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Processing the Numbers, National Championship Edition | Clemson Tigers

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It's all come down to this.

He's baaaaaack.
He's baaaaaack.
Matthew Emmons-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, we’re back here again.

Last season, the Tide and Tigers played one of the all-time great championship games, a classic back-and-forth struggle between college football’s best in the mold of USC – Texas, OSU – Miami, and Nebraska — Florida.[1] The narrative going into that game had a lot in common with the current one — Alabama, with its suffocating, historically great defense and punishing run game, against Clemson’s high-powered offense, sneaky-good defense, and arguably the best player on the field in Deshaun Watson.[2] Watson went full-on transcendent that night, and it took a surprise onside kick, a kick return touchdown, and Secret Weapon O.J. Howard for the Tide to bring home a 45-40 victory.

1 | Shhh this was one of the most satisfying games you’ve ever seen and you know it.

2 | Last year the argument was Derrick Henry; this year, it’s Jonathan Allen.

Skip forward 364 days, and the country is salivating over a rematch between what is clearly the two best programs in college football. The Tide took on the feisty — or, if you prefer, chippy[3] — PAC-12 Champion Washington Huskies in the Peach Bowl; despite some… interesting decisions on the offensive side of the ball, that historically great defense carried the day in a 24-7 slugfest. Clemson, on the other hand, met the Big Ten representative Ohio State Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl, and absolutely ran them out of the stadium in a 31-0 rout — the first time Ohio State’s been shut out in over 20 years, and the first time that’s happen to Urban Meyer ever.

3 | Fun fact: this context of the word apparently comes from Canada and ice hockey, and yet I picked it up living in Florida. Small world!

So with 15 weeks of regular season play and 40 — yes, 40 — bowl games in the books, the 2016 college football season draws to a close with the third annual CFP National Championship Game. The SEC Champion Alabama Crimson Tide will face the ACC Champion Clemson Tigers on Monday, January 9th, at 7 PM CT / 8 PM ET, with television coverage provided by ESPN. ESPN’s ‘A’ team of Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit will have the call, but presumably ESPN will once again offer their MegaCast coverage, if you’d rather listen to Eli Gold.[4]

4 | And why wouldn’t you?

The Résumé — Alabama

#1 - ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
TEAM F/+ S&P+ FEI FPI OS&P+ DS&P+
WASHINGTON 51.0% (5) 20.7 (7) 0.229 (5) 25.2 (5) 38.2 (15) 17.9 (8)
LSU 50.9% (6) 24.8 (4) 0.199 (8) 22.9 (6) 37.3 (22) 12.6 (3)
USC 43.4% (11) 19.5 (8) 0.178 (12) 20.1 (10) 39.2 (11) 20.9 (20)
API 38.2% (13) 17.8 (13) 0.152 (14) 19.3 (11) 34.8 (31) 18.3 (9)
WEST. KENTUCKY 31.3% (15) 12.9 (16) 0.143 (16) 11.5 (28) 38.8 (14) 26.4 (42)
FLORIDA 31.2% (16) 14.3 (15) 0.127 (21) 13.9 (22) 26.0 (88) 13.3 (4)
THE VILES 25.8% (23) 9.8 (28) 0.131 (20) 15.5 (17) 36.3 (28) 27.8 (52)
TEXAS A&M 24.1% (26) 11.0 (24) 0.101 (31) 15.5 (16) 35.7 (29) 25.6 (36)
OLE MISS 19.2% (35) 10.0 (27) 0.070 (47) 11.2 (29) 38.8 (13) 30.0 (72)
ARKANSAS 8.3% (55) 5.4 (47) 0.024 (58) 6.3 (50) 34.0 (39) 29.0 (63)
MISSISSIPPI STATE 1.2% (62) 3.6 (55) -0.019 (68) 6.2 (51) 34.7 (32) 30.0 (73)
KENTUCKY -6.1% (72) 0.2 (67) -0.045 (78) 2.4 (62) 31.7 (52) 31.6 (83)
KENT STATE -28.4% (107) -12.0 (113) -0.106 (99) -11.9 (108) 18.1 (122) 29.1 (65)
AVERAGE 22.3% 10.6 0.091 12.2 34.1 24.0

