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Previewing Alabama vs. Clemson: The Tiger defense

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While not quite Bama’s peer defensively, they are extremely aggressive and efficient where it counts

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson
The Clemson defense hit its stride against the Buckeyes in the first round of the College Football Playoffs.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After watching the Clemson Tiger defense dismantle what many thought to be a pretty prolific Ohio State attack in the first round of the College Football Playoffs, a cold chill ran through the collective Alabama fan base. The Tigers were everywhere: they swarmed the usually potent Buckeye zone read option, they held quarterback J.T. Barrett’s middling arm largely in check, and they held the number two team in the nation scoreless through four quarters. Scary stuff, indeed.

The Clemson defense has not always looked so imposing. After all, they gave up 43 points and 464 yards to a Pitt team that finished the season with five losses. And they struggled to contain the likes of Virginia Tech and Auburn in the regular season.

But at a time of the year when momentum matters most, the Tiger defense has it as they look forward to yet another spread, zone-read offense in top-ranked Alabama. As good as the Clemson D looked against OSU, the Tide’s offense looked lethargic, pedestrian, and uninspiring. Quarterback Jalen Hurts finished with a mere 57 yards through the air against the Washington defense, which thus far in game week, hasn’t inspired the type of confidence fans of the Tide are accustomed to feeling in the build-up to a championship game.

While Alabama remains the king of the defensive hill as the nation’s best defense, Clemson’s defense cannot be discounted. Statistically, they are a legitimate top-10 defense, ranked eighth in total defense, seventh in scoring defense, and sixth in defensive S&P+. They are talented, with agile big men up front, large-framed active linebackers, safeties who crash downhill in run support, and above-average talent on the corners. They will be a worthy adversary for Alabama’s chameleon offense that shifts to attack the weakness of its respective opponents from week to week, partially because this Clemson defense doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. There are some things they do better than others, of course, but if you asked most coaches in the country if they’d trade their defenses for Dabo Swinney’s, the answer would be a resounding “yes.”

What will Clemson do to accomplish a goal no other team has accomplished this season, namely, stopping the plethora of weapons the Crimson Tide has at its disposal? After all, if Clemson goes all in to stop the Bama running attack, they will leave the likes of Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, and O.J. Howard in man coverage. Sure, the Clemson corners are good, but even the best corners can’t endure that type of gauntlet over four quarters unscathed…if Hurts can up his passing game and take advantage of open receivers. Do the Tigers aggressively rush the passer and risk falling victim to the Tide’s misdirection and the chaos of their zone read- and inverted veer-based tactics? There are a lot of bullets in new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkesian’s gun, and with no game tape to reference his tendencies, it’s anybody’s guess how he will attack Clemson’s D. The Tigers certainly won’t know what to expect.

Though Clemson’s defense is statistically as good as Alabama’s, they don’t have quite the pass rush nor the run defense to be considered in the same league as the Tide this season. Still, they’ve done a good job of limiting opponents enough to give their explosive offense enough room to work comfortably.

Will the Tiger defense be able to force Alabama out of its running game comfort zone? Can Hurts take advantage of Tiger safeties who routinely cheat up in run support by finding O.J. Howard for another career day on the championship stage? Can Alabama’s edge running game wear down the Tigers’ bulky, lumering front seven? What new wrinkles will the incoming Sarkesian bring to the Tide offense, and how will Clemson forecast those adaptations with no tape of Sarkesian’s Bama game plan?

We’ll see on Monday night. Until then, let’s take a closer look at the Tiger defense…

The Roster

Clemson is one of a handful of teams that has consistently recruited at a high level in the last half- decade, and in that regard, they are well-equipped to deal with the onslaught of talent that Alabama will put on display Monday night. It showed in the National Championship Game last season, as the Tiger defense hung with Alabama through the final moments of the game, showing a kind of fight few other Tide opponents could muster.

Though many members of that salty 2015 defense are now on NFL rosters, the Tigers field an elite defense that has few weaknesses in personnel. Nowhere is that more obvious than along the defensive front, where Clemson has the perfect combination of strength, size, speed, and athleticism.

