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The National Championship: Clemson Tigers

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The ultimate goal is within reach, folks, and it should be a hell of a game.

Note: Orange is an unacceptable uniform color.
Note: Orange is an unacceptable uniform color.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Football Power Index (FPI) Ratings are courtesy of ESPN
All other statistics are courtesy of Football Outsiders, home of the F/+ Combined Ratings for college football.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) was created by Brian Fremeau; check out his website BCFToys for other goodies.
The S&P+ rating was created by Bill Connelly; check out his college football analytics blog, Football Study Hall.
Hat tips to Addicted to Quack's kalon and FO's 7th Day Adventure column for the inspiration.

So how’d last week go?

The results of the college football playoff semifinal contests put to rest any questions regarding who the two best teams in the country were this year,[1] as Clemson and Alabama won their respective games with relative ease. The Tigers dropped the better-regarded team, overcoming a clunky first half that ended with a 17-16 Sooners lead to obliterate the Big 12 champs in the second frame, as Oklahoma had no answer for Wayne Gallman[2] on the way to a 37-16 Clemson victory.

1 | Unless you’re that obnoxious idiot Stanford fan, anyway.

2 | Quite literally, in fact — they tried to counter with Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, and both got hurt.

The Tide got the easier matchup but won in perhaps more dominant fashion, completely annihilating Michigan State 38-0. The defense did their usual thing, holding a weak Spartans rushing attack to just 26 yards and notching four sacks and two interceptions in what was a tough end to Connor Cook’s college career. Unsurprisingly, the offensive production came mostly from Jake Coker and the passing game, as the Spartans loaded the box to stop Derrick Henry and paid for it down the field. The Heisman winner was held to 75 yards — his lowest output of the season — but Coker had possibly his best game of the year at 25 of 30 for 286 yards and two touchdowns, both to burgeoning superstar receiver Calvin Ridley.

Aren’t you supposed to be previewing something, nerd?

Right! The 2015 college football season comes to its much-anticipated close on Monday, January 11th, as the Clemson Tigers host the Alabama Crimson Tide in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Kickoff is set for 7:30 PM CST / 8:30 PM EST, and will be televised on ESPN and

Check out the latter even if you typically watch via your TV provider; ESPN offered a “MegaCast” option for the semifinal games which included synchronized audio from each team’s radio network,[3] additional sideline camera views, and live stats — honestly, it was an outstanding way to watch a football game that would be great to have every week.

3 | Props to Clemson’s radio crew for providing an appropriately biased and enjoyable call of their game. Definitely not “API with a lake” in that sense.

The Résumé — Clemson

#1 - Clemson Tigers
Team F/+ S&P+ FEI FPI OS&P+ DS&P+
OKLAHOMA 50.0% (4) 22.7 (4) 0.220 (6) 26.2 (2) 42.5 (7) 19.8 (16)
NOTRE DAME 43.5% (7) 18.9 (8) 0.202 (7) 19.2 (11) 42.4 (8) 23.5 (35)
FLORIDA STATE 36.7% (12) 20.1 (7) 0.137 (25) 18.0 (13) 38.1 (21) 18.0 (10)
NORTH CAROLINA 27.4% (24) 10.6 (29) 0.149 (21) 17.0 (16) 39.2 (17) 28.5 (67)
LOUISVILLE 17.4% (38) 11.0 (28) 0.055 (49) 10.3 (35) 31.9 (49) 20.9 (23)
APPALACHIAN ST. 15.9% (42) 7.7 (43) 0.074 (44) 5.4 (57) 32.5 (46) 24.8 (43)
NC STATE 13.0% (48) 9.9 (35) 0.027 (58) 8.8 (41) 34.7 (32) 24.9 (45)
MIAMI 5.8% (61) 6.1 (51) 0.001 (65) 6.4 (52) 32.6 (45) 26.5 (54)
GEORGIA TECH 0.7% (64) 1.1 (68) 0.009 (61) 10.2 (36) 29.1 (63) 28.0 (63)
BOSTON COLLEGE -2.6% (70) 1.5 (67) -0.026 (76) 1.5 (75) 15.4 (124) 13.9 (3)
SYRACUSE -8.7% (84) 0.5 (70) -0.073 (90) 0.1 (80) 29.4 (61) 28.9 (70)
SOUTH CAROLINA -11.7% (87) -3.9 (87) -0.049 (84) 4.3 (64) 28.8 (67) 32.7 (97)
WAKE FOREST -15.5% (92) -4.7 (91) -0.074 (93) -3.4 (86) 22.9 (107) 27.6 (60)
AVERAGE 13.2% 7.8 0.050 9.5 32.3 24.5

