Happy Friday, everyone. Only one snowy weekend stands between us and the final game of the college football season. While always exciting, especially when Alabama is involved, it is always a bittersweet day knowing that it will be eight long months before we see those Crimson helmets in action again. For now, however, there is a task at hand.
It’s virtually impossible to discuss the Alabama-Clemson game without acknowledging the red elephant in the room:
Alabama won its semifinal on the back of who had been its third-choice running back for most of the season: Lifetime movie-loving human battering ram Bo Scarbrough. Scarbrough was the most-hyped player at Alabama in several seasons–even more so than Henry — but had hardly featured in 2016, partially due to injuries, partially because of game plan. Against Washington, he dominated, as Roll Bama Roll’s film study shows.
Alabama has three running backs with unique skill sets, three top-class receivers with different styles, at least two of the best lineman in the nation, and a true dual-threat quarterback. It has the talent to do whatever it wants on offense, schematically speaking. Until Monday night, there’s no way to know what that is.
"I mean, I like Sarkisian a lot," Ridley said. "Pretty much doing the same thing as we did with Coach (Lane) Kiffin. But everything is a lot more faster and smoother. He coaches us real good. Can't wait to go on the field Monday and see what we'll do."
Faster and smoother ... how exactly does that manifest itself on the practice field
I mean practice is ... we get through our plays and through practice," Ridley said. "We're just running a lot of new things. Not too much new, but we like the plays that we're getting. We like what Coach Sarkisian is doing."
"We had 25 negative plays in the last game, so what do you think I saw," Saban said. "I saw a lot of poor execution, a lot of poor fundamentals, didn't execute very well, wasn't very consistent...I think a lot of people were frustrated with the way things went, and I think they're working hard this week to try to get all of those things corrected."
Three days into tapping Sarkisian with a battlefield promotion, Saban looked exhausted during his post-practice news conference on Wednesday. Putting the ball into the hands of Alabama's underutilized playmakers -- Scarbrough, Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard -- has been Saban's prime directive for his new offensive coordinator.
This move is Saban's coolest, riskiest call since the onside kick against Clemson in last year's championship game. That one worked out pretty well. It made Saban smile.
Clemson has an even better team this year than last year's 45-40 group. And it's psyched for revenge. Kicking a distracted Kiffin out the door was this year's onside kick in the pants to his team - a week in advance. Get focused, y'all.
It should probably come as no surprise that feelings on sending Kiffin packing a week before the national title game are a bit mixed. The players are saying the right things, but at this point we’ve come to expect that from a Saban team. In general, I see a minimal impact. This isn’t a new scheme. Sarkisian has been involved in game planning all season, just not in the implementation at practice. He is known as an excellent offensive coach. To be frank, if Saban had the option of Sark or Kiffin back in 2014, he probably would have chosen Sark.
That is not intended to take anything away from Kiffin’s efforts here, by the way. He was an integral part of last year’s championship run, his game plan in Arizona the crowning achievement of an excellent campaign. Putting out an offense as explosive as this year’s unit with a true freshman at QB was remarkable as well.
Still, it was time to go. By his own admission, Lane is not the most organized individual. Handling two jobs at once seems like something that he just isn’t cut out to do. Saban’s comments are rather pointed. Bottom line, the top guy has to go if an entire unit is in disarray. That’s what happened against Washington, and Saban made the call.
We’ll find out how it goes on Monday.
There will certainly be plenty of talent on display:
NFL teams certainly have taken notice to what both schools are stockpiling right now. According to Mel Kiper's most recent position rankings, the best draft-eligible wide receiver (Mike Williams, Clemson), tight end (OJ Howard, Alabama), tackle (Cam Robinson, Alabama), inside linebacker (Reuben Foster, Alabama) and outside linebacker (Tim Williams, Alabama) are all playing in this game. Of the 120 players Kiper ranks at the 12 primary positions, a whopping 17 will suit up on Jan. 9.
That is just shy of 15% of the top NFL talent in the country according to Kiper. I’m not sure I agree about Williams being the top WR, but he’s certainly a great one.