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

Observations
  • Average F/+ Opponent: West Virginia (F/+ #27)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: NC State (S&P+ #25)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Appalachian State (FEI #36)
  • Average FPI Opponent: Kansas State (FPI #27)
  • Average Offense: Baylor (OS&P+ #38)
  • Average Defense: Northwestern (DS&P+ #32)
  • Best Win: Washington (F/+ #5)
  • Wins Against F/+ Top-25: 7 (Washington, LSU, USC, API, Western Kentucky, Florida, The Viles)

Not too much has changed here from last week — a new Best Win and two more wins over the F/+ top-25 thanks to strong bowl performances from Florida and The Viles. The Tide now have seven of those, which you may note is half the schedule. Correspondingly, the F/+ average schedule rating of 22.3% is a few tenths of a percent higher than last year’s ultra-tough slate, which only included five wins (in six games) against the F/+ top-25.

Similarity — Clemson
  • Rushing Offense: API (Rush OS&P+ #27)
  • Passing Offense: Washington (Pass OS&P+ #5)
  • Rushing Defense: USC (Rush DS&P+ #17)
  • Passing Defense: Washington (Pass DS&P+ #5)

Here, on the other hand, is an updated list of teams to talk about. The API comparison is the only one that remains unchanged, and this is how that went last week:

Only two teams managed to rush for over 100 yards on the Tide this season. API was not one of those teams, as the Gus Bus managed just 66 yards on 26 carries against Alabama. The next closest comp for a rushing offense was USC, who managed 64 yards… on 30 carries.

Watson and Wayne Gallman both had nice contributions on the ground last week in the victory over the Buckeyes, but in neither case was the performance out-of-character or otherwise particularly notable. Ohio State’s rush defense isn’t too bad, but Alabama’s rush defense, as we’ll discuss momentarily, is in another league from the rest of college football this season, and it’s doubtful the Tigers put up big numbers there. Recall a year ago that Gallman, fresh off eviscerating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, managed just 3.7 yards per carry against a front seven that, statistically speaking, is inferior to this one.

The passing comparison isn’t too surprising as the Huskies and Tigers are among the elite aerial attacks in college football. However, you may recall that the Tide completely smothered Jake Browning and his fleet of receivers, allowing just 150 yards at 3.9 yards an attempt. John Ross, a speed demon and the Huskies’ best receiver, was a complete non-factor, picking up just 28 yards on 5 receptions. However, Browning, for all his gifts, is no Watson, and Mike Williams is an entirely different sort of challenge from Ross. It’s tempting to project a below-average performance from the Tigers in this regard, but last year’s game suggests otherwise.

For the obvious reason, it’s difficult to project what the Tide’s offense will look like in this game. We’ll talk a good bit about the offensive coordinator situation down in the intangibles section, but for the purposes of discussion, we’re going to assume for now that the same offense that played all season is the one that will show up Monday in Tampa. The Tide had a nice evening against the Trojans, piling up 242 yards at a nifty pace of 5.4 yards per carry. Two interesting notes about that — not only was their performance against the Huskies nearly identical, but in both cases that’s actually a bit below the Tide’s 5.7 yards per carry average on the season. You’ve got a fine rushing offense when 5.4 yards per carry is below average, and it should be noted the Trojans are ranked nine spots ahead of the Tigers in Rush DS&P+.[5]

5 | In other words… RUN THE DAMN BALL, SARK! MAKE THEIR ASSES QUIT, SARK.

The defensive passing comparison, as you might expect, is not great news. Jalen Hurts had easily his worst game of the season against the elite secondary of the Huskies, completing just 7 passes for 57 yards. The easy answer is that the former offensive coordinator was too concerned with finding the perfect strip of South Florida coastline along which to moor his boat and not concerned enough with formulating a game plan against one of the nation’s elite defenses.[6] Unfortunately, what’s probably the correct answer is that this sort of performance should have been expected regardless of the game plan. Hurts has exceeded expectations in his true freshman year, but he has a long way to go as a passer, and while Clemson does not have a singular talent on par with Budda Baker lurking in their backfield, statistically speaking the Clemson secondary is a hair better than the Huskies’. Perhaps Sarkisian will work some magic and we see a resurgence from ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley,[7] but more than likely the ground game is the path to victory for the Tide.

