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Hope For the Best: Clemson

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Though it’s being billed as a rematch of last year’s game, very little is the same about the two teams that will spar for the National Championship on Monday night

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson
Deshaun Watson is the total package at QB...can the Tide stop him?
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

As an offensively-frustrated but happy Alabama fan base watched the later game on New Year’s Eve, an eerie realization began to set in. Rather than a potentially score-settling rematch with Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Crimson Tide would once again be facing its least desirable option for all of the college football championship marbles: the Clemson Tigers.

While many had hoped that Alabama would get a chance to avenge its loss to the Buckeyes in the first-ever rendition of college football’s crowning process, the Tide instead drew a tough hand in the Tigers, the only team to come within a hair of beating a Nick Saban-coached Alabama championship contender. In previous championship games, the Tide had dominated Texas, Notre Dame, and LSU, winning each contest by a comfortable margin. Clemson, however, pushed Bama to the brink in last year’s title game, forcing the Tide to unconventional measures en route to a five-point win.

Surely, the Tide would have had an easier time with Ohio State, both from match-up and motivational standpoints. The Buckeyes had multiple weaknesses, soft spots which cannot be found in Clemson’s solid top-to-bottom squad. The Tigers offer a significant challenge on both sides of the ball. They are the bane of defenses, led by the electric two-time Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson (6-3, 215 pounds), one of a few teams to feature a 4000 yard quarterback (Watson), a 1000 yard running back in Wayne Gallman (6-0, 210 pounds), and a 1000 yard receiver in Mike Williams (6-3, 225 pounds). And they field a top-10 defense on the other side of the ball, with a ferocious front seven and an elite secondary.

That night, as the seconds drained from the Fiesta Bowl clock, it became apparent…Alabama’s road to 17 would come with a considerable orange obstacle.

That’s not to say that there’s reason to abandon all hope, as some in the media have encouraged through the 10 days leading up to the championship game. After all, if there is a defense built to squelch the likes of Watson and Company, it’s the one wearing crimson and white. Alabama, statistically speaking, has the best defense in the land. The raw data and advanced metrics agree, the only football teams that could have success running the ball against Bama are probably wearing NFL shields on their jerseys. And this year’s Tide secondary, one could argue, is well ahead of last year’s unit heading into the championship game. In the latter half of the season, the Bama defense has been a thing of beauty…a brutal, bruising, battering thing of beauty.

The offense, on the other hand, has fed into the aforementioned concerns about the Tide’s chances against an explosive Clemson team that moved the ball easily against Bama last year. The Tigers have a pretty solid defense of their own, and if the Tide defense surprisingly struggles to hold Clemson in check, few have faith that the Tide offense will be able to match pace the way it did in the previous game. The “mutually-agreed-upon” sudden dismissal of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin only added roux to the Tide’s championship gumbo. Enter Steve Sarkisian, a former head coach and play-caller who has been with Alabama since September. Sure, Sark knows the offense, and has analyzed players and systems. But there’s a big difference between a back-office gig, and being the play-caller of a team with which you’ve only interacted for a week. The reality is that despite his credentials, Sark hasn’t called an offensive game under live fire in some time. Will the departure of Kiffin/ addition of Sark be a good thing for an Alabama offense that looked far too stagnant against Washington? Or is it more of a mojo-interrupting distraction, the kind of mental clutter that Saban loathes with a white-hot passion?

After Clemson systematically demolished Ohio State, it’s hard to argue that the Tigers aren’t hitting their peak at the right time. The Fightin’ Dabos looked awfully tough on both sides of the ball as they streaked to a 31-0 victory over the number two team in the nation. It was not a flawless performance, as Watson tossed two interceptions and played sloppily at times. But this Clemson team appears to be on a mission, and their goal is to beat Alabama this Monday night.

Expect a fight, to be sure. Rematches rarely live up to their predecessors in terms of excitement, which could be a good thing for Alabama. After all, this Alabama offense does not appear built to win an offensive shootout, choosing instead a more pedestrian form of suffocation in dealing with its opponents. While one can imagine the Clemson team is motivated by vengeance, so too is Alabama’s stellar defense, a unit that gave up over 40 points and 400 yards passing last year to the Clemson O. It was an embarrassing outing to hear Tide defenders tell it now, and they too will be looking for a measure of revenge in this game.