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

  • Average F/+ Opponent: NC State (F/+ #48)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: Boise State (S&P+ #42)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Northwestern (FEI #50)
  • Average FPI Opponent: Virginia Tech (FPI #38)
  • Average Offense: Washington State (OS&P+ #47)
  • Average Defense: Virginia Tech (DS&P+ #40)
  • Best Win: Oklahoma (F/+ #4)
  • Wins Against F/+ Top-25: 4 (Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Florida State, UNC)

Clemson entered the playoffs with the best win in the field, and that’s still the case as they picked up an even better win over Oklahoma, and one that comes without the caveat of hurricane-like conditions. The semifinal win goosed their schedule strength a bit as well, helping to offset the slight drops of Florida State, Notre Dame, and North Carolina, all of whom lost their bowl games.

If you missed our more substantive breakdown of Clemson’s schedule prior to the semifinal, check out the Big Orange Bowl Preview.

Similarity — Alabama
  • Rushing Offense: North Carolina (Rush OS&P+ #15)
  • Passing Offense: Florida State (Pass OS&P+ #32)
  • Rushing Defense: Boston College (Rush DS&P+ #2)
  • Passing Defense: Florida State (Pass DS&P+ #5)

Good comps all around here, as unlike Michigan State the Tigers have faced some defenses as good as the Tide’s. Boston College finished right behind Alabama in the Rush DS&P+ ratings, and were one of two opponents on the season to hold Clemson under 4 yards a carry.[4] Gallman and company have piled up 3200 yards on the ground at a stout average of 5 yards a carry this season, but against the Eagles they managed just 112 yards on 36 carries, a dismal 3.1 yards per carry average. Gallman and Deshaun Watson were both held under 3 yards a carry in that game, though Watson averaged a whopping 6.8 yards a tote when sack yardage is removed.

4 | The other was Appalachian State, the #7 team in Rush DS&P+.

In more good news for Tide fans, while Watson was still productive against Florida State’s outstanding secondary, he wasn’t particularly efficient, going 28 of 43 for 297 yards and a touchdown. The completion percentage was just fine at 65.1%, but the per-attempt average was a decidedly mediocre 6.9 yards, and the resulting passer rating of just over 130 was his worst of the season[5] until the Oklahoma game.

5 | Aside from the hurricane game against Notre Dame, which we’ll overlook for obvious reasons.

Florida State’s also a fine comparison for Alabama’s passing attack, which at first glance is not a favorable one for the Tide. The Seminoles put up a thoroughly pedestrian effort against Clemson’s outstanding secondary, going 16 of 29 for 164 yards and an interception — a completion percentage of 55.2%, a 5.7 yards per attempt average, and a passer rating just under 96, all of which are abysmal, abysmal numbers. However, it should be noted most of Florida State’s passing stats were accrued with Everett Golson under center, but against Clemson the Seminoles went exclusively with backup Sean Maguire. Maguire was well below average against teams with any semblance of a pass defense, as his most successful outings came against Texas State (Pass DS&P+ #125), Syracuse (Pass DS&P+ #112), and Chattanooga (FCS). That being said, the next closest comps for the Tide in this regard are North Carolina and South Carolina; both had better overall performances but not by much.

Lastly, North Carolina is also the closest match for the Tide’s rushing unit among Clemson’s opponents, which is a considerably more encouraging outlook for Tide fans. The box score indicates the Tar Heels averaged a ho-hum 4.4 yards a carry, but when adjusting for sacks that number jumps to 5.5, via 164 yards on 30 carries. Henry is certainly a better talent than Marquise Williams or Elijah Hood, but as we’ll discuss later much will depend on Clemson’s defensive approach in this game.