6 | Judgy? Me? Nooooo…..

7 | Perhaps…. even… Secret Weapon O.J. Howard?

The Résumé — Clemson

#2 – CLEMSON TIGERS
TEAM F/+ S&P+ FEI FPI OS&P+ DS&P+
OHIO STATE 61.5% (3) 24.7 (5) 0.276 (3) 26.2 (4) 36.9 (23) 13.6 (5)
FLORIDA STATE 47.3% (7) 21.9 (6) 0.190 (9) 22.2 (8) 40.9 (2) 19.3 (10)
API 38.2% (13) 17.8 (13) 0.152 (14) 19.3 (11) 34.8 (31) 18.3 (9)
LOUISVILLE 37.1% (14) 18.2 (12) 0.141 (17) 21.5 (9) 39.3 (10) 20.9 (19)
VIRGINIA TECH 29.4% (17) 12.1 (17) 0.135 (18) 13.7 (23) 32.0 (51) 20.2 (17)
PITTSBURGH 26.5% (22) 11.3 (20) 0.119 (24) 12.7 (25) 40.5 (3) 28.8 (62)
NC STATE 21.9% (28) 10.7 (25) 0.085 (43) 8.9 (39) 31.5 (55) 19.4 (11)
GEORGIA TECH 14.5% (43) 5.9 (45) 0.074 (46) 7.4 (46) 33.0 (44) 28.3 (57)
TROY 8.6% (53) 0.9 (63) 0.083 (44) 0.4 (70) 27.4 (80) 26.9 (45)
WAKE FOREST 0.1% (65) 1.8 (60) -0.008 (63) 2.1 (63) 23.0 (109) 22.0 (22)
SYRACUSE -13.0% (80) -1.7 (75) -0.087 (92) -2.7 (81) 31.6 (54) 32.6 (90)
SOUTH CAROLINA -13.9% (83) -3.6 (78) -0.071 (88) -0.3 (72) 23.1 (107) 27.4 (50)
BOSTON COLLEGE -17.9% (92) -5.2 (84) -0.087 (93) -1.2 (75) 17.2 (124) 21.7 (21)
AVERAGE 18.5% 8.8 0.077 10.0 31.6 23.0

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

Observations
  • Average F/+ Opponent: Iowa (F/+ #37)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: West Virginia (S&P+ #29)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Minnesota (FEI #45)
  • Average FPI Opponent: BYU (FPI #31)
  • Average Offense: Air Force (OS&P+ #53)
  • Average Defense: UCLA (DS&P+ #26)
  • Best Win: Ohio State (F/+ #3)
  • Wins Against F/+ Top-25: 5 (Ohio State, Florida State, API, Louisville, Virginia Tech)

There were some signs heading into the Fiesta Bowl that suggested Ohio State was not all they were cracked up to be, with many of their eye-popping performances coming against mediocre teams, with a wart of a game against Michigan State providing the undesirable sort of raised eyebrows.[8] That being said, nobody saw a drubbing like what took place in Arizona coming. We all knew Clemson was an elite bunch, but completely dominating one of the nation’s best offensive lines and shutting down what was the #2 run game in the country? Completely unexpected, at least beyond certain couches in South Carolina. That victory gave the Tigers a significant schedule boost, and while their slate is still not as deep as the Tide’s, it’s certainly a comparable one.

8 | By the way — the crew that gift-wrapped the Michigan game for them? Same idiots that officiated the Peach Bowl.

Similarity — Alabama
  • Rushing Offense: Ohio State (Rush OS&P+ #3)
  • Passing Offense: NC State (Pass OS&P+ #31)
  • Rushing Defense: Boston College (Rush DS&P+ #8)
  • Passing Defense: Ohio State (Pass DS&P+ #8)

Again, offensive comparisons are a bit tough here, but we’ll stick with the numbers for now. Ohio State runs all the time, and all signs pointed to a solid day for the Buckeyes on the ground. When adjusting for sack yards and assessing their performance on a per carry basis, it actually wasn’t bad — you’ll take 5.6 yards a carry any day of the week. However, 64 of those yards came on one carry from Curtis Samuel in garbage time. The other 19 carries on the evening accrued just 47 yards for the Buckeyes, and that ineptitude coupled with the Tigers’ resounding advantage in time of possession tells you all you need to know about how that game went.

