The narrative has persisted, though the results on the field have more than countered the official story.
"Nick Saban's defense can't stop the HUNH-spread option with a dual threat quarterback."
Sure, there was that time in '08, when Saban's surprisingly potent Alabama defense was gashed by Urban Meyer's Florida offense, complete with Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow at the helm. There was a 2010 loss at the hands of Gus Malzahn's Cam Newton-led (another Heisman winner) version of fast-paced fury during the Chizik regime. In 2012, it was Kevin Sumlin's Texas A&M which stunned he Tide by bringing a dual-threat QB-driven hurry-up spread offense to Tuscaloosa with Johnny Manziel (yet another Heisman winner...seeing a pattern here?)
Three games have largely shaped the public perception of Saban's defense versus crafty, spread-out, lightning-quick offenses with a heavy quotient of quarterback mobility. Is that fair? Probably not. If there's one thing Saban has been able to do in his decades of coaching, it's that he's adapted and continued his long string of successes. For several seasons now, his focus has been on creating the type of versatile, multiple defense that can be the assassin's bullet for such tricky offenses, while retaining the ability to still match power-on-power with the likes of perennial foes LSU and Arkansas.
If there's been a defense thus far that could mark the peak of Saban's continued evolution, it would be the 2015 edition. Studded with five-star athletes and role players, Alabama's defense is as multiple as many of the offenses it is designed to attack. There are huge tackles, there are athletic ends. There are linebackers who specialize in pursuit and stuffing the run, and there are ‘backers whose sole responsibility involves the pass rush. Few teams these days have the offensive strategy or star-power to overwhelm the Alabama defense, as many have referred to its 2015 incarnation as one of the greatest defensive units of all time.
But the Tide's foe in the pending National Championship Game presents the final test for a defense that has proven able to halt nearly all comers this season. This Clemson offense is scary good: efficient, precise, difficult to diagnose. It's led by the kind of quarterback whose name fits in well with the likes of Tebow, Newton and Manziel, a shifty, football-savvy Heisman finalist named Deshaun Watson who has proven equally adept at slaying defenses with both his arm and his legs. He's surrounded by talent, a running back in Wayne Gallman, who, though not a household name, accrued over 1500 yards rushing over the course of the season. Watson has wide receiving targets galore, and his ace in the hole may be future NFL tight end Jordan Leggett, a demon in the seam who is often the tipping point that makes the Clemson offense all but unstoppable.
Combine the fact that this Clemson offense is paired with an elite, top-10 defense, and the prospect of a championship game reminiscent of Auburn, Florida and A&M games past rears the head of doubt. Alabama is a mighty team, to be sure, unstoppable at times with the aforementioned top-ranked defense in the country, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back and elite offensive line, and a dynamic playmaker in Calvin Ridley who has come through for the Tide time and time again.
But unlike many cases this season, the Tide will not be the bully who can physically overpower this particular foe. No, like the plucky schoolyard hero who refuses to turn over his lunch money, this Clemson team will take every punch Bama can throw while landing a few of its own.
This game will test the mettle of an Alabama team that has overcome the adversity of an early loss and the death of a former teammate (former Tide running back Altee Tenpenny). It will be the pinnacle of a season that has seen the evolution of the Tide offense from a haphazard, ineffectual, bumbling unit to a dominating presence capable of adapting to what the opponent cedes...then beating said opponent over the head with said cession. This game would mark the crown jewel in what could go down as the greatest season of defensive football a college team has ever enjoyed, as the Clemson offense surely presents the Tide's most complete and thorough challenge to date.
Will Alabama's offense be able to adapt to the narrow lanes of victory offered by Clemson's stellar defense? Can Jake Coker complete his feel-good-story-of-the-year as the prodigal son who returned to Alabama to bring his childhood favorite back to greatness? Can Derrick Henry once again put on a show on a national stage and prove doubters wrong for likely his final time as a collegian? Will the Alabama defense once again be the impenetrable "Great Wall of Hell Naw," shutting down its most potent rushing and passing opponent to date?
These questions and more remain to be answered in a mere few hours...until then, let's take a closer look.
The Alabama offense versus the Clemson defense
The Alabama offense has been, throughout the 2015 season, a steady work in progress. At the dawn of the season, it was clear that the Tide could count on its power running back Henry, even when the good-not-great offensive line at times struggled to create the holes to spring him to safety.