The Résumé — Alabama

#2 - Alabama Crimson Tide
Team F/+ S&P+ FEI FPI OS&P+ DS&P+
OLE MISS 48.5% (5) 21.3 (5) 0.220 (5) 23.6 (4) 41.8 (9) 20.5 (21)
LSU 39.4% (9) 18.8 (9) 0.167 (15) 20.6 (8) 40.7 (12) 22.0 (27)
MICHIGAN STATE 39.3% (10) 16.1 (13) 0.197 (8) 16.6 (18) 35.1 (27) 19.0 (12)
ARKANSAS 37.1% (11) 15.6 (14) 0.181 (9) 17.4 (14) 44.6 (1) 29.0 (71)
MISSISSIPPI ST. 34.1% (16) 15.2 (16) 0.157 (16) 16.7 (17) 39.2 (16) 24.0 (37)
THE VILES 32.7% (18) 12.8 (22) 0.175 (11) 20.5 (9) 33.0 (42) 20.2 (18)
FLORIDA 24.3% (27) 14.6 (18) 0.081 (38) 13.2 (29) 30.2 (56) 15.6 (6)
GEORGIA 21.7% (29) 10.3 (32) 0.099 (31) 15.9 (19) 28.6 (70) 18.4 (11)
WISCONSIN 21.1% (32) 10.5 (30) 0.091 (35) 13.9 (26) 26.4 (84) 15.9 (7)
API 20.8% (33) 9.9 (34) 0.095 (33) 13.0 (30) 33.2 (40) 23.4 (34)
TEXAS A&M 20.0% (34) 8.0 (41) 0.110 (26) 14.7 (21) 30.7 (55) 22.7 (29)
MTSU -7.6% (82) -2.1 (82) -0.031 (78) 0.7 (78) 29.3 (62) 31.4 (86)
UL-MONROE -46.4% (121) -19.9 (122) -0.193 (113) -16.9 (118) 14.4 (125) 34.3 (102)
AVERAGE 21.9% 10.1 0.104 13.1 32.9 22.8

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

  • Average F/+ Opponent: Georgia (F/+ #29)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: Auburn (S&P+ #34)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Memphis (FEI #27)
  • Average FPI Opponent: Auburn (FPI #30)
  • Average Offense: Southern Miss (OS&P+ #43)
  • Average Defense: Kent State (DS&P+ #30)
  • Best Win: LSU (F/+ #9)
  • Wins Against F/+ Top-25: 5 (LSU, Michigan St., Arkansas, Miss. St., The Viles)

After factoring Michigan State into the Tide’s schedule their average opponent jumped to an absurd 21.9% rating in F/+, most closely matched by Georgia at F/+ #29. Florida dropped from the F/+ top-25 after a thorough beatdown at the hands of Michigan, but if they’d held the line the Tide would enter this game with six wins over the F/+ top-25, which is nuts. As it stands, the SEC’s outstanding performance in bowl games this season[6] made the Tide’s schedule unbelievably top-heavy, with 11 of their opponents not only within the F/+ top-50, but within the F/+ top-35. That magnificently difficult schedule is why the Tide have inched ahead of Clemson for the top spot in ESPN’s Strength of Record ratings, despite having one loss.

6 | Particularly API, who jumped 16 ranks after destroying then-#27 Memphis.

If you missed our more substantive breakdown of Alabama’s schedule prior to the semifinal, check out the Big Cotton Bowl Preview.