Despite the dire forecasts of media pundits and Gumps gone wild (recency bias is a hell of a drug), this Alabama team remains in the driver’s seat of this championship game. Don’t be fooled by the premature proclamations regarding the demise of college football’s once and future king. The facts are there in black and white. The Tide has a more talented roster, top to bottom. This season, Alabama has a dramatically better defense more suited to the style of offense Clemson plays. Alabama’s offensive strength (the run game) dovetails nicely into Clemson’s greatest defensive weakness (run defense). Alabama has the intangibles. They have championship-winning offensive and defensive coordinators in Sark (who won with USC) and Jeremy Pruitt (who won with FSU). The Tide has Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster. Most importantly, they have Nick Saban. In other words, take heart, withering Bama fans, for all is not lost. In fact, things are just as they should be.

So, how does the Tide match-up with the Tigers in this chapter? Let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the Clemson defense

For much of 2016, Alabama’s offense hummed along with freshman Jalen Hurts under center. The offensive line did its job, the running backs embraced the shared carries with the quarterback in the spread option system, and the receivers selflessly did work blocking downfield even when the passes weren’t plentiful. Everything worked, and the Tide offense looked largely unstoppable.

However, in the game with LSU, something changed. Sure, the Tide motor-boated Mississippi State and Chattanooga, but in the games against Auburn and Florida, Alabama’s offense appeared to lose some of its fluidity. The offense became rigid; the coaching staff seemed to lose confidence in their freshman signal-caller for some reason. It wasn’t that the Tide didn’t score, because they did. Neither game was even close on the stat sheet. But to the eyeball, Alabama’s offense looked hamstrung, unlike its free-wheeling successful incarnation present through much of September and October.

Departed coordinator Lane Kiffin admitted that the game plans for the aforementioned teams had been trimmed back for the sake of conservativeness. Why? Who knows? Maybe the games were perceived as having higher stakes, and the Tide had proven it could win a grinder in Baton Rouge without exposing itself to enemy fire. But no one can argue that the Alabama offense of late-November and December looked a lot different from the product on the field earlier in the season.

Regardless of the cause of this shift in strategy, in the championship game Alabama will need the offense it wielded earlier this season against Clemson, as the Tigers bring a ferocious defensive unit to the field on Monday night. While not on par with Bama’s historically good defensive unit, the Tigers have a nasty lineup that absolutely shredded the nation’s number two team on New Year’s Eve and held them scoreless. The Buckeyes couldn’t run, they couldn’t pass. Nothing they did produced fruit against a determined Clemson defense, and it is that same unit that will strive to emasculate Alabama’s once potent offense this Monday.

Clemson has the tools to cause problems for Alabama offense…there’s no doubt about that. With an underrated, sneaky-good defensive line; a corps of experienced, heavy-hitting linebackers; a stingy pair of flexible safeties; and NFL talent at the corner position, Alabama’s path to success is slimmer than it has been in other recent games.

Let’s look at some data points before we get into the weeds. According to the raw stats, Clemson is ranked eighth in total defense (306.9 yards allowed per game), seventh in scoring defense (17.1 points per game allowed), 19th in rush defense (123.1 yards per game), and 17th in pass defense (183.8 yards per game). On third down, the Tigers have the sixth ranked defense, allowing conversions on only 29.1 percent of attempts. They rank fifth in sacks with 49 (3.5 per game) and third in tackles for loss with 123 (8.8 per game). The Tigers’ team passing efficiency defense is excellent, as they are ranked third nationally.

In regard to advanced metrics, the Tigers rank sixth in defensive S&P+, fourth in pass defense S&P+, 32nd in run defense S&P+, 16th in IsoPPP (a measure of successful explosive plays against a defense), and fourth in “Havoc” (a metric that accounts for forced fumbles, passes defensed, and tackles for loss divided by total number of plays).

The Tiger defense is on par with several other units the Tide has faced this season. To provide some context, one of Alabama’s previous opponents, LSU, is ranked higher than Clemson in defensive S&P+ at fourth. Three others are not far behind Clemson, as Washintgon (10th), Florida (8th), and Auburn (7th) are all just behind Clemson in the top-10 nationally.