The biggest question mark was the play at quarterback, as a starter was not named to begin the season. Coker and fellow QB Cooper Bateman made the final cut as the most likely to line up under center, but it wasn't until Alabama's loss to Ole Miss in the third game of the season that Coker established himself, not as the second coming of Joe Willie Namath, but as the quarterback most likely to lead the team to victory by any means necessary. His comeback attempt was unsuccessful that evening, but what he accomplished with a gritty performance was the winning of the hearts and minds of his Alabama teammates. From there, the gun-slinger has made a perpetual climb, both statistically and in terms of his confidence, to become a potential national championship-winning signal caller.
Much of the evolution of Coker, and the Alabama offense as a whole, must be credited to offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Kiffin has a penchant for diagnosing an opponent's weakness, and then using the weapons in his arsenal to attack that flaw in the armor. At times, Alabama has been content to line up and pound Henry 40+ times in a game. At other times, such as the Tide's recent trouncing of Michigan State, Alabama abandoned the running game almost completely, instead electing for an air attack complete with successful downfield passing.
Kiffin has a noted ability to review what previous opponents have done successfully to opposing defenses in the past, and then steal the best plays to insert into Bama's own offense. In the win against Michigan State, Kiffin's schemes borrowed liberally from Chip Kelly's last Oregon team, Art Briles' Baylor playbook, and even Tom Herman's Ohio State offense. (For more on Kiffin's creative offensive larceny, check out this link to Chris Brown's article over at Smart Football.) Kiffin is no fool, and his ability to adapt and attack any defense in front of him has been one of Alabama's primary advantages this season.
The identity of the Alabama offense is a Sybil-esque twisting of multiple personalities: at times, a physical, Power running team...at others, a spread passing attack. There's simply no pinning down what the Tide offense can - or will - do in any given situation.
Such is the case against a Clemson defense that, statistically speaking, is one of the nation's elite units. Often thought of as the little brother of the Power 5, the ACC is not necessarily known for physical power football, but Clemson 2015 has done as much to counteract that prejudice as any team outside of Tallahassee in the last several years.
This year's Clemson defense is just plain nasty on all fronts. It is, quite simply, difficult to find the kind of weakness that Kiffin has proven so adept at exploiting. With at least two future pros on the defensive line, two hulking, physical linebackers who will also likely play on Sundays, and a brash, trash-talking, elite secondary, Clemson's defense is likely the most sound group of defenders, top to bottom, that one will find outside of Tuscaloosa.
So how do the teams match-up? In all honesty, the match-up will be exceedingly difficult for Alabama. Clemson excels at stopping the run. In fact, it is the first priority of any defense coached by defensive coordinator Brent Venables. The Tigers use a variety of approaches to reach this end, but the 4-3 Over front employed this season has been lethally effective at stopping tailbacks in their tracks. With an outside-in strategy that sets the edge and forces the running back into a middle rife with crashing linebackers and safeties, Alabama will be hard-pressed to pound the ball away the way it did against other lesser opponents this season. Much as was the case with the Michigan State defense, Kiffin will need to find a way to attack the Clemson defense and keep the chains moving that doesn't involve a heavy run component, at least not in the early going.
Okay, so Kiffin can do what he did with the Tide offense against the Spartans, right? Not so fast. The Spartan secondary was clearly not on the level of the elite unit the Clemson Tigers will bring into the game. While the MSU corners gave guys like Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart a respectable bubble, which was exploited by quick throws to the edges, Clemson will jam and challenge Alabama's receivers early and often. Cover corners MacKensie Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley are as good a defensive back duo as he Tide has played this season, and both men are perfectly comfortable (and perfectly capable) of locking horns with the Tide's best receivers in man coverage all night long if need be. Both corners excel in press coverage, and if there's any particular style against which Ridley has struggled this year, it's been the press.
Venables likes to line his best corner, Alexander, up against the opponent's best receiving threat, which is unquestionably Ridley. That Alexander will be in Ridley's pocket all night is certain. It's also certain that Alabama's offense will flounder without the threat of Ridley's big play potential, and his contribution of explosive plays. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that Kiffin diagnoses a way to involve Ridley in the game, either by moving him around the formation (as he did with Amari Cooper last season against Florida) or by finding a way to get the ball in his hands at the edges, where he is sure to win his share of battles one-on-one against Alexander.
