Clemson runs a 4-3 base, but one of the outside linebackers is a hybrid rover, giving the Tigers an easy transition to a 4-2-5 nickel look on demand, which is where they’ll likely stay for most of this game. Clemson ranks 2nd in total defense and 2nd in rushing defense, and leads the nation in scoring defense. Pass defense comes in at 16th for raw numbers and 13th in efficiency defense. The Crimson Tide’s 3-4 over/under is 5th in scoring defense, 13th in total defense, 15th in pass efficiency defense, 19th in rushing defense and 22nd in raw pass defense. While the raw numbers trail Clemson a bit, Alabama arguably has faced more potent opposition, but Clemson is legit.
The big news here is Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence failed a test for banned substances before the start of the playoffs and was ruled out. Clemson is appealing the suspension, but the appeal is not expected to be successful. Lawrence’s loss creates a gaping hole at tackle that Albert Huggins will now be expected to fill.
Like fellow starter Christian Wilkins, Huggins is a senior, and he actually has more sacks than Lawrence in 2018. But now depth becomes a major concern, as Nyles Pinckney is listed as the backup at both slots, although freshman Jordan Williams has played in 11 games and done well with his opportunities. Lawrence’s loss isn’t going to kill Clemson’s chances by any means, but it’s going to reduce the margin for error (and injury) by a significant factor.
Alabama will also have to contend with productive ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, who have combined for 31.5 tackles for losses and 19.5 sacks. Clemson leads the nation in sacks and is 2nd in tackles for loss. In a similar scenario to the running back group, Alabama has the best individual player of either team (DT Quinnen Williams), but might not control the overall category. Williams was just as disruptive against a good Oklahoma offensive line as he has been against any opponent this year, and we don’t expect Clemson to suddenly figure him out.
Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis will start at the ends, with Johnny Dwight and LaBryan Ray backing them up. Phidarian Mathis has improved significantly down the stretch as Williams’ backup in the middle, although there is still a significant dropoff when Williams is watching from the sideline. Alabama is 8th in sacks and 24th in tackles for loss, certainly not bad numbers but not up to Clemson’s production.
Where you see this category going depends entirely on whether you think Alabama can get OLB Christian Miller healthy in a week’s time. Miller suffered what appeared to be a season-ending hamstring injury against Oklahoma, but early reports this week out of Tuscaloosa indicate he may be on a faster track to recovery than initially thought.
Let’s examine the rest of the picture first: Anfernee Jennings has already shown what he can do against a Clemson offense, as he was a demon on the field in last year’s semifinal. Like last year, Jennings is playing his best football at the end of the season. Inside linebackers Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson have good weeks and not-so-good weeks, but they tend to do just fine when they’re not chasing around a badger-with-a-hangnail quarterback like Kyler Murray.
So that brings Miller’s strongside linebacker position back into focus, because Alabama has used its rabbit package (2 DL, 2 LB at DE) to great effect in 2018, but it’s only possible when the off-end can hold point against running plays. Miller is big enough to do just that. If he can’t go, senior Jamey Mosley, a former walk-on, will get the start. He’s better than he’s given credit for, but he isn’t as big or strong as Miller is, and he’s most effective in small doses.
The other options include Dylan Moses moving outside in certain packages – which risks tiring him out – or some combination of little-used reserves like Eyabi Anoma or Josh McMillon, or even LaBryan Ray in a linebacker role. Of those options, Anoma gives Alabama blistering speed off the corner as a pass rusher, but his run discipline is not good yet.
After flirting with the possibility of playing Terrell Lewis, Alabama has apparently shelved that idea in favor of rehabbing him for 2019. Clemson’s three starters – Isaiah Simmons, Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar – also happen to be the team’s No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 tacklers, respectively. There isn’t really a lightweight in the bunch, and Lamar is huge at 6’4”, 255.
