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By Jess Nicholas
Jan. 7, 2019
Whether you’re an optimist (“We still have Nick Saban!”) or a pessimist (“This was the beginning of the end!”) about Alabama football probably hinges on how many total points you thought swung about on two poor decisions and throws from QB Tua Tagovailoa, and Alabama’s response to it.
Clemson got 14 points off those two turnovers, so the easy answer is that. Then you have to figure out how many points Alabama lost the opportunity to score by not having the ball. It’s a number somewhere between zero and 14, meaning the full damage was as much as 28 points.
We’ll never know, though, because Clemson took something far more important to this game than the football – it took Alabama’s composure, and the Crimson Tide really never got it back.
More important than the injuries to Christian Miller and Saivion Smith, more important than a fake field goal call that was every bit as misguided as Kirby Smart’s fake punt call in the SEC Championship Game, was the fact that when Alabama was put behind by two scores, it might as well have been two worlds.
Here, for the first time, was its unflappable quarterback getting flapped. Here was a coaching staff that had been two steps ahead of opponents all year suddenly playing an unfamiliar game of catch-up on both offense and defense.
Put bluntly, it looked like Alabama thought it could fly out to California, roll out of bed and win by 14. And that very much did not happen.
Clemson benefited greatly from facing Notre Dame in its semifinal game, because it would be a shock to learn the Tigers worked even a majority of the month of December on the Fighting Irish. They didn’t need to. Alabama, meanwhile, had a demon to slay in the form of the Oklahoma Sooners, which had become a pariah over the years to all things crimson and white and hailing from Tuscaloosa.
Still, Alabama was a solid favorite in this game, and everything was lined up in a neat row, ready to be knocked down by Tagovailoa and an offense that had accomplished more than Clemson against a schedule more difficult than the one Clemson had faced.
Such are the perils of winning with offense instead of defense, and it’s precisely why former Alabama coaches like Gene Stallings chose not to attempt it. It’s a lot easier to pound people into the turf than have to bet on success based on what happens when the ball is airborne and out of your own control.
If this sounds like a precursor to a plea to return to the days of triple-option football and an offense that moved so slowly that state troopers would write it up for impeding the flow of traffic, stop clutching pearls and don’t worry. The game has changed enough over the last 20 years – the rules, the athleticism, the pro-level speed training and a hundred other things – that a team that shows up with a Steel Curtain defense but no offense is going to find itself taking the final curtain right over their heads. Repeatedly.
When your identity, though, is tied up in offense rather than defense – and especially when the last time in Tuscaloosa that was the case, it led to the implementation of the wishbone offense after two or three years of futility – you’re working without a net. And, you run the risk of simply not responding to the pressure of imminent defeat, or at least grave adversity.
Because the one thing lacking in all the discussions of Clemson’s success against Alabama in years past – after all the praise heaped upon defensive coordinator Brent Venables, or Dabo Swinney’s recruiting, or discussions of pick plays and other weirdness – is the fact that it’s been the Clemson offense that has done the most damage to the Alabama defense and not the other way around.
Clemson has Nick Saban figured out on defense. That’s no longer up for debate. The one game that broke the cycle, the 2017 semifinal in New Orleans, did so because Clemson’s then-QB Kelly Bryant simply wasn’t cut out for the kind of high-level football these two teams have become known for playing. And in a world increasingly dependent on offense, the lack of a plus-ability quarterback is the one thing no team can overcome.
So now it comes down to the big picture, the what-if, the uncomfortable question of whether Dabo Swinney has not just figured out Nick Saban’s defense, but whether he’s figured out how to knock Saban off his very throne.
Swinney is now 2-2 in playoff games against Saban, which by itself isn’t indicative of much. What is more pertinent, perhaps, is that things are trending Swinney’s way. His most recent loss was all about the lack of personnel at that now-imperative quarterback position. Flanking the loss were two wins in which Clemson dictated to Saban and Alabama how the game was going to be played.
Looking forward, next year’s Clemson team takes a major hit to the front seven of its defense. It will, in fact, be a bigger hit than the one Alabama took to its own defense heading into 2018, by several degrees. Offensively, the Clemson offensive line will need to be retooled, and there’s always the loss of Hunter Renfrow, although it’s players like Justyn Ross that made much more of a difference this time around.
More to the point, however, is that Clemson isn’t going to fear the power of the diploma. Swinney’s recruiting has allowed him to get onto peer level with Nick Saban in at least one regard: He doesn’t have to worry about replacing talent – he just has to replace experience.