One way that Kiffin has tackled the task of creating mismatch advantages for Ridley is by moving him around, from the edge to the slot, and even into the backfield at times. Against Michigan State, for example, Kiffin was able to free Ridley by moving him into the slot and using a tactic he saw Baylor use effectively against Michigan State the year before. Specifically, he moved Ridley to the slot, and had the edge receivers run 10 yard routes to the sidelines to occupy the corners as far away from the designed action as possible. With corners pinned to the boundary, Ridley in the slot drew coverage from a safety, who he obliterated easily en route to the Tide's huge second half touchdown strike from Coker. \
This is what Kiffin will have to do with the Clemson defense, but getting Ridley away from Alexander will be decidedly more difficult, as Venables will allow the crafty corner to shadow Ridley through motion and misdirection. On the occasions that Ridley can shake free, he will have an opportunity to flash his explosiveness. But against Clemson, that will not be quiet as easily accomplished as it was against the Spartan secondary.
With Ridley drawing blanket coverage from possibly the best cover corner in the ACC, it will be on the shoulders of Stewart, Richard Mullaney, O.J. Howard and Kenyan Drake to provide the explosiveness that the Tide needs. If there's any soft spot on the Clemson pass defense, it is their tendency to play pattern-matching coverage underneath while Alexander and Tankersley are locked in man combat. Venables is more concerned with limiting yards after catch than defending short passes, in other words. If that's all that Clemson will give early, the Tide will need its steady inside receivers to take what is there and keep the chains moving. After all, there will be some height and speed mismatches when Howard or Mullaney happen to draw soft coverage from Tiger linebackers, who admittedly don't count coverage as a strength. Doing so may loosen the lanes for the Tide's running attack to a degree, and give Alabama the kind of ball-control offensive output it will need early to keep Clemson's chief threat, its offense, at bay.
Speaking of the running game, how will Alabama be able to generate anything on the ground against so solid a run defense? There are a few tactics, but they go beyond the traditional concept of using the pass to loosen the run defense. As previously stated, Clemson is able, through strategy and cornerback ability, to keep nine defenders in or near the box most of the time. Sure, at times they'll run a Cover 1 and drop a safety deep in coverage. But for the most part, safeties Jayron Kearse and T.J. Green will be heavily involved in run defense rather than being stretched downfield in coverage.
While Kearse and Green are larger-framed safeties, they are still smaller than Henry in sheer size and bulk. And the duo has likely not come across a running back with the physicality of Bama's "El Tractorcito" this season. The Clemson linebackers are huge, and will prove a formidable force against the Tide run game...that is, if they are in position to make a play. They are aggressive and enjoy attacking gaps in downhill fashion, as seen against Oklahoma.
Because of this, the Clemson defense is somewhat susceptible to quick-developing running plays in which holes develop quickly after the snap, and linebackers read and overrun the pursuit or take bad angles. The Clemson defense has at times struggled with bad angles and broken tackles this year, and if the Bama offensive line can give Henry an opening through the first level, those factors could come to play against a man who has won a Heisman on yardage following broken tackles. Henry has nearly two dozen runs of over 20 yards this season, and if he can successfully break through to the Tiger second-level, he could be all the big-play explosiveness the Tide needs to seize the upper hand.
Another tactic for establishing the Tide running game will be to attempt to disrupt the Tigers need to set a hard edge as a foundation of their run defense. Typically, Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd are tremendous at what they are asked to do: namely, penetrating and overwhelming tackles to set the edge and seal off the space between the hashes and the sideline from opposing running games. That said, neither man has had to prove himself against the likes of Bama left tackle Cam Robinson this season. Robinson is dynamic, and can rise to the challenge of shoving around Clemson's elite ends as he has done with other elite SEC defenders in previous games. If Robinson, or likewise his fellow tackle on the right (Dominick Jackson), can disrupt the edge, Alabama's chances of establishing some sort of run increase exponentially. Nullify those ends and loosen the edges, and the Tiger run defense will begin to fall apart. It's a tall task indeed, but one the Tide would do well to conquer.
The Tide has largely used misdirection via jet sweep packages and wide receiver screens to set up big passing plays later in games, employing this form of misdirection to instill at least some confusion in the minds of defenders. The same may represent yet another key in establishing the offense against the Clemson defense, as forcing the Clemson linebackers to move out of position laterally will open lanes in both the running and short passing games. Even drawing the linebackers and safeties away from the play at the second level momentarily could create the needed hesitation, and against teams as speedy as the ones playing Monday night, hesitation equals space.