The base defense used by Clemson is the 4-3, though it may sometimes resemble a 3-4 due to defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ late-season penchant for lining up three down linemen across front with an upright defensive end. That upright defensive end has been explosive freshman newcomer Clelin Ferrell (6-5, 265 pounds), an athletic pass rusher who also serves as Venables’ weapon against spread running defenses. The agile Ferrell can do anything the coordinator needs him to do, as evidenced by his 43 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, two passes broken up, and nine quarterback hurries. Ferrell has been a terror for quarterbacks from the edge, and Alabama’s tackles will have their work cut out in dealing with the speedy rusher. Behind Ferrell is sophomore Austin Bryant (6-4, 265 pounds), another end from the same smaller, faster mold from which the starter is made. Bryant has 12 tackles and three tackles for loss on the season.

At the other, more traditional end position is sophomore Christian Wilkins (6-4, 310 pounds), an active bruiser who specializes in run defense. Wilkins is the edge enforcer, and has also drawn the ire of college football fandom after his fondling exploits against Ohio State. Despite those recent indiscretions, Wilkins has had quite the year, recording 44 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, eight passes broken up, five quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and a blocked kick. Behind Wilkins is sophomore Richard Yeargin (6-5, 260 pounds)13 tackles and four tackles for a loss.

The Tigers have a pair of monsters at tackle in senior Carlos Watkins (6-3, 305 pounds) and Dexter Lawrence (6-5, 340 pounds). Watkins is ferocious pass rusher from the middle of the defense, as he creates a ton of pressure and disrupts the pocket routinely. His numbers for the year are eye-popping, as he has accounted for a fifth of Clemson’s sacks (10.5), in addition to 44 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, four passes broken up, and four quarterback hurries. Lawrence is a run-stuffing wall who serves as the foundation of the Tiger front, but he’s no one-trick pony, as he is a dynamic pass rusher to boot. The huge tackle with the wide wingspan has 59 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, six quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries, and two blocked kicks. Backing up Watkins is sophomore Albert Huggins (6-3, 305 pounds), who has 18 tackles and three sacks on the year. Lawrence is spelled by junior Scott Pagano (6-3, 295 pounds), who offers a more mobile choice at the position. Pagano has 19 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks.

The Tigers likewise have an embarrassment of riches at the linebacker position, though those players do have their limitations. The most athletic of the group is junior Sam linebacker Dorian O’Daniel (6-1, 215 pounds), a speedy ‘backer in a safety body who flies around the field laying wood on running backs and tight ends. O’Daniel is well suited to defending Bama’s perimeter running game, as he covers a lot of ground and has great instincts. O’Daniel has 50 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries, a forced fumble, and an interception. Coming on in relief of O’Daniel is sophomore Jalen Williams (5-10, 215 pounds), who has 25 tackles, one tackle for loss, and one interception.

At the heart of the Tiger run defense is sophomore Kendall Joseph (6-0, 230 pounds), who mans the middle at the Mike position. Joseph is a hard-hitter who is difficult to move once he gets a head of steam, and he flows well to the ball. Joseph has a whopping 102 tackles on the season to go along with 11 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, five quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, and an interception. Joseph’s back-up is freshman Tre Lamar (6-3, 240 pounds), who has 15 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a sack on the season.

The vocal senior Ben Boulware (6-0, 235 pounds) gets the start at the Will spot, where he leads the team in tackles with 110, along with 9.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and an interception. Boulware is a leader not only among linebackers but among Clemson defenders, as he has earned his stripes and the respect of his teammates. Boulware may not be the fleetest of foot, but he is intelligent enough to read offensive tendencies and take advantage accordingly. Behind Boulware is sophomore J.D. Davis (6-2, 225 pounds), who has 10 tackles to his record this season.

The secondary is absolutely loaded as well, with a pair of hard-hitting safeties and elite corners. Senior corner Cordrea Tankersley (6-1, 200 pounds) leads the pack, as he combines a prototypical corner body with excellent coverage skills and an aggressive demeanor. Tankersley is explosive and opportunistic, as he has four interceptions on the season, along with 47 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, and 10 passes broken up. Sophomore Mark Fields (5-10, 180 pounds) is the second-stringer, and in relief Fields has recorded 13 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, four passes broken up, and an interception.

At the opposite corner spot, junior Ryan Carter (5-9, 180 pounds) gets the nod. Carter is somewhat undersized for a corner, but what he lacks in size he makes up for in technique and aggressiveness. He routinely challenges taller receivers and wins, and he is relentless in coverage even when outmatched. Carter has 29 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, a sack, seven passes broken up, and an interception. Carter is backed-up by junior Marcus Edmond (6-0, 175 pounds), who has 20 tackles, one tackle for loss, and one interception.