And what of Nick Saban? The sun eventually sets on all horizons; it’s just a matter of when. Surely, this game won’t make Saban tuck tail and run, but it will either be the catalyst that triggers Saban’s next great evolution – as his embrace of spread concepts did his offense in 2018 – or it will mark the point in his tenure when he finally approached a chasm over which he could not leap.
The Crimson Tide, no matter what, will follow him to that valley – and then either over it, or into it.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Clemson:
1. Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott just punched their ticket to promotions. Elliot and Scott are Clemson’s co-offensive coordinators, and for much of 2018, despite Clemson having good offensive statistics, neither one had gotten much traction on the coaching vacancy landscape. That’s sure to change now. Clemson struggled on its first couple of drives against Alabama but after that, the Tigers mostly had their way with Alabama’s pass defense. While many were looking to the Clemson secondary as a possible weak point, it turned out to be Alabama who struggled more. The loss of Saivion Smith didn’t help, but the game was out of hand by then. Alabama’s safeties, especially Deionte Thompson, struggled at an uncharacteristic level. The way Clemson isolated Alabama’s linebackers in space harkened back to the Arkansas game – and given Arkansas head coach Chad Morris used to work for Swinney, bet money the two found time to talk this month. Overall it was a summary judgment of Alabama’s defense, which came out looking truly overrated.
2. Venables used Tua’s quick-read game against him, and got in his head. Tua Tagovailoa is by far the best pre-snap read QB in the country, with the gulf between him and whoever is in second place so wide that he can’t even see whoever is in second place behind him. So Brent Venables did what he had to do, and attacked Tagovailoa’s strength even if it was going to be a high-wire act. Unconventional blitz packages coupled with zone defense in the secondary directly led to the Tigers’ opening score on a pick-six, and another coverage rotation led to Tagovailoa’s second interception. The damage to Tagovailoa’s psyche, though, appeared massive. His confidence was shaken, and even if his face didn’t show it, his actions did. He became late on decisions, almost tentative at times, and then stared down early reads, things he’s never done since coming to Alabama. Clemson did what no one thought possible, sans injury: It took Tua Tagovailoa largely out of the game.
3. Alabama couldn’t overcome Miller’s injury, but bad ILB play also reared its head again. You can add a huge coaching snafu in with this as well – the decision to suddenly try to make Dylan Moses a confident edge player in rabbit packages rather than use Jamey Mosley in that role. This is an old knock on Alabama’s coaches that keeps coming back: When players go down to injury, too much reshuffling takes place in the name of getting the best 11 athletes on the field. Alabama’s soil-the-armor performance against Utah in the 2008/2009 Sugar Bowl was one of the earliest examples, when Bama elected to throw the OL lineup into a blender after Andre Smith was ruled out of the game, prioritizing overall ability rather than ability at specific positions. Moses had a poor night overall, and even though he’s a far more complete player than Mosley, it would have done Moses some good to get more frequent breathers, or simply not be out there trying to play a position at which he might have played a couple dozen snaps in his collegiate life. Clemson took the Arkansas playbook, goosed it with talent, and dropped it on Bama’s head like it was September again.
4. The missed PAT, while inconsequential to the final score, deflated the team at a crucial moment. Alabama had just bounced back from a pick-six and other crises to tie the score … until it didn’t tie the score. We’re beyond trying to figure out what happened here; a blunt fact is that Alabama now employs a special teams coach who inexplicably won some kind of award for special teams coaching, yet, outside of success in the return game – which is mostly a function of the genes that make up Jaylen Waddle and Josh Jacobs – Alabama fell backwards in the kicking game to set a low not seen in Tuscaloosa since probably the 1991 season. Stop telling us about the labor, show us the baby. Fix this. The missed PAT, which may have been exacerbated by a quick snap, obviously turned into a here-we-go-again moment as evidenced by the faces of the other players.
5. Execution errors abounded, but it wasn’t all on the players. We’ll start with the comical fake field goal, and as a result of it, today may be the best day in Kirby Smart’s most recent year on Earth. It took some of the heat off Smart’s decision in Atlanta and thrust it all upon Saban, who can’t seem to let a championship game (2009 Texas, 2016 Clemson, 2018 Clemson) go without a gimmick kick of some kind. This game, however, was over by that time anyway. Of greater concern was an offensive game plan that was apparently cast in cement and never moved. Alabama looked like it was on script all night rather than responding to what the defense was giving them. Alabama’s offensive line, for the first half at least, did a fantastic job opening holes – Alabama even outrushed Clemson for the game, despite the Tigers playing kill-the-clock for most of the fourth quarter – but after two early interceptions, it appeared the Tide was scared to adjust. Mostly, though, preparation in general just wasn’t there. That includes schemes, certainly, but the lack of mental focus and composure torpedoed any chance Alabama had to make a comeback.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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