The strength of the Tiger defense at first glimpse could be the linebackers, as senior Ben Boulware (6-0, 235 pounds), sophomore Kendall Joseph (6-0, 230 pounds), and junior Dorian O’Daniel (6-1, 215 pounds) are all excellent players. The secondary is also talented, with senior corner Cordrea Tankersley (6-1, 200 pounds) sure to be an early-round NFL Draft choice this spring after a fantastic campaign. But the real hero of the Clemson defense is an underrated defensive line that has utterly dominated opponents this season, applying pressure in the pass rush and otherwise disrupting opposing backfields regularly. The starting four linemen (DE Christian Wilkins, DE Clelin Ferrell, and tackles Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence) have 27 of the Tigers’ 49 total sacks among them. The Tigers fall behind only Florida State and Alabama in the number of sacks they’ve recorded as a team, which indicates the front is aggressive and technically sound in addition to being physically gifted.

This could be a point of worry for the Tide if they are forced to pass the ball with any regularity. Regardless of which coordinator has the reins of the Tide offense, the preferred method of dispatch is the running game, as Alabama has a scheme and the talent to run over, around, or through any defense it has faced this season. The running attack has been diverse, to say the least. With zone read, inverted veer, inside zone, outside zone, and power looks shown throughout the year, Alabama can attack any part of a run defense from almost any angle. If the defense has soft edges, Bama will stretch it out and shred it. If a team lacks bulk in the middle, the Tide will hit them with a little inside zone and carve creases.

Though Kiffin seemed to fall into a bit of a play-calling rut late in the season regarding the rushing attack, there’s no doubt the more run-centric Sarkisian will be like a child with a toy box full of new gadgets as he assumes play-calling duties. Against Clemson, probing with the run to find a soft spot in the Clemson front is the right thing to do. The Tigers aren’t ranked 32nd in rush defense S&P+ for no reason…they have struggled at times with physical running games that also incorporate spread concepts (see Florida State and Pitt games).

For Bama, a good place to start would be the edges, at least until Clemson proves they won’t allow it. The Tigers like to play the run outside in, setting a hard edge and forcing offenses to plunge between the tackles where their big defensive linemen and linebackers await. But they haven’t proven themselves capable of forcing a talented edge running team inside with regularity. Clemson’s linebackers are fundamentally sound, excellent run stoppers between the tackles. But Boulware and Joseph are not sideline-to-sideline guys who are built to chase running backs horizontally for four quarters. In linebacker terms, they are slower, more plodding players, not the quick ball-hawking brand that Alabama has in their current line-up.

Hence, the Tigers like to pinch safeties up into the box to provide run support. However, if you watch much game tape of the Tiger defense versus spread running teams, one can see that the safeties, when in the box, typically delay for a second to peg the read before aggressively flowing downhill to the play. This must be an adjustment made after last year’s championship game, as previously the safeties flowed downhill immediately at the snap on run looks, leaving an empty space between the hashes that could be exploited. Kiffin saw this last season, and as a result, Bama tight end O.J. Howard had a career day as the Tide offense took advantage. Clemson’s adapted tactic gives the safeties a split second to diagnose the play, so that if the quarterback RPOs to a pass, they are not out of position to make a play, unlike last year. They are still in good position to attack downhill if the play reveals itself as a run, as they’ve sacrificed a split-second of response time for greater security against quick passes to the seam.

Alabama can exploit this tactic with the zone read plays in their current scheme in a couple of ways. First, the Tide needs to commit to the edge a little early on. This should involve both Hurts as well as running backs Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs, with a little ArDarius Stewart thrown in on the jet sweep to keep the Tigers honest. The goal is to stretch the Tiger defense, and make those big linebackers lumber around and wear themselves out. This will allow Alabama a chance to run away from the strength of the Tiger run defense, which is the D line and middle linebacker. This will also keep pressure from being an issue, as the Tigers will only have a split-second window of opportunity to disrupt the mesh point before the Tide backfield can split out of range. If the Tigers can’t take advantage of that window, they will be relegated to a pursuit mode in which they are chasing down ball carriers rather than disrupting or intercepting them. That would be a win for Alabama that may not pay dividends until the second half, but it would eventually manifest itself later in the game.