Clemson also has three seniors as reserves, and two of them – J.D. Davis and Jalen Williams – have starting experience this year. If Alabama has Miller, it’s a game-changer because of Miller’s ability to stop the run while not having to dial back his aggressiveness as a pass rusher. Without him, this category isn’t even particularly close. Advantage: Clemson
If Clemson has a real weakness on defense, it’s here, where average (or even below-average) productivity has been covered up by the front seven all year. K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse will start at the safeties, with A.J. Terrell and Trayvon Mullen starting at the corners. Isaiah Simmons will frequently peel back from his strongside linebacker spot, while Mark Fields will be the third corner.
Denzel Johnson and Nolan Turner provide depth up the middle. Clemson ranks just 71st in interceptions, and there’s a striking lack of productivity from the cornerback spots. Given the receivers Clemson will be tasked with covering, this isn’t going to be an Oklahoma redux, but Alabama shouldn’t have a lot of trouble getting separation.
Bama will start Patrick Surtain II and Saivion Smith at the corners, with Xavier McKinney and Deionte Thompson at the safeties and Shyheim Carter at nickel. Jared Mayden has become a force at dime late in the year. Oklahoma picked on Surtain relentlessly last week, and is really the only team to make that strategy work this season.
Whether the Sooners just got lucky, or whether they correctly identified a weakness is yet to be seen. Both teams have big corners and safeties that can hit, but Alabama has better raw talent and is better on the perimeter. Advantage: Alabama
Here’s the shock of the week: Bama is better here. Clemson’s Greg Huegel hasn’t missed a PAT this year, but he’s just 10-of-15 (66.7%) on field goals, 3-of-6 (50%) from beyond 40 yards out and hasn’t hit from beyond 49. Alabama’s Joseph Bulovas has had some very public struggles with the chip-shot PAT kick, missing 5 of them on the year, but is 13-of-17 (76.5%) on field goals and 3-of-4 (75%) from long distance.
In terms of gross average, punter Will Spiers has a higher average than the Tide’s Mike Bernier, but Spiers is below 40 yards per kick on the year himself. While Alabama is a dismal 120th in net punting, Clemson’s ranking of 90th is nothing to celebrate. Moreover, Alabama is 5th in punt return defense while Clemson is 59th.
The difference really shows up in the return game, where Alabama is a long-return threat on both punts and kickoffs, while Clemson has struggled in punt returns (84th) this year. Yes, we’re shocked too. Advantage: Alabama
It’s a 4-4 tie for the championship round, which shouldn’t surprise many. Several categories could go either way. The real question here is the OL-DL cross-matchups, and it would appear both defensive lines hold the edge over the other team’s offensive line. In that regard, Alabama’s edge would appear slimmer than Clemson’s. This game has the potential to get mired down in a trench fight – and honestly, that’s what last year’s semifinal was to a large extent.
The worst criticism that could be thrown Clemson’s way is despite all the production and all the statistical dominance, at times, the Tigers haven’t been able to translate stats to results. There was the close win over Texas A&M early in the year, when the Aggies should have been at their most vulnerable despite hosting the game. There were the last-minute heroics against Syracuse, a team that won 10 games but did it so quietly that only the college football diehards even noticed. More importantly, when South Carolina came calling, Clemson managed to get itself into a 56-35 shootout with one of the SEC’s more offensively sporadic teams.
Alabama, on the other hand, managed to limit its bad defensive showings to Arkansas, which happened at the beginning of the season before the young defense came together, and triple-option purveyors The Citadel, a game that means exactly zero in the big picture.
With the OL-DL matchups so tight, Bama’s real edge would appear to be the combination of QB Tua Tagovailoa and the Tide’s peerless wide receiver group going against a Clemson secondary that has shown at least the potential to struggle against top wideouts. If Alabama can keep Tagovailoa relatively unmolested, Bama looks like a two-score winner here. But honestly, that’s a pretty big “if.”
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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN