Our very special thanks to Shaking the Southland's Ryan Kantor for dropping by and answering some questions for us. Tomorrow, our responses will be up over at the Clemson sister site as well.
Drop by, chew n' chat, and play nice. Roll Tide!
1. Deshaun Watson has been excellent at times, unsteady at others -- and, sometimes, he's even looked like two different guys in the same game. What's the key to getting Watson to play consistently against the nation's No. 1 rush/No. 4 pass defense (that also leads the country in sacks?)
Watson has improved as the season has progressed and has come through whenever the Tigers needed him. Clemson's O-line has done a great job of keeping him upright, and I'm sure his scrambling ability helps that cause as well. I'd love to see TE Jordan Leggett have a big game after a mediocre Orange Bowl where he only had five yards and allowed a throw in his direction to be intercepted. He's been great all season as a dangerous third down and redzone threat. If he can provide that option for Watson, it will go a long way in helping the Tigers passing attack.
2. What's the more underrated (and by extension, dangerous,) part of the Clemson offense: the screen game or Wayne Gallman?
What I love so much about Clemson's offensive co-coordinators is they've created an amorphous monster! In their first game in their new roles (2014 Russell Athletic Bowl), they didn't attack Oklahoma's interior line much, instead using the screen game and jet sweep to rack up 40 points.
This year, the driving rain against Notre Dame made passing difficult, so they went to the ground and won with only 84 passing yards. Against Boston College, BC's front slowed our rushing attack so they went to the air - vertical and deep - and Watson had 420 passing yards.
In general, I think the answer to your question is Gallman, but specific to this game, I think it's really up to Alabama's defense.
3. Is there any concern in a game of this magnitude that the turnover bug that has plagued Clemson at times may rear its head? Can Clemson lose the turnover battle and still win the game as they've done a few times this season?
Watson has only thrown two interceptions in his past three games and one came on a tipped pass. He sometimes can be too aggressive or trust his receivers too much. Jake Coker is admittedly very good at avoiding interceptions. He has one for every 347 passing yards. Watson isn't too far behind though. He has a pick for every 308 passing yards.
Clemson hasn't lost the turnover battle to a top flight opponent so it's hard to say with confidence that they could lose the turnover battle and win the game against the #1 team in the S&P+. It's conceivable that it could happen (figure a third and long deep ball that is essentially a punt), but Clemson really has no margin for error against Alabama.
4. The linebackers appear to be the liability on the Tigers' defense: they looked like traffic cones versus OU. Was this an off-day, or have teams targeted the linebackers to open up the middle of the field this season?
Specifically in pass defense, this is somewhat true. They're great blitzers and run stuffers, but in my opinion, the best way to attack Clemson is with a great slot receiver or TE over the middle.
5. What do we know about the health of Shaq Lawson?
It is a sprained medial collateral ligament and is not believed to be serious enough to keep him out of the game. He has already announced his intention to enter the NFL draft. He may not be 100%, but he should be close enough to show why he is expected to go in the first round.
6. I won't put you on the spot with a prediction, but, if Clemson wins it's because the Tigers won what critical phase of the game?
If the Tigers can battle to a stalemate at the line of scrimmage they can win this game. Alabama has started slow offensively against most of the quality defenses they've faced, but eventually, they suffocate them with relentless doses of Derrick Henry. ESPN and Fox Sports commentators were sure that Clemson would get run over by Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine. They were wrong. I'm all but certain they'll say the same about Henry and Alabama, and maybe rightfully so, but if they're wrong I'd bet on Watson over Coker everyday of the week and twice on Sunday.
7. Dalvin Cook had a field day against the Tiger's defense. Just spit-balling, do you think the game plan here is to sell-out versus Derrick Henry, or will Clemson scheme around stopping a balanced offense?
Admittedly, it does look like a field day if you glance at the box score, however that may be somewhat misleading. He had 111 yards on his first two carries, which is mighty impressive, but after that he only tallied 83 more and the Seminoles only scored six more points.
Similarly, Samaje Perine of OU had 33 rushing yards on the first drive of the Orange Bowl, but finished with just 58 total rushing yards. Yes, he left with an injury, but he got 10 more carries after that initial drive and was stuffed for just 25 more yards. The Sooners didn't score in the second half. What is so interesting is that Bama seems to be a second half team, particularly on offense. One of these trends will have to end.
I do think Clemson focuses in on the rushing attack and bets on their elite cornerbacks to give DEs Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd time to make Jake Coker uncomfortable.