Once the zone read/ inverted veer has a chance to work on the minds of the ends and linebackers, the Tide can come back with a healthy serving of Bo Scarbrough and inside zone/ outside zone/ power running plays. Scarbrough is emerging as a force, especially later in games. Clemson is a team that prides itself on good tackling, often times giving up short passing gains in the interest of preventing YAC and minimizing explosive plays. But Bama’s bruising tailback works as a complement to the stretch running game, as he offers an unstoppable change of pace at the very moment teams adjust to the edge rush and/ or start to feel the burn of three quarters of chasing nimble backs to the sidelines. Sarkisian has to know this, and there’s no reason to believe this type of tactic couldn’t work well against Clemson while incurring low risk from a turnover standpoint.

One amendment Alabama can make to the usual zone read or inverted veer running attack that would help offset the team speed Clemson has in the secondary is drawn from Clemson’s own offensive playbook. As defensive coaches have discovered ways to limit spread read offenses over the last five years, those same offense shave had to push the envelope of innovation even further. One such innovation that has showed up in the Clemson playbook (as well as other high-powered spread option teams like Louisville) is the read toss.

Whereas on the typical inverted veer look, the quarterback takes the inside lane while the running back sweeps outside. Usually, the quarterback reads the playside defensive end. If the end crashes, he hands it off to the back who heads outside. If the end stays at home wide, the QB pulls the handoff and keeps it for an inside run that is either blocked with inside zone or power. The difference with the read toss is that instead of the quarterback make a quick read and making a decision immediately after the snap, both the QB and back sprint to the playside sideline, giving the quarterback additional time to make a read. If the end plays the quarterback, the QB tosses it out on a quick flip to the back, who because of the toss, already has a full head of steam and an instant advantage on the unblocked defender out in the flat. If the end stretches out, the QB has better cutback angles to exploit as he moves down the line, and he has effectively run away from the bulk of the run defense in the interior, leaving only DBs to contest his run.

As innovative as it may sound, the pressure it puts on a defense is not unlike that created by the old-school option that was prevalent in so many offenses in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The difference is that the line typically blocks down to neutralize and entire side of the defense, while setting up favorable match-ups for an athletic quarterback like Hurts or Watson. It also can be paired with RPOs to create passing opportunities once a defense has seen it a few times, as they’ll undoubtedly begin to crowd the line with defensive backs, thus creating potential man situations or broken coverages that the rolling quarterback can hit.

True, there’s a little more risk in a toss as opposed to a hand off, but if Clemson can disrupt the mesh point, Alabama may be able to keep the wheels rolling by embracing such a tactic. It also is something the Tigers will not have seen on film much, and it represents a small tweak that the Tide offense can make that could produce dramatic results.

The ability to lean on the run will only be possible if the Bama defense holds serve and prevents Clemson from running wild as they did last season. But if that doesn’t happen, if Clemson moves the ball easily against the Tide D and begins to amass points, then Sarkisian won’t have the luxury of using Alabama’s typical choke-hold tactics on the Tigers. The game plan will call for more from Hurts’ arm, and it will likely require more than bubble screens and lateral perimeter passing to jump-start the Alabama scoring machine.

So, what if Clemson does effectively set the edge and cut Bama off from the perimeter run game? Is all hope lost for the Tide? No, not by a long shot. One of the edges Alabama has over every other team in college football is diversity of talent. Alabama has the skill players available to run almost any type of scheme, though their level of comfort with a brand-new approach would vary dramatically (as would the amount of success enjoyed, subsequently). Given Clemson’s relative struggles against the run, it’s safe to forecast that the Tide can have some successes running in a more conventional manner against Clemson. FSU’s Dalvin Cook ran for 169 yards and four touchdowns in rather straight-forward fashion against Clemson at the end of October, and Alabama can muster a similar power rushing game with Scarbrough if it needs to. Again, a back like Scarbrough can match size with all but a handful of Clemson defenders, and with world-class speed, that combination is difficult for any defense to handle if the offensive line does its part.