If Alabama can find a way, through formation, motion and misdirection, to move linebackers Ben Boulware and B.J. Green (and the safeties) away from the play's primary action momentarily, then there is plenty the Tide can do to keep the chains moving...and possibly more. If the LBs and safeties overrun or bite on misdirection or motion, it could result in a big play, since Clemson's favored man coverage downfield would leave few players with a legitimate threat of stopping guys like Henry or Drake in the open.
It will be absolutely critical for Alabama, regardless of tactic, to find a way to keep the chains moving against the Clemson defense, even when those drives do not result in touchdowns (or even field goals.) Clemson's offense is far too dangerous to be given the ball time after time, and Alabama's best path to a victory will come through ball-control and field position mastery on offense. Alabama's offense can increase the effectiveness of the defense by marching up and down the field and eating clock, again, even if said drives don't end in scores. There's no doubt Alabama must score early and often, to be sure, but a long, extended drive that wears on Clemson's defense and keeps the ball out of the hands of the offense is a win in and of itself. Because of this, look for Alabama to poke and prod early in an effort to explore Clemson's weaknesses while moving the chains with short gains.
One thing the Tide must avoid is putting itself in third-and-long situations through early down failures or ill-advised penalties. Clemson has the nation's second-ranked third-down defense, yielding a conversion only 25 percent of the time. This is an especially brutal statistic when one considers that Alabama is currently 96th in third-down offense, converting only 36 percent of third-down attempts on average. Leveraging positive offense on early downs will be a must for the Tide, and fortunately, Alabama has fared well in that metric, ranked 22nd nationally in first-down yardage. Getting behind the chains can be devastating for Alabama, as it will not only allow Clemson to release its effective bullet and fire zone blitzes with abandon, but it will also place Bama in the very situation in which it has struggled against lesser teams all season long.
One weakness in the Clemson defense could emerge later in the contest, as despite top-flite first-string talent, the Tigers have little experienced depth at positions outside of the defensive line. The Tigers can rotate in up to eight solid defensive linemen to keep the front four fresh, but outside of that unit, there is little dependable, developed depth to spell linebackers and defensive backs. The margin for error is thin regarding injury, which could rear its head in such a physical, close contest. But in the second half, even without injuries, Clemson could see its defense wither, especially if the Tide can successfully move the ball and extend drives in the first half. Alabama has made a habit of biding its offensive time while defenses wear down before launching the Derrick Henry siege-engine in the second half.
Finally, Alabama will once again need to trust Coker with the run-pass option package playbook, as he has proven himself capable of making the correct decisions in this regard time and time again. One way to keep an attacking defense like the one sported by Clemson off balance is through RPOs that prevent them from diagnosing and reacting, thus negating some of the speed and aggressiveness advantage such a style of play presents. By effectively running two plays at once, Bama maximizes the element of surprise, and again, with its elite athletes, even a split-second of surprise can yield space and explosiveness.
The Clemson defense will challenge Kiffin, Coker and the Alabama offense like few others this season have. Ole Miss kept Alabama frustrated with a relentless, athletic, multi-level attack, but most will agree the Alabama offense has improved ten-fold since that early season meeting. Arkansas' outside-in 4-3 Over frustrated the Tide early, but with a depth advantage, the second half was a foregone conclusion.
Clemson will provide this newly-confident Alabama offense with a test to be sure, and it's one the unit must pass if the Tide is to have any chance of winning the game.
The Alabama defense against the Clemson offense
In many games this season, the Tide's ace-in-the-hole in regard to confidence has come from its incredible defense. Alabama's defense has been the most dominant force in college football this season, shredding pro-style offenses and spread sets with equal deftness. They are huge, they are physical, they are fast and they are versatile. Such a unit provides a fountain of confidence for Tide fans, as there simply hasn't been a better defensive unit over the final three-quarters of the 2015 season.
But the Tide defense has yet to face the kind of four-headed monster the Tigers will field in the national championship game. Though most Tide faithful will despise the analogy, the 2015 Clemson Tigers are 2010 Auburn...with a vastly superior defense. While Watson is not Cam Newton per se (his physical measurables fall well short of the current Carolina Panthers QB), he is similar to the QB that ripped out Bama's heart in Auburn's championship season in that he is an equal threat to throw or run, and he is equally good at either.