Similarity — Clemson
  • Rushing Offense: Mississippi State (Rush OS&P+ #27)
  • Passing Offense: Ole Miss (Pass OS&P+ #2)
  • Rushing Defense: Wisconsin (Rush DS&P+ #14)
  • Passing Defense: Texas A&M (Pass DS&P+ #2)

Good comps all around again here, notably for Clemson’s highly-regarded passing offense and defense. Texas A&M had a sneaky-good secondary this season, finishing just ahead of Clemson’s according to S&P+, and predictably that was a very “game manager” sort of outing for Coker. While coming in the midst of four straight games with a completion percentage in excess of 70%, Coker generated just 138 yards on 25 attempts, a paltry average of 5.5 yards an attempt. You might recall that was the first of Henry’s four 200+ yard games this season — passing was only required to keep A&M’s defense honest while Henry ground them into a fine powder.

The rush defense comp is not a great one for Clemson, as the nation got their first glimpse of a fully unleashed Henry against the Badgers. That remains Henry’s most explosive game of the season, as he gained 147 yards on just 13 carries, a stunning 11.3 yards per carry average. The rest of the team was just fine as well, as they gained 115 yards on 22 carries when sacks are removed from the equation — a solid 5.2 yards per carry.

Nobody’s really run on the Tide this season, and Mississippi State was no different as they managed just 89 yards on 42 carries. Fortunately for the Tigers, -55 yards of that came via nine sacks of Dak Prescott, and when you adjust for that the line becomes 33 carries for 144 yards, a respectable 4.4 yards a carry. The real good news for Clemson fans is the comparison to the Ole Miss passing offense, which absolutely eviscerated the Tide in their only loss of the season. Chad Kelly was a bit inaccurate in the game completing just 54.5% of his passes, but he still got a whopping 341 yards on 33 attempts, an average of 10.3 yards an attempt — by far the best mark of any Tide opponent this season.

There are a few caveats to those numbers, of course — they came against a young Tide secondary relying on two freshman starters in cornerbacks Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey and another freshman, safety Ronnie Harrison, who got significant playing time this season. More notably, 73 of those yards came on an illegal play that went unpenalized by the officials; a further 66 came on what would have been the flukiest sequence of events this season in the SEC if not for Arkansas’ karmic rebalancing act in overtime against the Rebels a few weeks later. Those are mere excuses, however — this is not the same secondary that Ole Miss chewed up, but it’s one that will have its hands full and then some with Watson and the Tigers.

The Goods

Overall Quality
F/+ 60.9% (2) F/+ 70.0% (1) PUSH
FPI 22.4 (5) FPI 27.4 (1) PUSH
FEI 0.273 (2) FEI 0.319 (1) PUSH
S&P+ 26.7 (2) S&P+ 30.0 (1) PUSH
Home Spread 7.0 ALABAMA

The Matchup on Offense
OFEI 0.82 (12) DFEI 1.17 (1) ALABAMA
OS&P+ 41.6 (10) DS&P+ 6.8 (1) PUSH
Rush OS&P+ 115.6 (19) Rush DS&P+ 160.1 (1) ALABAMA
Pass OS&P+ 143.5 (3) Pass DS&P+ 157.6 (1) PUSH
SD OS&P+ 127.2 (4) SD DS&P+ 152.2 (1) PUSH
PD OS&P+ 124.9 (16) PD DS&P+ 160.2 (1) ALABAMA
OALY 119.2 (9) DALY 131.6 (2) PUSH
OASR 254.5 (6) DASR 198.4 (1) PUSH

The Matchup on Defense
DFEI 0.84 (6) OFEI 0.51 (28) CLEMSON
DS&P+ 14.9 (4) OS&P+ 36.8 (25) CLEMSON
Rush DS&P+ 121.9 (7) Rush OS&P+ 116.7 (16) PUSH
Pass DS&P+ 136.5 (4) Pass OS&P+ 117.8 (25) CLEMSON
SD DS&P+ 144.5 (2) SD OS&P+ 115.8 (18) CLEMSON
PD DS&P+ 103.0 (62) PD OS&P+ 113.6 (37) ALABAMA
DALY 127.9 (4) OALY 115.2 (12) PUSH
DASR 138.4 (13) OASR 131.0 (34) CLEMSON

The Matchup on Special Teams
FVE -0.1 (106) FVE 0.12 (13) ALABAMA
STE -0.03 (89) STE 0.0 (72) ALABAMA
FGE 0.44 (12)* FGE -0.03 (79)* CLEMSON
KE 0.17 (119)* KRE -0.18 (125)* PUSH
PE 0.05 (79)* PRE 0.17 (14)* ALABAMA
PRE -0.17 (117)* PE 0.2 (118)* PUSH
KRE 0.03 (51)* KE -0.14 (6)* ALABAMA

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.
Statistics current as of January 6th.