The national pundits are fleeing the Alabama bandwagon like rats leaving a sinking ship, which has to please Saban:
"It's the best offense Alabama's seen in the last two years," McFarland said. "It's better than the one last year."
He expects Alabama to run more zone, which he says Watson will be able poke holes in. He said it beats the alternative for the Tide of playing man against receivers Mike Williams and Deon Cain, and having running lanes open up for Watson.
On the other side of the ball, Alabama will be more run-oriented than in the past, McFarland said, which "will play into Clemson's hands."
Pete Thamel: Clemson
The Tigers get another superhero performance from Deshaun Watson, who torched the Alabama secondary last year. Clemson's defensive line is stout enough to nullify Alabama's run game. The Tigers can't run between the tackles against the Crimson Tide, which means they'll run Watson more than anytime this year and use Mike Williams to blow the top off Alabama's defense.
The score: Clemson 28, Alabama 27
Game MVP: Deshaun Watson
But while Hurts had a freshman season to remember, he had a relatively forgettable semifinal against Washington. He threw the ball just 14 times, completing seven passes for 57 yards. Considering that Hurts tallied 32 two of those yards on two passes to O.J. Howard, more than half of his passing yardage came on two plays.
Can Alabama win Monday if Hurts isn’t more dynamic? Remember that Clemson’s offense went toe-to-toe with ‘Bama last year, and the Crimson Tide needed 45 points to pull out the win. While the Tigers probably won’t score quite that much in this rematch, it’s also unrealistic to expect Alabama's defense to hold Clemson to one touchdown like it did against Washington. And asking Hurts to engineer drives against the best defense he’ll face all season is a tall task.
Five out of seven SI writers picked against Alabama.
In my view, the media narrative going into this one is a massive overreaction to one weekend of football. Ohio State looked woefully unprepared to play Clemson, like a young team that wasn’t quite ready for the spotlight whose veteran leader at QB isn’t good enough to carry them. Alabama’s offensive performance was certainly rough last weekend, but at least part of that had to do with a game-plan centered around avoiding mistakes, which is Saban’s modus operandi in the second half of games dominated by his defense.
Clemson has an outstanding team, but they also have far greater flaws that have shown up at times this season. It’s almost uncanny to see so many picking against a team as complete as this Alabama squad coming off of 26 consecutive wins and having been scarcely tested against one of the best schedules in the country.
Motivation was never going to be an issue, but rest assured that this will add fuel to the fire.
Auburn fans will have no trouble with this. But for fans of the other 12 schools not named Alabama, the idea seems like something very near sacrilege. The reflexive instinct is to cheer on the Tide against the Tigers, just as they would at any other time in any other nonconference matchup, in the belief that victory would demonstrate the SEC’s continued dominance.
In reality, it would simply illustrate — and exacerbate — Alabama’s continued domination of college football’s proudest conference.
If this guy thinks one single purple-and-gold wearing critter in Baton Rouge will be rooting for Alabama on Monday, I have some ocean-view land in Idaho for sale.
This is the linebacker who nearly came to blows with Jameis Winston when the two were in high school -- competing in a nothing 7-on-7 tournament.
This is the linebacker who was so upset by his classmates teasing him in grade school about Auburn’s winning streak that he actually “kicked a dude.”
Anderson can’t stand it when he catches teammates smiling during practice. The happy-go-lucky Fitzpatrick will get “that look” from Anderson, he said, and his grin will disappear.
Fitzpatrick called him the “tone-setter.”
Ryan is another underappreciated member of the Alabama team. He is going to be an solid, every-down NFL outside linebacker.
What does Williams actually do as the special assistant to Saban? He says his job consists primarily of helping out the staff's offensive coaches. It makes sense given his background as a running backs coach (Michigan State, Miami Dolphins) and wide receivers coach (LSU, Detroit Lions). Williams is one of three former head coaches working in an off-field capacity this year for Alabama alongside former New Mexico head coach Mike Locksley and former USC and Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian who was recently promoted to offensive coordinator.
Bobby is not the Assistant Head Coach, but the assistant to the head coach. He’s the Dwight Schrute of Alabama football.
That’s about it for today. Y’all bundle up and have a great weekend.