That being said, for all the talent Ohio State has in their backfield, it’s difficult to see Clemson shutting down the Tide to that degree on Monday. Bo Scarbrough’s exploits last Saturday evoked fond memories of Derrick Henry’s stretch run a year ago, and if the big fella can’t get going in this one, the Tigers would still need answers for Hurts, Damien Harris, and possibly Josh Jacobs.[9] The Tide may turn in another below-average performance, but expect them to eclipse that magic 140 yard barrier once again.[10]

9 | He saw just a handful of snaps against Washington, and none of those resulted in carries.

10 | The Tide are now 96-7 under Saban when rushing for at least 140 yards, including a 21 game win streak in such games.

The passing comparison, of course, is predictably unpleasant. The Wolfpack, as they are wont to do, nearly knocked off Clemson before choking hard at the end of the game, but that “success” had little to do with their quarterback play.[11] Ryan Finley threw two interceptions, including the one that ended overtime, and completed just 50% of his passes for under six yards an attempt. Finley put up comparable numbers to Hurts this season against a similarly tough group of pass defenses, so it’s difficult to say Hurts’ superior talent and receivers will make much of a difference. Clemson’s secondary is great, plain and simple, and the defense’s 20 interceptions on the season indicate they will make you pay for mistakes. Hurts hasn’t been asked to make many dangerous throws and only throws a pick every 39 attempts or so, but this is the kind of game where any error could end up being a difference-maker.

11 | Clemson coughed it up three times, and Watson threw a pick six.

The rushing defense comparison is a bit of a quandary. Boston College, the best rushing defense the Tigers saw this season and the only one within spitting distance of the Tide’s, allowed 230 yards on 6.6 yards per carry to Clemson, the Tigers’ best rushing performance of the year. When accounting for sacks, that average goes to 7.4, which is just stupid. There were a couple of big runs, of course, but even removing those yields a solid average of 4.5. That’s a curious result to be sure, but something more in line with the Tigers’ effort a year ago — 159 sack-adjusted yards at 4.4 yards a carry — seems more like the best-case here.

Watson was merely good last week against the Buckeyes, completing 65% of passes at 7.2 yards an attempt, accruing 265 yards and a touchdown. His passer rating was fairly low, however, on account of two interceptions: one that gave outstanding field position to the Buckeyes in the first quarter, and another that robbed the Tigers of a scoring opportunity early in the second. Watson’s performance on a per-throw basis has slipped just a bit this season, but he’s already thrown four more picks than a year ago in just 32 more attempts. Alabama has a pick-six in each of the last two games this year, and are now up to six on the season.[12] Just like with Hurts, a pick-six in this game would be a killer for the Tigers.

12 | The non-offensive touchdowns counter is now at fifteen!

The Goods

OVERALL QUALITY
ALABAMA CLEMSON THE EDGE
F/+ 81.6% (1) F/+ 64.3% (2) ALABAMA
FPI 31.7 (1) FPI 27.1 (2) PUSH
FEI 0.354 (1) FEI 0.293 (2) PUSH
S&P+ 33.8 (1) S&P+ 25.4 (3) PUSH
Home Spread -6.5 ALABAMA

THE MATCHUP ON OFFENSE
ALABAMA CLEMSON THE EDGE
OFEI 0.72 (17) DFEI 0.87 (9) PUSH
OS&P+ 39.4 (9) DS&P+ 13.8 (6) PUSH
Rush OS&P+ 134.0 (2) Rush DS&P+ 113.6 (26) ALABAMA
Pass OS&P+ 115.8 (25) Pass DS&P+ 133.5 (4) CLEMSON
SD OS&P+ 122.0 (9) SD DS&P+ 111.0 (27) ALABAMA
PD OS&P+ 132.2 (7) PD DS&P+ 153.5 (3) PUSH
OALY 115.0 (13) DALY 118.8 (12) PUSH
OASR 104.0 (54) DASR 157.8 (7) CLEMSON