If Alabama must resort to the passing game, it may start out with shorter passes to further enhance Hurts’ confidence level. Hurts has never shown an inkling of quit or desperation on the field, which projects his own confidence in his abilities. Many have accused Kiffin of passing too much throughout his tenure (hence RTDBLK…”run the damn ball Lane Kiffin” for those who don’t know), but in reality, it’s not so much the frequency of passes that is the problem at times for Alabama’s offense, but rather the situation in which the pass plays were called. Against Washington, when the RTDBLK calls were fervent on social media, Alabama seemingly did just that…they ran the ball, opting for only 14 passes in the game. It wasn’t so much that they passed to much, but rather when they elected to pass that caused consternation. The Tide would rip off a couple of good runs behind Scarbrough, only to elect for an ill-fated, low-percentage pass attempt when seemingly another run would have had the Huskie defense reeling. The spots in which Kiffin chose to go to the air were puzzling, and that coaching disconnect killed several promising drives that were carved out on the ground.

Against Clemson, Alabama will need to pass, despite the calls from the masses. The Tide doesn’t need to win with the pass by any means, but the passing game will be important in keeping Clemson honest and augmenting the Tide rushing attack. Sarkisian would do well to pick his spots for passing attempts. For example, if Clemson’s safeties routinely crash the box or pursue Bama’s edge-pressing backs to the perimeter, there will be open field for Howard over the middle between the hashes. The Tigers have one linebacker (O’Daniel) who has a snowball’s chance of covering Howard, and if the Tide can scheme away from him, Howard should be able to make hay again.

If Clemson has an answer for Howard after being burned by him last year, that only means they will have had to relent elsewhere. Surely, Tankersley will likely draw coverage of Bama’s biggest receiving threat this season in Stewart. However, doing so will put the explosive Calvin Ridley on the field against lesser coverage. Is there anyone who would give the advantage to a 5-9 corner like Ryan Carter (5-9, 180 pounds) covering Ridley, regardless of his aggressiveness? (Especially if Venables elects for patter-matching coverages). Ridley could have a huge day underneath if, say, the Tigers must devote a nickel or safety to Howard in the middle.

The potential for passing success hinges upon Hurts being able to make his reads quickly and get the ball out, of course, as the Tiger pass rush is ferocious. They will come after him when he stands in the pocket, and he has terrible completion stats when he receives substantial pressure. To that end, however, one wouldn’t expect Sarkisian to ask Hurts to stand up in the pocket often, but rather he may elect to give him a moving pocket from which to throw on roll-outs, especially if they’re part of the RPO plan built around the zone read. Or, there is always the possibility of quick screens into the area that Clemson will cede underneath in the interest of sure tackling. Regardless, Alabama won’t necessarily be looking for the big play with the passing game, but rather just another method of loosening running lanes and keeping the ball moving in the right direction.

Overall, the Tide has a few things they must accomplish offensively if Alabama is to win its 17th national championship. The Tide must successfully play ball-control offense, as Watson simply has no way of scoring from the sideline. The Tide O can help bolster their defensive brethren simply by stringing together 10-12 play drives that monopolize the clock and keep Clemson’s most dangerous weapon on the bench. If Alabama can do that, the chances of winning are greatly magnified, as it not only preserve the Tide defense and keeps Watson from scoring, but it also wears down the Tiger defense and will create room to operate in the second half.

Secondly, the Tide must avoid turnovers. Alabama probably has the slight advantage in the match-up between the Tide offense and the Tiger defense. That advantage, however, can be neutralized by sloppy play that results in turnover gifts for Clemson. As Saban said, a successful drive is one that ends in a kick. Giving Clemson the ball and field position through turnovers is a sure-fire way to level the playing field and turn the advantage to the men in orange.

The wild card is Sarkisian’s plan for his opening game as the Tide’s chief play-caller. While many have viewed the transition as a potential distraction for the Tide, those close to the program (including the players) have intimated that it is of minimal consequence, at worst. At best, it’s just the kind of shot-in-the-arm, breath-of-fresh-air the Tide offense needs as it has stagnated to a degree down the stretch run. This week, Ridley (Hurts’ roommate) has said it has done just that for the young quarterback, as the receiver remarked the Hurts seems more focused and has received the new information from his new OC in a favorable fashion.

If Sarkisian has been paying attention (and one must assume he has been), he knows that Hurts has liabilities as a downfield passer, but that he’s able to execute a short-to-intermediate passing game, especially when his receivers can take advantage of space and the line can give him a moment or two of clean pocket. Though no one really knows how Sarkisian will use the tools in his toolbox, his prior experience indicates that he’ll lean on the run, move the quarterback around on roll-outs, and use some packaged plays/ RPOs to keep the Clemson D guessing. Those are all things the Tide has done well this season when the offense looked unstoppable, and a return to those tactics could be just what Alabama needs to reignite its fuse.