Wondering what all these terms are?

Overall Quality

F/+: The F/+ combined ratings combine FEI and S&P+ into one metric that serves as Football Outsiders' official rankings for college football. For a more detailed discussion of F/+, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.

FPI: The Football Power Index, an overall team quality metric produced by ESPN. Presented as a scoring margin, FPI weights factors such as offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiencies, as well as turnovers and big plays, and also includes opponent adjustments.

FEI: The Fremeau Efficiency Index, an overall team quality metric that is drive-based and opponent-adjusted. For a more detailed discussion of FEI, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.

S&P+: Another overall quality metric constructed primarily from a play-by-play perspective, the S&P+ rating underwent big changes prior to the 2015 season. Check out the primer article for more details.

Offensive Metrics

Off. F/+: The offensive component of F/+.

OFEI: The offensive component of FEI.

OS&P+: The offensive component of S&P+.

Rush OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at running the ball.

Pass OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at throwing the ball.

PD: Passing Downs, defined as later downs with medium yardage or more to go (3rd, 4th downs in excess of 5 yards to go), as well as 2nd down with more than 8 yards to go.

SD: Standard Downs, defined as all downs that are not Passing Downs.

SD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.

PD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.

Defensive Metrics

Def. F/+: The defensive component of F/+.

DFEI: The defensive component of FEI.

DS&P+: The defensive component of S&P+.

Rush DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at stopping the run.

Pass DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at defending the pass.

SD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.

PD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.

Special Teams Metrics

FVE: FEI Field Value Efficiency, a measure of how much field position value a team earned against its opponents.

Fremeau Special Teams Efficiency Components - The special teams component of F/+ is based on Brian Fremeau’s Special Teams Efficiency, which is made up of the following five components of special teams play (per FootballOutsiders):
FGEField Goal Efficiency, the scoring value per field goal attempt earned by the field goal unit as measured against national success rates.
PREPunt Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent punt earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
KREKickoff Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent kickoff earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
PEPunt Efficiency, the scoring value per punt earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.
KEKickoff Efficiency, the scoring value per kickoff earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.

Line-Specific Metrics

ASRAdjusted Sack Rate, which is a version of sack rate (defined as sacks / [sacks + passing attempts] ) that has been opponent-adjusted. The metric is scaled based on an average rate of 100; the higher the rate the better. ASR is calculated for both the offense (OASR) and defense (DASR).

ALYAdjusted Line Yards, which is a measure of success in the running game specific to the line. This is accomplished by taking each carry by running backs only and weighting the yardage as follows:

  • Runs for a loss are weighted 120%.
  • Runs for 0-4 yards are unweighted.
  • Runs for 5-10 yards are weighted 50%.
  • Runs for 11 or more yards are not included.

After the weighting process, the runs are further adjusted for game situation and opponent, and then averaged out per carry, resulting in adjusted line yards — a more detailed explanation of the entire process is available here. ALY is calculated for both the offensive line (OASR) and the defensive front seven (DASR).

The Swanson Giddiness Index

Easily the most accurate predictor of success in college football, the Swanson Giddiness Index is a qualitative, completely unsupportable metric that is presented via the tone of that week's image/animated gif of Ron Swanson — beloved Parks and Recreation character and official spirit animal of Processing the Numbers.

Wondering what all of this means? Check out the PTN Primer!

For even more advanced statistics goodness, check out the Advanced Stats Profile Index, the Clemson Profile, and the Alabama Profile.

So, what do we know?