THE MATCHUP ON DEFENSE
ALABAMA CLEMSON THE EDGE
DFEI 2.02 (1) OFEI 0.96 (8) PUSH
DS&P+ 5.9 (1) OS&P+ 39.8 (6) PUSH
Rush DS&P+ 190.4 (1) Rush OS&P+ 113.0 (30) ALABAMA
Pass DS&P+ 163.8 (2) Pass OS&P+ 133.0 (6) PUSH
SD DS&P+ 164.0 (1) SD OS&P+ 124.7 (5) PUSH
PD DS&P+ 184.7 (1) PD OS&P+ 122.5 (17) ALABAMA
DALY 161.3 (1) OALY 124.6 (4) PUSH
DASR 152.0 (11) OASR 239.8 (4) PUSH

THE MATCHUP ON SPECIAL TEAMS
ALABAMA CLEMSON THE EDGE
ST S&P+ 0.4 (48) ST S&P+ -0.6 (85) ALABAMA
NFP 2.8 (28) NFP 2.3 (31) PUSH
STE 0.03 (47) STE 0.0 (65) ALABAMA
FGE -0.04 (82) FGE 0.04 (70) CLEMSON
KE 0.12 (17) KRE 0.01 (38) ALABAMA
PE 0.0 (56) PRE -0.14 (112) ALABAMA
PRE 0.15 (19) PE -0.05 (76) ALABAMA
KRE -0.15 (113) KE 0.04 (67) CLEMSON

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.
Statistics current as of January 4th, 2017.

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 Alabama Profile, and the Clemson Profile.

So, what do we know?

Overall Quality

Despite what seemed like a sub-par performance at times from the Tide, a dominant defensive effort against Washington kept Alabama on top of all the major statistical rankings. At present, the Tide have the highest F/+ and S&P+ ratings of any team ever, with a shot at eclipsing 2008 Florida as tops in the FEI metric.[13] That 81.6% rating in F/+ is particularly sporty, as no team has finished a season rated above the 80% threshold in the history of the metric. We’ve already discussed how FiveThirtyEight’s version of the ELO rating pegs this team as the best of the poll era. If the Tide manage to perform as expected — in the statistical sense, that is — against Clemson, they will unequivocally be Nick Saban’s finest outfit, and among the best in history.

13 | FPI is a big fan of 2005 Texas, with a 33.6 rating that will probably stand outside of a Tide blowout, which is not happening.

Of course, performing as expected against this Clemson team is a big ask, and frankly not likely to happen — though there is still cause for optimism. You’ll note the Tigers are now the #2 team in the country in all but S&P+, which has them slotted slightly behind Michigan — an S&P+ darling since the start of the season. Those ranks force pushes in all but F/+ — a quirk of how I calculate what is and what is not a push. Typically it’s based on a 10 rank margin for ease of calculation, but as F/+ is specifically stated as a measure of quality over the average opponent, I usually set the boundary at 10%, which the Tide clearly eclipse. That same approach, if applied to the other three rows, would give the edge to the Tide all the way down the line. Clemson is elite, but based on the sum total of the season, they are still a fair bit behind the Tide. This is reflected in the spread, currently at 6.5 points in favor of the defending champs — and whaddya know, that’s right between what S&P+ (8.4) and FPI (4.6) indicate it should be.

When Alabama Has the Ball

Overall, the Clemson defense has the slightest of edges here. The quirks of bowl season in concert with a decent offensive showing against an elite Huskies defense pushed the Tide back into the top-10 of the OS&P+ rankings, just a few spots behind Clemson’s defensive ranking. The Tide lag a bit behind the Tigers per FEI, as despite their rather hefty defensive slate they do not generate offensive value at the necessary pace to break into the top-10.