Factor in that the offense used to great effect by the Tigers this season (which is a relic of the one installed by former OC Chad Morris, a Gus Malzahn) is quite similar to the one used to gash Bama defenses in the past by good Auburn teams, and it's enough to give a Bama fan a coronary. The offensive style run by the Tigers, namely the power spread option, is exceedingly difficult to defend when well-stocked with the right kind of athletes, and lesser Saban-coached Alabama defenses have struggled mightily with the misdirection and athletic fronts of such offenses in the past.
Truth be told, it is one of the most difficult offensive styles to defend when an opponent has the proper talent to run it. An elite dual-threat quarterback, an inside-banging running tailback, a viable downfield threat or two at receiver, and an athletic tight end/ H back who can be that all-important fourth leg of the offensive table as a blocker, runner or receiver...the Tigers have all of the necessary ingredients. Clemson is as well stocked at these key position as Auburn was during their championship run, with Watson a Heisman finalist; Gallman, a physically-imposing, inside-seam-splitting running back; dependable and explosive receiving threats Artavis Scott and Charone Peake; and the tight end Leggett, who is equally at home mashing a defensive end as he is hitting the seam in the red zone for a touchdown.
Clemson definitely has the offensive weapons to create problems for the Alabama defense, and its quadruple-option, NASCAR-paced offense is the kind of thing that has given past Alabama defenses fits. Like Malzahn, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliot likes to smash the ball inside with Power, Inside Zone and Inverted Veer running plays, always leaving Watson the option of a keeper if he likes the match-up a defense presents. Built into these schemes is always a wide receiver screen that functions as an option pitch, and usually there's the ever-present deep threat from at least one receiver. Add in a ton of pre-snap motion, athletic pulling guards and other forms of misdirection, and one is confronted with the extremely difficult task of stopping a defense that can literally attack from any quarter.
Scary, no? Like battling the hydra, one must fight a many-headed, many-toothed offensive beast when playing Clemson. Lop off one head, and another can inflict the lethal blow. But just because what Clemson wants to do is lethal doesn't mean that all is lost for the Tide defense. After all, that Tide defense will have a large say in the outcome in the desert,
For example, much of the Tiger running game (like any running game) relies on excellent offensive line play within the system. Let's look at one of the favorite running plays in the Clemson playbook, namely the Power Read. In this play, offensive linemen are charged with man-on-man blocking rather than zone tactics (as in the Inside Zone). The crux of the blocking attack requires that each man stymy his respective defender at the line of scrimmage, while the H-back or tight end attacks the play-side defensive end and attempts to seal him outside. The weak-side guard pulls across the formation and lead blocks for the back (or QB) through the gap created between the sealed end and man-blocked inside tackle. If the tight end can't seal the end outside, he has the option of sealing him inside, at which point the pulling guard reads and adapts by leading outside the tackle. Simple enough, right?
For this to work, however, the tight end (or H back, alternately) must dominate the defensive end he is charged with blocking. That sounds great, until one considers accomplishing that task against any of Alabama's starting three down linemen (A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen). One would be hard pressed to find a tackle, center or guard who had consistent success in dominating Alabama big three this season, and it is less likely that a 250 pound tight end can get that job done. This type of thing is what sets Alabama apart from other defenses. The average good defense would need to overwhelm opposing blockers with numbers or speed mismatches. However, Alabama can usually get the job done effectively with three down linemen (or three down linemen with a linebacker like Denzel Devall or Ryan Anderson.) Alabama's run-stuffing ‘backers, Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster, clean up the messes made of opposing offenses by the above-mentioned trio, hence Alabama's top-ranked run defense.
So what happens when the end doesn't get sealed on the Power Read? The back can either try to pry himself through the gap, which wouldn't be advisable against Alabama's defense...or he can bounce it outside, where here's likely to get a face full of Ragland or Foster.
Alabama has faced enough mobile quarterbacks in the last two seasons to understand how to contain them, in principle. Execution is the key factor, however. Gone is the typical, overly-cautious "mush-rush" strategy of the past, a relic that allowed mobile QBs like Manziel and Nick Marshall of Auburn to use their arms against Alabama with the additional time in the pocket it afforded them. This incarnation of the Alabama pass rush can contain mobile quarterbacks with disciplined play at end while at the same time crushing the pocket from the inside-out like a giant trash compactor. Watson gets a lot of designed runs inside, and that works fine against the average opponent. But unless a different Alabama team emerges from the tunnel in the championship game, a Clemson line that features two underclassmen (including true freshman Mitch Hyatt at left tackle) will have a tough task of their own in imposing their will against this ferocious Alabama front seven, especially when asked to block man-on-man.