The Alabama defense versus the Clemson offense

As has been the case for most of the season, the Alabama defense is the constant, the dependable factor, the known quantity on a team that has otherwise been somewhat fluid over the last three years. Last year, the defense was gashed by Watson and the Tigers, and that’s not something Bama’s returning defenders have forgotten about. They’ve talked all week about vengeance, about the mistakes they made last year and the ways they plan to remedy them on Monday.

There’s no reason to believe Clemson won’t be as explosive as they were last year…maybe even moreso, as Watson has another year under his belt, and Mike Williams has emerged as a true weapon at receiver. But this Alabama defense has changed as well in that time, flexing from the vestiges of a pro-style stopping power defense to a spread-killing, fast, opportunistic unit that has destroyed opposing offenses regardless of type with equal aplomb all season long.

What Clemson does well this season is not much different from last year. They have the nation’s premier dual-threat quarterback, and all the benefits that come with that. They’ll run zone read concepts from spread formations, and the QB is as good a runner as any back on the Clemson roster. They’ll use all kinds of misdirection on designed quarterback runs and reads. They’ll flex out three and four receivers, including tight end Jordan Leggett, and let Watson slash an offense with reckless abandon through the air. They have a powerful rushing attack featuring Gallman that can pound between the tackles if necessary. In reality, Clemson does everything offensively Alabama can do, only they have a much more established passing game.

The positive is that Alabama’s defense sees a very similar offense in practice each day, as Clemson and Alabama use a lot of the same offensive concepts and personnel packages. Alabama is deeper in terms of talent at almost every position, but the base system and starting line-ups bear a striking resemblance to one another. One would have to assume that the similarity of the offenses would give the respective defenses a level of comfort, if only a small one.

Fortunately for the Tide, the strength of the Alabama defense can negate one of Clemson’s biggest offensive advantages. Specifically, Alabama has the nation’s best rushing defense…and it’s not even close. The Tide shuts down all comers, allowing only 62 yards per game to opponent ground games. That number is obscenely low, and is representative of Alabama’s ability to shut down a variety of rushing attacks, some of which featured top-flite future NFL Draft picks at tailback. Unless something rather dramatic occurs, there’s no reason to believe that Clemson will be able to run the ball against the Tide in a conventional sense. Gallman is a good back, but even he can’t have consistent success against a run defense like the one in crimson.

The Clemson running game is not just about Gallman however, as, like the Alabama offense, the Tigers have an explosive running threat at quarterback in Watson. The same things that make Alabama’s zone read success also power Clemson’s lethality with quarterback runs. Last year against Bama, Watson extended some plays with his legs and picked up critical first downs after leaving the pocket. Part of this was due to the “mush rush” tactic employed by previous defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who was burned numerous times in tenure at Alabama by mobile quarterbacks. Therefore, he adopted a controlled pass rush technique that is designed to keep the QB in the pocket and make him win with his arm (as opposed to flushing the QB with an aggressive rush and having to chase him down). The problem is, without a consistent pass rush, many quarterbacks are content to do just that, and several opposing QBs threw for 400+ yards in the face of a mush rush.

Alabama’s current defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is apparently not keen on that style of play against mobile quarterbacks. In his time at Florida State, Georgia, and now Alabama, Pruitt has shown a penchant for keeping pressure on mobile quarterbacks, disrupting their mesh points on read plays and harassing them by obliterating the pocket with superior pass rushing talent while keeping nickel and dime personnel on the field to clutter the passing lanes. Pruitt thrives on aggression, and when coupled with the athletes that stock Alabama’s roster, he has had tremendous success shutting down such attacks this season. Mobile quarterbacks may slip through an aggressive rush at times, but overall, Pruitt’s tactics have shut down the running and passing games of dual-threat QBs like Trevor Knight, Nick Fitzgerald, and Josh Dobbs (with Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly being the only outlier in that group).