The S&P+ splits highlight what is commonly held to be true about this offense — the rushing attack is absolutely lethal, but the passing attack is a good bit behind. No one has really shut down that element of the Tide offense — at least one rusher has gained 90 or more yards in 13 games this season, with the lone shutout coming against Western Kentucky way back in September. Each of the four main ballcarriers — Harris, Hurts, Scarbrough, and Jacobs — have had multiple such games this season, such that when one of the four disappears,[14] the others fill in.[15] That consistency has produced the #2 rushing offense in all the land according to S&P+, despite an offensive line with a good-but-not-great rating in Adjusted Line Yards.

14 | Jacobs against LSU: five carries, -3 yards.

15 | Hurts went for 114 in that game, and Scarbrough and Harris both went over 50.

This would seem to line up with the weakness of the Clemson defense, which puts up a comparable rating in Adjusted Line Yards but is well behind Alabama’s mark in rushing S&P+. That suggests they are vulnerable to big plays in the run game — a peek at their statistical profile reveals that, indeed, they are 93rd in the country in defensive Rushing IsoPPP.[16] IsoPPP only measures successful plays,[17] so it directly measures how big you break when you break. This indicates the Tide may have difficulty churning out long, clock-eating drives by imposing their will on the opposing line, but if the Tide ballcarriers — particularly Scarbrough or Jacobs — are able to get loose, look out.

16 | The Tide defense is 18th, for reference.

17 | Much like Alabama, they counteract those big plays by allowing a below-average success rate and notching an above average Stuff Rate (rate of TFLs).

Of course they have to get past the line of scrimmage to do that, and based on Clemson’s last outing, that’s going to be tough. Clemson’s third in the country this year in tackles for loss per game, and they were able to dial up 11 against the Buckeyes last Saturday. Clelin Ferrell was downright unblockable for large portions of that game, as was Christian Wilkins.[18] Along with Dexter Lawrence and Carlos Watkins on the inside, the Clemson starting front has generated 46 tackles for loss this year,[19] and put up the 8th-best havoc rate[20] among defensive lines. This is a seriously talented group, and will be a rough assignment for the Tide offensive line.

18 | When he wasn’t engaging in… uh… extracurricular activities, that is.

19 | The Tide’s front is always shifting, but for reference Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, and Jonathan Allen have combined for 48.

20 | Tackles for loss, defensed passes, and fumbles forced per defensive play; the Tide line is 71st, as Anderson and Williams are classified as LBs.

They are, however, outshone by the secondary, which is among the country’s very best. This group lost its best player a year ago to the draft in Mackensie Alexander, but despite that actually got a shade better in the Pass DS&P+ ratings. They are fourth there, well ahead of the Tide’s offensive mark, making an already suspect passing game a little less attractive of an option. In conjunction with the nation’s #7 pass rush per Adjusted Sack Rate, they’ve managed to lock down the #3 spot on passing downs, which is one of the more interesting matchups in this contest. While the Tide’s passing numbers aren’t great, their numbers on passing downs are stellar — an above average success rate pared with the #6 mark in Passing IsoPPP. Passing downs tend to be opportunities to unleash the many talents of Hurts, and although the numbers would seem to indicate the Tide could stay ahead of the chains against this team,[21] the Tide will likely see a fair number of third and medium-to-longs in this one. If Hurts is able to work his magic that might not be such a bad thing, but this defense is certainly capable of making it a long, difficult evening if he can’t.

21 | RUN THE DAMN BALL, SARK! MAKE THEIR ASSES QUIT, SARK.

When Clemson Has the Ball

So, about defenses… as good as Clemson’s is — and it is very, very, good — the Tide’s is on another level entirely. Those DFEI and DS&P+ ratings are bonkers for this late in the season — the S&P+ rating is the lowest of the last three years[22] and the FEI rating is far and away the lowest ever.[23] This group simply doesn’t give up a lot of points, and including the special teams has scored nearly as many touchdowns as they’ve allowed. 16 field goals and one touchdown represent the net points allowed by this defense, with some errant PATs here and there to round it out. That’s unheard of, and underscores what a truly special season this has been in Tuscaloosa.

22 | When Bill C. changed the calculation — by the old method, I’m not sure but I think the 2011 Tide may be slightly ahead.

23 | For reference, last year’s defense led the country… with a 1.22; the average is a 0.