But stopping the run is only half of the equation against a team as talented as Clemson, and truthfully, if one were to select an arena in which the Tide would struggle defensively, it would be in pass defense. That's not to say that the Alabama pass defense is not capable of the task at hand; after all, the Tide is ranked 18th nationally against the pass. The tweak to the Tide secondary that saw former corner Eddie Jackson move to safety, along with the emergence of freshman phenom Minkah Fitzpatrick, has provided Alabama with a drastically-improved secondary. And honestly, the secondary has also been the beneficiary of a pass rush that leads the nation with 50 sacks heading into the championship game.
That said, stopping the arm of Watson will be a more formidable challenge than stopping him on the ground. He is a 73 percent passer on the season with a whopping 31 touchdowns through the air (to only 12 interceptions.) That is simply phenomenal quarterback play, regardless of league or surrounding cast. Watson's numbers are just plain gaudy, and with targets like Scott, Peake and Leggett, there's no doubt that Alabama's pass defense will be tested like no other time since the third week of the season.
While the Tigers certainly have big play capability, they typically kill their enemies with brutal efficiency. They are almost symmetrically balanced in play selection. They are tremendously effective on third-down, yielding a 48 percent conversion rate (good for 13th nationally). The Tigers stay of the chains by effectively mixing the run and the pass on first down (Clemson is ranked sixth in regard to yardage on first-down.) They don't allow many sacks (1.14 per game...good for 13th nationally) nor tackles for loss (4.57 per game, 10th nationally). These strengths play against the strengths of the Tide defense, and given the circumstances, something will have to give. Whether the Tide front seven will break the dam, or the Tigers will shred the Tide defense with death by a thousand cuts is anyone's guess at this point.
For Alabama to be successful against Clemson, they'll need to continue to hold the running game in check, a tough task but not an impossible one. For example, when Clemson faced another run defense in the same statistical league as the one Bama fields (Boston College), the Eagles found a way to keep Watson and Gallman frustrated by allowing the Tigers to gain only 112 yards on 36 carries (a measly 3.1 yards per carry). This stat is evidence that it is possible to stop the Tigers' dynamic duo on the ground, and if there's any team built for the task, it's Alabama.
Winning on the ground won't ensure victory for the Tide. The secondary will need to face down its toughest task of the season as well, while the front seven finds ways to disrupt the Tiger passing attack. Again, while it is an exceedingly difficult task to be sure, it is one that the Tide can handle. Alabama's style of pass defense play is not terribly unlike the pass defense fielded by Florida State. Against the Noles, Watson had one of his more pedestrian outings, going 28 of 43 for 297 yards and one touchdown (6.9 yards per attempt) and his lowest passer rating of the season (130).
Clemson will attempt to stretch Bama out and wear them down with speed. Alabama has faced this strategy before, and while slightly different in approach, the pace and formation philosophy is not unlike what Alabama faced in its game with Ole Miss, or later in the season with Auburn (though those Tigers didn't have the quarterback needed to drive the system). Though the Tide lost that Ole Miss game, one must remember that despite the successes the Rebels enjoyed through the air, it still took one fluke of a pinball-wizard touchdown reception to mark the difference in the game. Not to mention, comparing that Tide secondary to the one wearing crimson at this point is an exercise in foolishness, as the unit has gelled and improved greatly over the course of the season.
Alabama continues to see improved special teams play, and in a game with a closing line of seven points in favor of the Tide, it could be a big play from special teams that salts away the result, for better or worse.
The kicking game has solidified, as the progress of both place kicker Adam Griffith and punter J.K. Scott has righted the kicking ship. Both men will be critical components in a Tide win, as with a game as closely contested as this one will likely be, field goals and field position will be of the utmost importance. Clemson place kicker Greg Huegel is workable, and Andy Teasdall handles the punting duties with little fanfare for the Tigers.
In the return game, Alabama has a true weapon on punt returns in Cyrus Jones, who has come on late in the season with multiple returns for touchdowns, including one against Michigan State in the last game. Artavis Scott handles punt and kick return duties for Clemson, and the shifty receiver is always a threat to flip the field or score.
Kick coverage for Alabama has been a moot point, as Griffith has developed the routine ability to generate touchbacks with authority. The punting team has circled the wagons and become steady as well, holding several high-quality return men in check throughout the last half of the season.