The safety position is a true strength for the Tigers, as they have a pair of ballers who are equally adept in coverage and run support. Senior strong safety Jadar Johnson (6-0, 210 pounds) has everything a defensive coach wants in a safety: he’s big enough to be physical, fast enough to cover receivers, smart enough to pivot in response to late-breaking RPOs, and aggressive enough to be disruptive. Johnson has parlayed that skill set into a fantastic season in 2016, as he has 54 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, seven passes broken up, a forced fumble, and a team-leading five interceptions. Freshman Denzel Johnson fills in as the second-stringer, and he has eight tackles and a fumble recovery on the season.

At free safety is sophomore Van Smith (5-11, 190 pounds), an active underclassman who has taken advantage of limited depth at the position this season. Smith plays downhill in run support, and he and Johnson are two of Venables’ most potent tools in stemming the tide of spread zone read-style offenses. Smith has 92 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two passes broken up, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions. Reliving Smith is another true freshman in K’Von Wallace (6-0, 190 pounds), who hads six tackles, one tackle for loss, and an interception.

How the Clemson Defense Can Stop Alabama

As mentioned above, if Clemson is going to stymy the Alabama offense, they are likely going to do it early. The Tide has started slowly all season long offensively, though it remains to be seen whether that cadence will remain the same under a new play-caller. This could be a recipe for a Tiger victory if it is combined with an explosive offensive effort from Clemson in the first half of the game. The Tide is not a team built to come back from large deficits per se (though that’s exactly what they did against Ole Miss), but rather to lead or stay close to opponents in the first half before pulling away with superior depth and conditioning in the second.

While the Venables defense was described as one of the “most multiple” the Tide has seen in 2016 by none other than Nick Saban, the Tigers’ underlying defensive philosophy is rather simple. First, stop the run on early downs, and force third and longs. Second, use elite defensive back talent (or a coverage scheme that accommodates for a lack thereof) to lock down an opponent’s best wide receiver, freeing the remainder of the defense to concentrate on limiting short passing gains.

Venables likes to accomplish these goals by using a 4-3 front primarily, and whether that front involves a 4-3 Under with a down linebacker playing 9-technique (as he did at Oklahoma), a 4-3 Over with an end in the 9-technique (as he has done at Clemson in 2015), or a 4-3 with three down and one up, in all three cases his defenses typically play the run outside-in. Unlike the Washington defense the Tide faced in the previous round of the playoffs, a defense which clogged the middle of the field with bodies in hopes of bouncing running backs to the edges where linebacker and defensive back pursuit was used to track down the ball, the Tiger defense sets a hard edge and forces running backs inside. There, defensive linemen are charged with occupying double-teams from offensive linemen so that linebackers and safeties in the box can flow and attack downhill in the middle of the field, popping running backs at the line of scrimmage.

This strategy, in its conception, is not unlike the run defense that Alabama saw during the regular season versus Arkansas. Another outside-in defense, Razorback second-level defenders could play instinctively, reading and attacking gaps at full speed while athletic defensive ends set the edge and forced the run into the thick of the Razorback defense. Conceptually, what the Tigers do is somewhat similar to the one Alabama faced in the game against Arkansas, though Clemson admittedly has far more talent defensively.

This strategy makes it extremely difficult for offensive linemen to double-team Tiger defenders. In essence, linemen must walk a timing tight-rope that can have disastrous results if misplayed. If the linemen release their first-level blocks too early to get to the crashing linebackers and safeties, they risk tackles for loss from the released defensive linemen. Hold on to those first-level blocks for too long, and the linebackers and safeties come crashing through the front like Vandals at the gates of Rome. In many cases, one would expect a physical back like Bo Scarbrough to power through those second-level run-stoppers with pure physicality (especially if Bama runs Power with a pulling guard and tight end leading through the gap). But against the Clemson linebackers, two of whom come in at 230+ pounds, that is not a certain win for the big Bama back. Sure, he’ll win his share of collisions, but they’ll take their toll on him as well.

Sounds pretty hopeless, huh? Not so fast. While a tough run defense to handle, it does have its inherent weaknesses. After all, if there’s any weakness in the Clemson defense in 2016, it’s their ability to stop the run. In terms of raw data, the Tigers have the 19th ranked rush defense, as they cede 183.8 yards per game on the ground. Advanced metrics are even more telling of the Tigers’ run defense deficiency, as the Tigers are ranked 32nd in run defense S&P+. While those are both still top-50 rankings, they are far from the lofty run defense standard set by the Tide, and are somewhat worse than the corresponding rankings for last year’s Clemson defense.