Overall Quality

Oklahoma’s rapid departure from the top spot in ESPN’s FPI rankings, coupled with the Tide’s strong play against Michigan State, has resulted in a unanimous #1 ranking for the Tide among the advanced metrics. FPI is still lower on the Tigers than everyone else, but they are now a top-5 team in that ranking, and occupy the #2 spot in the other three overall quality metrics that we track. Pushes abound, although in each instance there’s a clear preference for the Tide, most notably the F/+ margin which fell just short of significance. These two teams have absolutely separated themselves from the pack, with only perhaps Ohio State having any sort of argument for being here instead. Vegas installed the Tide as an early 6.5 point favorite, and betting action since then has moved it a half-point in the Tide’s favor.

When Clemson Has the Ball

You’re used to seeing a wall of crimson in this chart, but despite near-unanimous #1 status Clemson’s elite offense creates a push with the Tide in almost every row. The exceptions are in FEI, where the Tide is one of just two teams with a DFEI rating in excess of 1;[7] on passing downs, where the beatdown of Michigan State elevated the Tide to the top spot; and in Rush S&P+, where the nation’s finest rush defense has a resounding advantage on the Tigers. That last one is a little tough to believe after watching Clemson’s performance in the Orange Bowl, however, as Gallman in particular gashed what was the #6 rush defense in the country.

7 | The other, oddly enough, is Washington.

The sophomore running back averaged 5.8 yards on 26 carries, good for a 150 yard day — probably his strongest performance of the year when adjusting for the quality of the opponent. Watson gets the most press of anyone on this team, but it was personally eye-opening to watch the less-heralded Gallman mix agility, elusiveness, and raw power together to consistently pick up extra yards on the Sooners. The Tide’s shut down better runners than Gallman, of course — pre-garbage time Nick Chubb and Leonard Fournette come to mind — but Gallman enters with a very hot hand, somewhat evocative of Ezekiel Elliott a year ago.[8] Still, the very best any team’s been able to do against the Tide is the 160 sack-adjusted yards produced by the Viles, and even that came on 34 carries, a good-but-not-great 4.7 yards a carry. The Viles have the more efficient offense, but Watson and Gallman are superior to their creamsicle-clad counterparts,[9] and something more in the 5 yards a carry range seems reasonable.

8 | Also a #1 vs. #2 matchup according to the metrics…

9 | Watson is obvious; Gallman was almost a full yard per carry better than Jalen Hurd this season.

Even that’s probably not enough to win this game, however, which means Watson will need to get it done through the air. This is the tallest order he’s faced in his brief career, as the Tide have the aforementioned edge in PD S&P+ as well as slighter edges in Pass S&P+ and DASR. The latter most of those comes in spite of Clemson’s stellar OASR rating, which is helped in large part by the elusiveness of Watson — a talent on full display against the Sooners. However, Clemson has not faced anyone with remotely the same quality of pass rush they will see on Monday; the two closest comps, Appalachian State and Boston College at DASR #11 and #15 respectively, accounted for 3 sacks apiece against the Tigers — 38% of Clemson’s sacks allowed on the year. Appalachian State is a full 60 points lower in DASR than the Tide, and that’s before accounting for the superior athletes along the Alabama front seven — chiefly, sack artist Tim Williams and all-around hoss Jonathan Allen, both of whom have 10 or more sacks on the season.

In all fairness, that group hasn’t had to work against many top-flight pass blocking lines either, as the closest they’ve come to Clemson’s excellent group was MTSU at #10 in OASR; the Blue Raiders held the Tide sackless in that game.[10] If Watson’s not spending the entire game running for his life, that means he has time to attack the Tide secondary, and even with a depleted wide receiver corps there’s more than enough talent here to make that matchup an interesting one. Primary targets Artavis Scott, Hunter Renfrow, and Charone Peake all had big catches against the Sooners, but the guy to watch for in this one is tight end Jordan Leggett. Leggett was quiet in the semifinal, but he’s been a big contributor at times this year, including a 101 yard day on six catches against the Seminoles.

10 | The only other team to do so this year? Charleston Southern, though that probably speaks more to restraint from the Tide than anything else.