Watson is definitely the most lethal dual-threat guy the Tide has faced this year, but one must expect Pruitt will continue the effective aggression against him. He’ll try to bring pressure with four with the “nickel rabbits” scheme, and there’s no reason to believe that Jonathan Allen, DaRon Payne, Tim Williams, and Ryan Anderson won’t do their jobs as they’ve done all year. After all, though Clemson’s line is decent, there are three underclassmen starters in sophomore left tackle Mitch Hyatt (6-5, 295 pounds), sophomore left guard Taylor Hearn (6-5, 325 pounds), and freshman right tackle Sean Pollard (6-5, 315 pounds). One has to believe that Allen and company are salivating at the prospect of destroying those young linemen in key positions and wreaking havoc on Watson’s focus.

Honestly, if Alabama can stop the run, get consistent pressure on Watson, and disrupt the pocket with four rushers, there is really nothing Clemson will be able to do to win this game, outside of an errant explosive play on a broken coverage here or there. If Alabama must bring extra rushers to disrupt the Clemson back field, then it opens options for the Tigers offensively, as coverages will be looser with additional defenders committed to the pass rush. While Alabama’s top two corners are excellent (Anthony Averett and Marlon Humphrey), there could be a coverage liability if safety Ronnie Harrison winds up one-on-one with some of Clemson’s more talented receivers, like Deon Cain (6-1, 210 pounds) or Hunter Renfrow (5-11, 180 pounds). Being able to generate pressure with four rushers will give Pruitt the ability to have nickel personnel on the field more often, which greatly enhances Bama’s pass defense, covers for the Tide’s coverage weak spots, and incrementally slows Watson’s decision-making.

One key match-up on Monday night will feature Clemson’s tight end Jordan Leggett (6-5, 260 pounds) against Alabama’s defense, specifically linebacker Reuben Foster. Foster has proven himself to be an excellent coverage linebacker, and with his added speed this season, he’s gotten even better. He may be the Tide’s primary weapon against the fluid and explosive Leggett, as the speedy tight end could be Clemson’s wild card, just as Howard played that role for Alabama in the last meeting of the two teams. However, with Foster in coverage, the chances of a mismatch are negated, as Foster is quite a match for the talented tight end.

The keys for Alabama defensively are 1) stop the traditional running game, 2) keep pressure on Watson with four or five rushers, 3) create favorable third-and-long situations, and 4) account for Leggett, especially on third downs and in the red zone. If Alabama can accomplish these four goals, Watson may make a few plays to Williams (though Alabama shut down the equally-talented John Ross in the first round) or Renfrow, but drives will be staccato and abbreviated, thus providing the Tide offense with good field position and a chance to control the clock.

Alabama’s defense has proven itself up to the task thus far this season, shutting down explosive offenses that run schemes similar to the one used by Clemson (though admittedly none of those offenses had Deshaun Watson under center). With the lighter, faster, spread-oriented look of Bama’s 2016 defense, it’s not a stretch to believe that the Tide will be better able to deal with the problems created by Clemson’s multi-faceted spread offense. There hasn’t been an offensive line to date that has been able to stifle the likes of Allen, Williams, Payne, and Anderson, and it’s reasonable to believe Alabama’s front will have similar success against this version of the Clemson line.

One other important note pertains to Alabama’s secondary. Though they’ve been considerably thinned by injury this season, Alabama has a more talented group in the back end this time around. Starting corner Humphrey and nickel Tony Brown are both five-star guys, as is starting safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Corner Anthony Averett was a four-star guy, and Harrison was an underappreciated three-star DB who was good enough to win a starting role as a sophomore. Reserve safety and dime back Hootie Jones was a four-star recruit. The amount of talent in the Tide secondary is insane, and they have largely lived up to their billing this season outside of one early season match-up with the Ole Miss Rebels (and possibly Arkansas). Don’t expect this Tide secondary to get shelled by Watson like the 2015 edition. This secondary is more talented, has better stats, and has one thing the 2015 unit didn’t have: the relentless, overwhelming pass rush of the 2016 defensive line.

Special Teams

J.K. Scott once again proved his worth in the game against Washington, routinely pinning the Huskies deep in their own end and giving Alabama a decided field position advantage on most occasions. His booming leg could come in handy once again if the two defenses prove themselves worthy, as such a circumstance would increase the importance of field position for both teams. Scott has established himself as an elite punter, and the Tide is fortunate to have him on their roster heading into another championship battle.

