lawrence has rushed for 150 yards on 52 carries (2.8 avg.), which includes yardage lost to sacks, and those are solid numbers for a college quarterback. Those numbers are about on par with Bryant’s from earlier in the year, and it means Alabama isn’t going to be facing a statue in the pocket. Chase Brice is the backup, and his performance against Syracuse this year proved he won’t necessarily wilt if thrown into the game. He actually carries a higher passer rating (162.5) than does Lawrence, but the sample size is much smaller.
Alabama will start Tua Tagovailoa, who showed everyone last week just how dangerous he is when completely healthy. Everything about Tua’s stat line – the 3,671 yards passing, the 41 touchdowns, the 205.2 QB rating – is better than Lawrence, and he’s run for more yards (199) and more touchdowns (5, versus Lawrence’s 1).
Backup Jalen Hurts is the most dangerous No. 2 quarterback in the country at the moment, and against Oklahoma recorded a pass completion, a carry and a pass reception. He’ll be used as more than just a backup quarterback. Lawrence certainly has a bright future and will probably be Tagovailoa’s main competition for the Heisman Trophy next year, but Tua is better now and Hurts gives Alabama a huge edge off the bench. Advantage: Alabama
Travis Etienne has had a remarkable season, rushing for 1,572 yards, an 8.3 yards-per-carry average, and 22 touchdowns. On the other hand, Alabama has seen Etienne before and shut him down. So the question is much the same for Etienne as it is for Clemson as a whole: Do you go with the 2018 stats, or the actual, on-field history of this series?
Clemson brings a deep bench to this game as well, with Tavien Feaster, Adam Choice and Lyn-J Dixon all hovering around the 500-yard mark on the season, and those three have combined for an additional 18 rushing touchdowns.
If we didn’t take into account what Alabama accomplished against Oklahoma, you could stop right there and call it an edge to Clemson, because the Tigers have more bodies and it’s impossible to ignore the possibility that Etienne has greatly improved over his 2017 season. But then you turn on the tape and watch how Josh Jacobs took over the game against Oklahoma, a month after punishing Georgia and winning the MVP of the SEC Championship Game.
Damien Harris and Najee Harris are also going to play in this game, and play a bunch, but Damien Harris still has yet to crack the 900-yard mark on the season and Najee Harris’ impact down the stretch has been inconsistent. Neither team uses a fullback, but Brian Robinson Jr. might get some spot work for Alabama as a blocking back. As everything stands at this moment, the most accurate description of what’s going on here is that Jacobs is the best running back for either team right now, but Clemson has the better overall unit. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson saw what happened in 2017 when it relied on Hunter Renfrow as its bellcow receiver: Renfrow wasn’t up to the challenge. He’s extremely effective as a third receiver in the slot, though, and that’s what he’ll be in this game, with Tee Higgins and true freshman Justyn Ross starting on the outside. Higgins and Ross are both listed at 6’4”, 210, but Ross has played far more physical than those numbers this year.
Essentially, Alabama is going to get Clemson ’16 at the receiver positions, which is not good news. Renfrow’s actual numbers on the year – 534 yards receiving, 11.4 avg., 1 TD – don’t scare anyone, but he knows how to turn it up in big games and Alabama can’t seem to crack him when he lines up inside. Amari Rodgers and Derion Kendrick give Clemson good depth, along with Trevion Thompson and Diondre Overton.
The Crimson Tide will counter with Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith as its starters, with Jaylen Waddle effectively a fourth starter coming off the bench. Derek Kief and Tyrell Shavers provide depth. If stats matter at the running back position, then they also matter here, and Alabama dominates that comparison.
The biggest mismatch on the board, though, is at tight end, where Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr. is one of the best in the country, while Clemson is starting Milan Richard, who has just 5 catches on the year. Garrett Williams is a fullback/H-back blend, and he’ll probably see more snaps overall, but Richard is going to have to play more than Clemson would like due to the suspension of Braden Galloway. Smith for Bama has caught 40 passes for 667 yards (16.7 avg.) and 7 touchdowns, and is a devastating blocker.
Hale Hentges is right there with him in blocking acumen. And if the wideouts weren’t already a modest edge by themselves, add the tight ends and it becomes a clear edge to the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
Clemson is 4th in tackles for loss allowed and 13th in sacks allowed, and this group has been the unsung key to the Tigers’ success in 2018. It’s a veteran group of all upperclassmen, led by center Justin Falcinelli. John Simpson and Gage Cervenka will start at the guards, with Tremayne Anchrum and Mitch Hyatt starting at the tackles. Hyatt in particular is going to be a high draft pick in the spring. There’s decent depth behind the starters, with Sean Pollard splitting starts with Cervenka and Chandler Reeves available at tackle.
Alabama will start Ross Pierschbacher at center flanked by guards Lester Cotton and Alex Leatherwood. Jonah Williams and Jedrick Wills start at the tackles. With Deonte Brown’s season over due to suspension, Alabama has been experimenting with several options at guard this week in case a reserve is needed. Josh Casher, Matt Womack, Richie Petitbon and Emil Ekiyor are all in the mix; Womack and Scott Lashley are the reserve tackles.
Bama ranks 8th in sacks allowed and 9th in tackles for loss allowed, so this is strength compared to strength here. Alabama dominated Oklahoma last week, but the Clemson defensive line is several steps up in difficulty. This one mostly comes down to Brown being out at right guard and Cotton, whose consistency has not been the best, being thrown into a do-or-die situation. Advantage: Clemson
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