The one consistent soft spot in this defense has been on crossing routes over the middle, as Cyrus Jones and Humphrey have largely shut down the edges with frequent assistance over the top from Eddie Jackson. Go over the middle and you draw the friendlier matchups of a banged-up Reuben Foster and Geno Matias-Smith, the latter of which has been suspect in coverage for a good three years now. Normally Reggie Ragland patrols this area as well, but he may have his hands full acting as the “spy” on Watson, which ties up the Tide’s most versatile playmaker on that side of the ball. This opponent represents the most dangerous offense — more specifically, the most dangerous quarterback — the Tide’s faced since Ole Miss, and while the edge tilts ever so slightly toward Alabama, this half of the game will be an absolute war for 60 minutes.

When Alabama Has the Ball

Often lost in all the platitudes justifiably bestowed upon Watson is the excellence of the Tigers defense, which has cranked out solid players for years now but has been absolutely filthy under longtime Oklahoma DC Brent Venables. After old friend Kevin Steele inherited the #14 defense per DS&P+ in 2009, performance slowly declined until they bottomed out at #73 in 2011, which you may recall is the year they were blown out to an embarrassing degree by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Enter Venables, who’s quickly turned the Tigers into a consistent top-10 unit with the help of great defensive line recruiting over the past several year. This group specializes against the pass, but are nearly as nasty against the run at 7th overall in Rush DS&P+ and 4th in DALY.

That particular phase of the game is of great interest, and may be the matchup that decides the championship. When Henry is rolling the Tide offense is effectively unstoppable, and the season-ending contests against API and Florida showed he’s capable of a heavy workload against defensive lines with elite talent. Michigan State[11] showed he can be contained, however, if the opposing defense sells out against the run and forces a sometimes shaky Coker to beat them. That gamble didn’t work for the Spartans, who despite the narratives after the game possess a fine secondary at 12th overall in Pass DS&P+, but had no answer for a ruthlessly efficient Coker and a locked-in Ridley.

11 | And Arkansas, although they benefited from an offensive line that was giving up a ton of tackles for loss in October.

Still, you can expect a similar strategy from the Tigers, as they have a better secondary and pass rush overall, and better talent at the key pass defense positions. Mackensie Alexander has more than lived up to his five star billing, and will likely spend his evening glued to Ridley’s hip in an effort to direct Coker’s attention to the less reliable ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard and the less explosive Richard Mullaney. The latter two tend to specialize in quicker-developing routes, which may be a boon against the Tigers as Coker will likely not have the cushy pocket he enjoyed against the Spartans — a key to setting up the favored deep routes for Ridley and Stewart. All signs indicate the hobbled Shaq Lawson will be ready to go Monday; even with the All-American end on the sidelines the Clemson front terrorized Oklahoma to the tune of nine tackles for loss and five sacks of Baker Mayfield. The Tide’s line is considerably better than Oklahoma’s dumpster fire up front, but as noted earlier they’ve been quite vulnerable at times this season.

One line stands out here and that’s on passing downs, where the Tide have a rare advantage for the second game in a row, which means there’s a possibility the Tide skate through the entire season without succumbing to their most obvious issue on offense — third down conversions. The Tide finished a putrid 96th nationally after finishing fifth[12] a year ago. This has been mentioned numerous times in this space and others, with the assertion that surely it will bring about an end to the Tide’s championship hopes… and yet here they are. Michigan State held them to 33% — they’re actually significantly better than the Tigers on that down — and you saw how much good that did for them. True, the Tide netted perhaps 21 points from defensive and special teams plays,[13] and 17 or even 24 offensive points are probably not enough to win this game.

12 | Blake Sims.

13 | The Spartans looked prime to score before both interceptions, and Jones picked up his fourth return touchdown of the season.

One final note about the Clemson defense — as was pointed out in the Orange Bowl preview, they are extremely susceptible to big plays on the ground, ranking 126th in defensive rushing IsoPPP. Oklahoma was unable to take advantage of that, but Henry is among the country’s most dangerous backs in the second level. If they, like Michigan State, can keep him contained within a few yards of the line of scrimmage, that won’t be a big deal. If Henry is able to break into the second level on a consistent basis, however? This one will get ugly in a hurry.