It’s entirely possible we might see a non-offensive touchdown or two in this one, as Clemson is among the most turnover-prone teams in college football, tied with three other teams for 117th with 27 turnovers lost on the year. On their other 1100 or so offensive plays this season, however, they’ve been among the country’s very best, riding elite marks in the passing game and on standard downs to a top-10 offensive ranking in both FEI and S&P+. That all begins and ends with Watson, of course, who will once again be the key player in his final game before entering the next draft. His performance in this game last year reinforced exactly what he’s capable of doing against even an elite defense — despite all the regurgitated mumbling this week regarding Kirby Smart’s focus for that game, there is no trick in the defensive toolbox to stop a prototypically gifted quarterback slinging the ball around with pinpoint accuracy. “Pinpoint,” as you may recall, is in no way an exaggeration of what Watson accomplished in last year’s championship, as he put on an almost unrivaled display of touch and timing throughout the game — at least, at the college level. Given the Tide’s outstanding secondary and nigh-insurmountable edge on the ground, the Tigers might need a similar performance from Watson to win.

I say “might”, because there’s a 6’ 3”, 225 pound difference between this year’s Tigers offense and the one the Tide saw last season. That difference is Mike Williams, who missed last season with a serious neck injury. He’s all healed up now, promptly returned to being Watson’s favorite target this season, and is probably the first receiver taken in the next draft. Williams is the proverbial matchup nightmare — long and physical with above-average speed and the kind of hops you’d expect from a former basketball player. The Tide haven’t seen receivers like Williams since Texas A&M, but a more apt comparison might be Ole Miss’s fleet of receivers, many of whom have similar, if slighter, builds to Williams‘ and had a comparably talented quarterback throwing them the ball. Damore’ea Stringfellow and Van Jefferson combined for 178 yards on just 10 catches in that game, which you may recall is the one where the Tide yielded 43 points and had to come back from 21 down; that was the only game where the Tide surrendered 40 or more points this season. Getting Watson and Williams going is absolutely crucial for Clemson, as that connection is the easiest path to scoring on this defense.

That’s because it will be very surprising if they get anything working on the ground. Your eyeballs have told you this is one of the stingier units against the run you’ve ever seen, and the stats sure back that up — in addition to leading the country in rushing yards allowed per game and average yards per carry allowed,[24] they have far and away the best mark in S&P+. Simply put, nobody has really run on the Tide, and Clemson will not be the first to do so.

24 | By nearly a full yard per carry over #2! Ridiculous.

Lastly, you’ll note the only row where the Tide have an edge, aside from the run game, is on passing downs, where they are easily the best team in the country. Curiously, despite the robust passing game and an offensive line 4th in the country in Adjusted Sack Rate, Clemson lags a bit behind on these downs. They are ranked 17th, which is certainly not bad, but it’s still over 60 rating points behind the Tide’s defensive mark. That’s a huge gap, and suggests a good approach for the Tide is to force as many third and longs as possible, and then bring the heat on those downs.[25] That bit mentioned above about the defensive toolbox? The best tool you have against an elite quarterback is to get pressure on him as much as possible — especially on passing downs — and get him outside of his comfort zone. Watson doesn’t take many sacks, but he’s thrown plenty of interceptions this season, and keeping him uncomfortable would go a long way toward a Tide victory — it sure worked well against Washington, right?

25 | Hard-hitting, insightful analysis like that is why you keep coming back, folks!

Special Teams

Somehow, when we weren’t looking, the Tide managed to put together an above-average special teams unit, and one that generates a good NFP rating to boot. The win over Washington, in conjunction with everything else that happened during bowl season, produced a 14 spot jump in that metric, with more modest gains in the S&P+ and FEI overall special teams ratings. The Tide actually has an edge on Clemson here overall, which is a rare, rare occurrence in these previews.

Adam Griffith’s final game in a crimson uniform sees him lagging behind his counterpart on the opposition once again, although the difference is just barely significant. Griffith has actually been fairly reliable of late, with a miss from 40 and a blocked PAT against Florida his only blemishes since the LSU game in early November. Greg Heugel appears a little better from distance, but has missed a few kicks this year as well; realistically, this is probably a wash.