Because of the downhill attacking nature of the second-level defenders, an offensive line that can open quick holes, along with a corps of decisive running backs who can hit the holes and get to the second level quickly, can have success running the ball against Clemson in quick, gashing fashion. The other way to exploit the Clemson defense is to use formations, shifts and counters to create misdirection among second-level defenders. For examples, Clemson’s safeties typically play in the box, and at the snap they pause, flat-footed, for a moment to make a quick read before flowing towards the action. They attack aggressively. But that aggression can be repurposed by offenses who can mask their true intentions with misdirection or quarterback reads, thus letting the safeties and/ or linebackers run themselves out of the plays.

In other words, Alabama’s offense can let the Clemson defense read and begin to attack, then change the grain of the play’s action to use their aggressiveness against them. Easier said than done, of course, as Clemson has elite athletic talent. But not impossible for a Bama offense with elite talent of its own.

One intriguing possibility for Bama would be the use of the patented horizontal run game based off the zone read/ inverted veer Alabama has run so well this season with Hurts’ dynamic athleticism from the shotgun. Because the Clemson linebackers (outside of O’Daniel) tend to be larger-framed, lumbering ‘backers better suited for stopping pro-style offenses, teams such as Pitt were able to run at the edges on them with relative consistency. In fact, the Panthers worked the boundaries enough to spread the middle later in the game, opening lanes for RPOs, read option successes, and shovel passes. Alabama under Lane Kiffin this year has been excellent in using the jet sweeps and bubble screens to run the legs off of heavy-set defenders, and though Kiffin has departed for sunny Florida, Steve Sarkesian is probably well-attuned to this strength of the Bama offense and relative weakness in the Tiger defense.

Also, the kind of fast-breaking defensive attack employed by Clemson is susceptible to the big play in the running game. Statistically speaking, Clemson has shown a relative weakness in defending explosive plays (plays of more than 20 yards), as they are ranked 16th in IsoPPP, a measure of the success of explosive plays against a defense. Because the second-level players attempt to attack at the line of scrimmage and get upfield quickly, if a running back manages to break through the first-level cluster, he often finds only defensive backs in his way en route to the end zone. Fortunately for Alabama, Scarbrough has shown the ability to make defenses pay for vertical over-pursuit, missed tackles and second-level size mismatches as of late, as evidenced in his bushel of 20+ yard runs in the last three games (Exhibit A: Scarbrough’s 68-yard demolition derby touchdown run against Washington). As the Clemson defense tires in the second half (especially if Bama can stretch them horizontally early on), such big play breaks could become more likely.

Say that Clemson is successful in stopping the run…what next? While there remains some mystery to Sarkesian’s particular play-calling approach, he is still working with the same toolbox that Kiffin enjoyed. Earlier in 2016, Kiffin masterfully drew up a passing scheme that played to Hurts’ strengths (or rather, covered his weaknesses). For whatever reason, the Tide passing game ebbed after a high-water mark against Mississippi State, with the most recent showing against Washington being among the Hurts’ worst passing efforts.

One can expect that while Sarkesian will likely (by order of Saban) key on the running game (ranked 11th nationally), there will be opportunities in the passing game that Bama can exploit if Hurts can find his passing rhythm. Hurts has shown he is comfortable with the bubble screens and passes to the edges. Though he hasn’t been tremendously successful throwing the ball deep, doing so would allow Alabama to stretch a defense that is far more comfortable playing in a phone booth. It’s not a must that Alabama throws the ball deep, in other words, but doing so if only occasionally would greatly enhance its chances of opening up the offense.

One potential vector for passing game success could be O.J. Howard: it’s well-documented the coming-out party Howard enjoyed last year against Clemson’s coverage schemes, and Clemson’s schemes this year are not terribly different from the ones they used against the Tide in 2015. One can imagine that Venables has schemed a way to prevent Howard from exploding on his defense once again, but even that adjustment must come at a price that will benefit some other Tide playmaker.

Truthfully, some of the defensive tendencies that led to O.J.’s big day last year remain. The Tiger safeties still play in the box, and they’ll aggressively crash the line in run support. RPOs and a sharpened Hurts’ passing game could be a money-maker for the Tide over the middle, as the Tigers simply don’t have anyone with the size and speed measurables to take Howard out of the game.Something to consider…though Hurts only threw for 57 yards against Washington, several of those passes went to Howard, as it appears the young quarterback has found a safe target in Bama’s explosive tight end. Could that be a comfort-brewing prelude of things to come in the Tide passing game? (Put a pin in that, as it could come into play Monday night.)