Adam Griffith has been a beast in the playoffs over the last three years, as his only missed kick came last year against Clemson. If the game devolves into a defensive battle and scoring is at a premium, Griffith’s playoff steadiness could be critical for Alabama.

Alabama’s return teams have been quite scary since the mid-season departure of the sure-handed Eddie Jackson. Treyvon Diggs has been the go-to guy on punt returns since Jackson’s injury, and the early returns have not been promising. It’s not that Diggs lacks the speed, shiftiness, and explosiveness to be an excellent return man. What he lacks at the moment is the confidence to make a decision and execute it. His play as a returner against Washington was a study in what not to do as a return man, as his hesitation and inability to corral the rugby-style kicks from Washington’s punter cost the Tide a great deal of field position. Diggs must step up or be replaced, as he is not only failing to help the team, his hesitation is hurting Alabama in terms of field position. He’s a true freshman, sure, but at a critical position that should be a strength for Alabama, he simply must steady the ship and get the job done.

Clemson struggles in the punting game, as their chosen man, senior Andy Teasdall, is no J.K. Scott. Teasdall averages a mere 38 yards per punt, which is puny compared to Scotts 47 yard per punt average. Advantage, Alabama.

Sophomore place kicker Greg Huegel has struggled even more than Griffith during 2016, grading out as a 73 percent kicker. Huegel has hit 14 of 19 field goals with a long of 47, so at least Alabama can, at worst, consider the kicking battle a draw, if not a slight nod in the Tide’s favor.

The Clemson return men are explosive and dangerous, as punt return duties are handled by receivers Artavis Scott (7.0 yards per return) and Ray-Ray McCloud (8.4 yards per return. Kick returns are handled by Scott (22.9 yards per return) and tailback C.J. Fuller.

Alabama has a tall task ahead in this championship redux versus Clemson, as the Tigers are a worthy adversary with arguably the nation’s best quarterback under center. They are fundamentally sound at nearly every critical position, and the Tide will have to play its best game of the season to head back to Tuscaloosa with number 17 in tow.

Each team will have some mental clutter heading into the game, with Alabama releasing Kiffin and bringing on Sarkisian, while Dabo Swinney and his team continue to deal with the aftershocks of Grope-gate. Neither situation is earth-shattering, but those kinds of distractions are the things that shift the attention of players and coaches, even if momentarily, off the task at hand.

For Alabama, the future is now. Sarkisian will provide Alabama with a glimpse of what is to come during his tenure, as he will return most offensive playmakers outside of Howard and tackle Cam Robinson next season. If he can prove himself at least Kiffin’s equal as a play-caller and game-planner, then the Tide could be on the verge of an era of dominant offensive play.

The Tide defense has a score to settle, even though Alabama won last year’s meeting. While it’s obvious Clemson wants retribution, it’s a testament to the grit of Alabama defenders like Allen and Fitzpatrick that they are self-aware and recognize that they didn’t play their best game last year on the biggest stage. Not to mention, the conservative Kirby Smart has been replaced by the hyper-aggressive, pressure-craving Pruitt, and he is likely to call the type of defensive game that can disrupt what Clemson does best. If Alabama can improve upon last year’s performance on the defensive side of the ball, the changeover in offensive coordinator may be of even less consequence.

As in any game, the keys for Alabama are clear: stop the run, pressure the passer, protect the ball, establish the running game, and win time of possession. If Alabama can do all of those things, victory is all but certain.

But if any one of those areas falters, or if Clemson can overwhelm the Tide offensively before the Bama motors are purring, then the Tide could be in for a long night. Just ask Ohio State…Clemson is a worthy opponent with a high-octane offense and a gritty, physical, attacking defense. The Tigers are a fierce adversary, and realistically, and possibly the only team nationally that can give Alabama a run for the 2016 national title.

Will Alabama’s vaunted defense slam the door on Clemson’s running game and make the Tiger offense one-dimensional? Or will Clemson find the kind of balance they will need to keep the Tide off-kilter? Will Alabama’s offense find new life with a new captain at the wheel? Or will the distraction of Kiffin’s departure come home to roost on Monday night? Did Clemson discover a magic bullet in the wake of their last loss to Alabama? Or will the Tide roll on to number 17 regardless of the opponent?

We wait on bated breath for these answers and many more. It all comes down to this. Hope for the best…