The Tide does have an edge in the rest of the kicking game, including a significant one on punts. Apparently, according to FEI, J.K. Scott and the punt team are merely average at this point, despite the junior’s underrated season and lack of consideration for the Ray Guy Award. Clemson’s punt return game is well below average by just about any metric, however, and that gap may provide an important field position edge to the Tide. The same can be said of Clemson’s edge on kickoffs, where the Tide’s return efforts have been among the country’s worst this season.

Lastly, punt returns are a bit hard to pin down. Trevon Diggs seems to be the guy to replace Eddie Jackson, but he’s looked shaky back there at times, and the funny hops produced by Washington’s punter seemed to give him a lot of trouble. We saw last year the importance of special teams play against this team, and a muffed punt could do in the Tide this year.

Any intangibles to consider?

Oh, just a few. We’ll start with the usuals.

This game will be played at Raymond James Stadium, which is an outdoor facility in Tampa. Rain will be moving through the area over the weekend, but Monday appears to be sunny with a mild wind and temperatures in the 50s at kickoff, which sounds like outstanding weather for a football game. That location is relatively close to both schools, so it’s unlikely that we see the crowd slanted toward either team or any travel-related issues.

These two schools have played fairly often for non-conference opponents, with 16 meetings since 1900. The Tigers won the first three, but have not beaten the Tide in over 100 years, losing 13 straight since 1909, including the recent tussles to open the 2008 season and close the 2015 one.

As far as injuries are concerned, both teams have lost several players for the season with the harder hits going toward the Tide, but fortunately neither team lost any players during their bowl games. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Reuben Foster, and Dalvin Tomlinson were all involved in a scary collision right before halftime that appeared to really shake up Fitzpatrick in particular, but all were able to return to the Peach Bowl and will all be ready to go for the championship game.

Lastly, the biggest story this week is the Tide’s offensive coordinator situation. As you know, Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin “mutually agreed” to part ways on Monday, apparently because Kiffin was struggling with juggling his offensive coordinator responsibilities with his new position as head coach at FAU. To be honest, this seemed a lot more like a dismissal than a mutual parting of ways, with several reports painting an unfortunate picture of the end of Kiffin’s tenure and perhaps his attitude and approach to his position at the Capstone over the last three seasons.

So, exactly one week before the biggest game of the season, Steve Sarkisian will step in for Kiffin as coordinator and playcaller. It is unlikely that we will see significant changes to the offense as a result of this, however. For one, Sarkisian and Kiffin used to be co-coordinators at USC, and have a similar philosophy and approach to offense as a result. If Sarkisian isn’t as well regarded as Kiffin when it comes to coordinating, he’s very close, and he’s been involved in analysis and game planning for the Tide offense for a good chunk of the season, including the entirety of bowl practice. Best of all, he’s had nothing work-wise to focus on in the last week but Clemson, which was clearly not the case for Kiffin with Washington.

Sarkisian’s relationship with the players, and Jalen Hurts in particular, is a big unknown, especially given he was not permitted to act as a coach in his previous position with whatever restrictions on player contact that designation entailed. All in all, while this has been a huge distraction and really ill-timed — in hindsight, making this move after the SEC championship game would probably have been better for both parties — there’s a decent chance we’ll see little to no drop-off at all, and better playcalling than we saw against Washington.[26]

26 | Here’s a hint, Steve: Run the ball on standard downs! Like, always! Until they stop it!

Swanson Giddiness Index

Ron remembers what Watson did to the Tide last year. Ron’s not so sure about Coach Sark. Ron’s a little fried from trying to figure this one out. Ron needs some scotch.

The Picks

This is a tough one. This was a tight matchup before all the drama surrounding Kiffin’s exit, and now the Tide’s been dealing with that distraction all week. The defense will definitely show up, and perhaps put up a better performance than last year. If the Tigers are able to bottle up the Tide on the ground, though, this is not going to be pretty.

All that being said, I think I’ve talked myself into being bullish on Sark, and the Tide’s been a pretty safe bet over the last several years. This is really a toss-up, but, in what I’m sure is a huge surprise, I’m going to trust the Process and go with the Tide.

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