Now, if Sarkesian has managed to somehow coax a solid passing game from Hurts this week, whether through simplified reads or tightening of mechanics, there are far too many weapons for Clemson to counter in the receiving corps. Calvin Ridley is a given, though he has had something of a sophomore slump due to Hurts’ limitations as a passer. ArDarius Stewart has been a weapon, and that will continue if Sarkesian elects to trust Hurts in the passing game. Even the Tide’s longer passing game manifests itself in just a few intermediate passes to take advantage of Clemson’s Man or Quarters coverage, one would think those few chances would give the Tiger safeties pause about pinching the box so forcefully.

Typically, Venables lets his best corner (last year it was MacKenzie Alexander, this year it is Tankersley) play man against the main receiving threat while the remainder of the Tiger secondary goes into pattern-matching coverage in an effort to seal off the deep threat while allowing short passes underneath that are well-defended. Unlike a lot of Cover-3 defenses which will instinctively put a linebacker on a running back in coverage, the Clemson defense will take sure tackling over the possibility of tight coverage. To that end, passes are completed into loose coverage underneath, but there are no broken tackles that lead to YAC because linebackers are focused on what they do best - tackling - rather than coverage. The Tigers have no problem giving up the kinds of short passes the Tide has used to move the ball this year, so long as they remain short gains. In other words, Clemson will give up the short throws, but will keep plenty of defenders in the area to wrap up and make tackles, thus limiting gains and yards after catch. It’s frustratingly simple, and a strategy made possible by Venables’ trust in Tankersley’s solid corner play.

Clemson’s safeties are required to play bracket coverage at times with Carter, but they are also a heavy part of the Tiger run defense. Venables loves to load the box on obvious run downs, and with Jadar Johnson and Van Smith, he has two players who are capable of doing both at a high level. Smith is third on the team with 92 tackles to his credit, along with 5.5 tfls (evidence of the way Venables likes to attack opposing running games with the safeties and dial up blitz packages from the second level). Johnson is a physical presence in the box who is constantly moving downhill at the first sign of a run. The Clemson safeties are nasty, and outside of LSU and Washington, Alabama has not played a pair of safeties who are as adept against both pass and run as the two Tigers they’ll face Monday evening.

It’s safe to say that Clemson will be one of the three best defenses the Tide has played this season. After all, they dominated the Buckeyes from start to finish in a way that Urban Meyer’s team hasn’t been whipped since his days at Florida. They have elite players, excellent coaching, a proven scheme, fantastic size and speed, and veteran leadership. Statistically, they are in the top-10 in most major categories, and their record against premiere offenses indicates Alabama will have quite a hill to climb to execute against this defense.

If the Tigers stop the run, and lock down Stewart or Howard (neither of which will be easy), the Tide could conceivably be forced to keep the offense alive on short passes to the edge and over the middle on quick-developing routes. Unlike, say, the Florida defense, which could be effectively stretched to the point of uncomfortability, Clemson is content to spread out a little and allow short stuff while sealing off all hope of a big play in the passing game.

The Result

Quite simply, Alabama will face its tallest task of the season in conquering a ferocious Clemson defense. Everyone knows about Alabama’s defensive might. But the Tigers aren’t far behind, ranked eighth nationally in total defense, sixth in third-down defense, 17th in pass defense, and 19th in run defense. They are good, and unlike the team the Tide faced in the first round of the playoffs, their roster is loaded with legitimately elite talent.

Alabama will likely have a hard time running the ball early against a defense that is built to shut down inside running games. That’s not to say that the Tide running game won’t be able to build momentum and create seams inside as the game wears on. However, as was the case against Washington, Sarkesian and the Alabama offense would be better served to find safe, high-percentage passing targets for Hurts to keep the ball (and more importantly, the chains) moving. One must suppose that despite his accelerated learning curve, Sarkesian has poked and prodded his way through tons of Clemson film looking for tendencies and weaknesses. One can also assume that the Tide’s offense in the early going will attack Clemson where it is weakest while gathering intelligence on their defensive response.