Special Teams

That’s a fine segue into the special teams conversation, which is the one phase significantly in favor of the Tide. You’ll note the astounding discrepancy in FEI’s Field Value Efficiency rating, which indicates that not only has Clemson done a poor job gaining advantages in field position this season, but they also haven’t generated many turnovers or picked up many non-offensive touchdowns. The Tide’s only in the top-15 in this rating because of the exploits of Jackson, Jones, and Fitzpatrick, who’ve combined to notch nine such touchdowns this season. Jones’ work on punt returns and Adam Griffith’s continued excellence on kickoffs would have had them highly rated regardless, however, and this is a big, big plus for the Tide.

You’ll also note the five FEI Special Teams Efficiency component ratings have asterisks this week, and that’s because they are the pre-bowl numbers — updated FEI Special Teams ratings were not posted by the time of writing.[14] The Tide has the overall edge on special teams as well, which is surprising as they are the nationally average team with a rating of 0. Clemson has the better placekicker, at least as far as FEI is concerned, but most Tide fans are just fine with Griffith in a dome at this point. The Tide possess huge edges on punt returns and kickoffs, and have the benefit of drawing equally poor opponent units on kick returns and punt coverage. Once again, keep your eye on #5, as Jones gets one last favorable matchup on punt returns to cap his outstanding career with the Tide.

14 | The updated STE rating was available, which is why it has no asterisk.

Any intangibles to consider?

This game will be played at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona, which is one of the more interesting sporting facilities in the United States. It’s a domed field, but the playing surface is mounted on a large tray that rolls into and out of one end of the stadium, allowing for an indoor stadium with a natural grass field. Natural grass is just better than artificial turf in every way, and the indoor environs ensure weather will not play a role in this game.

The Tide and Tigers have squared off 15 times in their respective histories, starting with a 35-0 Clemson victory in 1900. Two more Clemson shutouts followed in a home-and-home series in 1904 and 1905; since then, the Tide have won 12 consecutive games against the Tigers, most recently a 34-10 drubbing in the 2008 season opener. That game was an important one in Alabama’s history, as it signaled the beginning of a dynasty that’s produced 97 wins, four SEC titles, and three national titles in eight years. Neither team is lacking in motivation for this contest, but the opportunity to break a 12 game losing streak that’s stretched over a century would probably be a nice bonus alongside a national title for the Tigers.

Both teams enter the game, shockingly enough, among the country’s healthiest squads. Both lost a top receiver early in the season — Robert Foster for the Tide, Mike Williams for the Tigers — and both are without rotational defensive backs in Tony Brown (suspended for the Tide) and Korrin Wiggins (injured for the Tigers). That’s where it ends for the Tide; Lawson is probable for Clemson and should play, and receiver Deon Cain remains suspended for this game.

Swanson Giddiness Index

Clemson was the one team Ron didn’t want any part of this postseason. Ron is completely and utterly terrified of Deshaun Watson. Ron is fully prepared to drown his sorrows in bottle after bottle of Lagavulin whiskey.

The Picks

This is basically the same situation as the Ole Miss game. The Tide is deeper and more talented overall, has the better coaching staff, played the tougher schedule and controlled those games better, and if nothing… unexpected occurs, they should win this in a squeaker. Clemson wins the turnover margin, picks up a special teams or defensive touchdown, or manages to shut the Tide offense down entirely? They’ll win easily, because there’s absolutely zero margin for error against this team, and even an off game from Watson is still a great game for most quarterbacks.

This is the hardest pick of the year, because the stats are saying one thing — a close Tide victory — but the gut is heading in the absolute opposite direction. Clemson didn’t go undefeated by accident, and have had that pesky “team of destiny” vibe for most of the year. At the same time, this is the most locked-in the Tide’s been since at least 2012, as all indicators not involving Brown seem to point to a driven, focused group that’s primed to bring home #16. Honestly not feeling great about this pick, but sticking with what’s worked over the past two seasons seems like a good bet.

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