In a game like this, between two teams studded with talent, the "intangibles" coaches speak of will come into play at some point for certain. What intangibles? Things like confidence, experience, relentlessness, endurance, ball-security...the qualities that define champions and separate them from other great organizations that just fail to make the final cut.
In this regard, Alabama is well-equipped. The team has the advantage of Nick Saban at the helm, a man who will be gunning for his fifth national championship (and his fourth in eight years at Alabama). This is an advantage that cannot be underestimated. That is not to say that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney isn't a fine coach, probably in the top five nationally. But Swinney hasn't led his team into a championship game before...he's never navigated the process and all of the pressures and demands it entails. Until another coach rivals Saban in number of championships, Alabama will always have the advantage when it comes to coaching.
Another intangible is confidence. Make no mistake, the Tigers have no shortage of confidence, as evidenced by the "trash talk" that has made headlines all week long. They are right to be confident, but there is such a thing as being too confident. The latter smells of fear, and is of lesser certainty than the quiet confidence displayed by the Crimson Tide for much of the lead-up to the game. Make no mistake, the Tide is just as confident in its ability to win the game as the Tigers. But something about the business-like approach Alabama has displayed is indicative of a mindset shared by champions of the sports world. They know what they need to do, and what it takes to be champions. Advantage, Alabama.
Alabama is a team that has multiple members who have been on the championship stage, who have played in the games, attended the pre-game press conferences, and felt the pleasure of victory on the biggest stage in college football. Clemson is a newcomer to the experience, and for 18-22 year old men, the first time at the big show can be a little overwhelming. Again, Alabama has a "been there, done that" attitude that portrays the fact that they are not awe-struck by the experience, and will treat the game as any other during the course of a very successful season. No jitters, no yips, all business. Advantage, Alabama.
The desire to prove oneself, especially on the heels of previous failure, can be a powerful motivator. Such was displayed in emotional fashion when a reporter earlier this season asked Swinney about the "Clemsoning" meme, i.e. the way past Clemson teams have failed under pressure before reaching the big stage despite a wealth of talent. Swinney and his players would like nothing more than to prove they belong among college football's elite by beating the game's most successful coach and the most successful team of the last decade. It would be a tremendous feather in the Clemson cap, and given the last meeting between the two teams, it would also provide the Tigers with the satisfaction of payback against a team that frankly embarrassed them before a national audience in the past.
Alabama, however, also has a chip on its shoulder after two consecutive unsuccessful post-seasons, the most recent of which saw a favored Tide team fall in the first round of the playoffs to Ohio State. That was a galvanizing moment for the Tide's leadership, as the team has been on a mission to re-establish itself all season long. As Ragland said in the lead-up to the 2015 season, teams no longer feared Alabama, the mantle of invincibility was gone. In 2015, Ragland and his fellow players have reinstilled that fear, however, and are one game away from re-establishing the Tide as the best team in college football. Advantage, neither...it's a push.
Finally, one more stat bears discussion when analyzing the two teams: turnover margin. Alabama has the decided advantage here, with a margin of +9 to Clemson's -1. That's quite a difference, and it'd be silly to think that it may not bear fruit in this type of game, especially with the inexperienced Tigers making their first appearance on the championship stage in decades. Expect turnovers to color this game, especially if it is as close as many expect. In this regard, Alabama has a decided advantage once again.
Make no mistake, this will be one of the most closely-contested championship games of recent memory. The two teams are similar, not in style or scheme, but in talent level and end result. Both teams are champions of their respective conferences, and between the two, they share only a single loss.
Despite the point spread that favors the Tide, this will be no pushover ala Michigan State. Clemson has the weapons to attack Alabama where they are most vulnerable, and the teams are both so well-developed that nearly every individual and unit match-up could be perceived as strength-on-strength.
Can Alabama seize the initiative early in the game and create enough cushion to withstand what will be a ferocious Clemson attack? Or will the Tide need to weather an early Tiger storm and steady the ship before surging in the latter portion of the game? Who will win the match-up of Alabama's top-ranked defense versus Clemson's top-10 offense? Will the Heisman winner, or rather the finalist, emerge from the game with the last laugh? Will Alabama re-stake claim to a decade-long dynasty, or will Clemson plant its paw-marked flag atop the mountain as the new king of college football?
These questions will be answered shortly, in mere hours. Buckle up, folks...and hope for the best.