Expect Alabama to test the edges with both the passing and running games, particularly away from Tankersley. The short area between (and beyond) the tackles may also be fertile ground for short gains, as Stewart and Howard pose size mismatches (particularly in terms of height) versus the men responsible for defending them in that area. If Hurts can muster a short passing attack and gain confidence, it may be just what Alabama needs to give the Tiger defenders pause.

And running to the edges should pay dividends, as previous Tiger opponents (including the only team that beat them) showed the Tigers can be exploited on the ground on the perimeter. Success on the edges will breed future success for the Scarbrough in the middle, as success outside will force the Tigers to adapt and flex their slower personnel towards the sidelines to offset Bama’s explosiveness. In the early going, this may be enough to keep the chains moving while providing the Bama defense with the time needed to adapt (and potentially recover from) the explosive Clemson offensive attack.

If Alabama makes it a point to attack the edges with the zone read, and can break through the Tiger attempts to set the edge, the Tiger run defense could come apart at the stitches. The whole Clemson run defense philosophy is predicated on defensive ends setting and holding the edge to force the run inside so that the big men in the middle can hold set and conserve energy. Once Alabama stretches the front out and wears it down, the Tide’s power and outside zone looks could become Sarkesian’s hammer. If Cam Robinson and Ross Pierschbacher can attack the left side (or conversely, Jonah Williams and Korren Kirven on the right) and pin the end inside (or even seal him outside), a big back like Scarbrough can have a field day running through safeties and around linebackers.

Finally, expect run-pass options to figure heavily in the Alabama game plan. As the season wore on, the RPOs allowed to Hurts by Kiffin seemed more limited, even though they had previously been the fuel in the Bama offensive engine earlier in the year. Sarkesian would do well to put his confidence in Hurts’ RPO reads against Clemson, as doing so would wield some of the Tigers’ aggressiveness against them. Unlike some defenses which rely on simple pre-snap keys to determine defender responsibility, Clemson employs the more widely used “reads.” A defender makes his read to predict the offensive play and determine responsibility, then he executes by a pre-determined plan in synchronicity with his fellow defenders.

RPOs disrupt that by allowing the offense to effectively run two plays at once, such as concurrently blocking a running play while at the same time running a pass play route tree. Only the quarterback knows which of the two (or three) packaged plays is the real play, and he makes that decision after the snap depending on what he sees from the defense.

This makes it incredibly difficult for a defense to read and play fast. The defense can either continue to read and react, and risk the big play or blown assignment. Or, it can slow down the attack to get a more accurate read, thus limiting the effectiveness of an aggressive downhill defense like the one used by Clemson. Either outcome would benefit Alabama, so expect the invisible hand of RPOs to heavily color the offensive game plan for the Tide. When combined with the obfuscation of the zone read/ inverted veer aspects of Alabama’s offense and the unknown tendencies Sarkesian brings to the table in his first game as coordinator, RPOs can further enhance the Tide’s offensive mystery. Simply put, anything that slows Clemson’s D down will work to Bama’s advantage.

The Tide offense versus the Tiger defense is not the best of match-ups for Alabama, stylistically speaking, but the problems posed by Clemson are not so great that they cannot be overcome. The primary goal for the Tide early on will be holding onto the ball, stretching drives, and working the clock and field position. As Saban has said in the last several weeks, a successful drive is one that ends in a kick. Alabama’s offense not only has the task of keeping pace with Clemson on the scoreboard, but they can also help the defense by keeping Deshaun Watson and the potent Tiger offense off the field. Scoring is of the utmost importance, to be sure, but any long drive that gives Alabama a field-position and time-of-possession advantage is a win for the Tide. Alabama can likely plant its flag on the fourth quarter, so as long as the Tide defense has done its job and the offense has held onto the ball, the prospects for victory are not as distant as some would have you think after the Tide struggled against Washington and Clemson obliterated Ohio State.

If, however, Bama cannot get positive yardage on first downs, cannot convert third downs, or turns the ball over…well, that will result in a different ball game altogether. The Tide defense will want to make Clemson’s offense work for their gains, and their job becomes harder if the Bama offense is locked in an infinite loop of three-and-outs. Even the best defenses tire, and the Tigers have an offense potent enough to do considerable damage.

For Alabama, victory will rise from the following ingredients: ball-control offense, winning the time-of-possession, stretching Clemson’s front from sideline to sideline, winning the turnover battle, and doing enough offensively to keep the game close early. Can the Tide offense remember how to bake that cake with a new chef in the kitchen? Time will tell.