After an excruciatingly long layoff, we have finally reached game week. As the hype builds toward New Year’s Day, expect to see most of the coverage centered around the “round three” aspect of the game, as players wearing crimson and orange helmets will indeed face off in the postseason for the third consecutive year. Of course, the two teams who will play this season are vastly different than the iterations from the two previous contests.
The reality is that Clemson wasn’t really supposed to be here this season. In fact, the university itself didn’t think enough of its own chances to renew an insurance policy that covered coaching staff incentives for last year’s playoff appearance, even though they were quoted essentially the same premium. This was understandable, considering the losses of a generational QB in Deshaun Watson and fellow first rounder WR Mike Williams, plus NFL talent at the RB and TE position in Wayne Gallman and Jordan Leggett. The offense was scheduled to take a significant step backwards and it has to a degree, averaging six fewer plays and 50 fewer yards per game.
Yet here they are.
When evaluating most offenses, you start with the quarterback position. Clemson starter Kelly Bryant is certainly no Watson, and he doesn’t pretend to be. In fact, one of the best Bryant comparisons might be former Alabama fan favorite Blake Sims. Like Sims, Bryant generally makes good decisions with the football and throws the screens and slants very well despite fairly limited arm talent. The main difference between the two is utilization. Bryant has been asked to carry a significant portion of the rushing load this season with 173 carries, a whopping 31% of Clemson’s total rushing attempts. To put that number in perspective, he has carried the ball a full 20% more frequently than Jalen Hurts, and with far less success at only 3.7 per carry.
As a passer, Bryant simply hasn’t been asked to do much. He has thrown for 2568 yards with 13 TDs and 6 INTs, all down tremendously from Watson’s 2016 numbers. Clemson’s front seven has managed to control the games for the most part, and the offensive staff has played to that advantage with a fairly risk averse scheme. Clemson’s three starting WRs - Deon Cain, Ray-Ray McCloud, and local villain Hunter Renfrow - have averaged a pedestrian 12.7, 10.9, and 10.4 per catch, respectively. This is not an explosive passing offense, though 6’4” reserve Tee Higgins has managed 20 yards per catch on only 17 receptions. The Tigers start Milan Richard at tight end, and he is primarily used as a blocker.
Schematically, 2017 Broyles-winning coordinator Tony Elliott seemingly tries to RPO you to death, using quick screens and the threat of the perimeter run to create a few opportunities in the passing game. Bryant has excelled on manageable third downs, moving the chains on just over 60% of his attempts on 3rd-and-6 or less. Overall, 48% of his third down throws have resulted in conversion. Third downs on both sides of the ball have been an issue for Alabama of late, and the Tide likely won’t win if Clemson converts at that rate.
At running back, Clemson relies primarily on a couple of young, smallish speedsters in Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster. The two are basically clones of one another and fit well in the Tigers’ spread attack. Elliott regularly uses jet motion to stress the defense on the edges, which opens up the middle for Bryant on the inverted veer and counter. Of course, the old inside zone read is also a staple. Watching the Clemson offense, nothing really stands out in terms of creativity and again, they haven’t been terribly explosive as evidenced by their #119 ranking in IsoPPP. While better defenses have been able to effectively corral these two backs, this is an offense that has concentrated on staying on schedule and moving the chains, and they have done it well.
The offensive line has been a huge part of Clemson’s success. They returned four starters from the 2016 national championship squad, including a stellar left side consisting of former five-star LT Mitch Hyatt and LG Taylor Hearn. Hearn has already announced his intention to leave school for the draft and Hyatt, considered a lock for the first round, is expected to follow suit. While explosiveness has been missing from the Tiger attack their success rate numbers are among the best in the country, owing to the relatively few number of negative plays allowed up front. Clemson really hasn’t been able to run the ball against Alabama in the past two contests, but with another year’s experience together and guys like Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson playing on Sundays, they will undoubtedly try and change that. As mentioned above, Bryant has been excellent on 3rd-and-manageable, but like most QBs he has struggled in long yardage situations. Keeping him behind the chains has to be the goal, and against this group it will not be easy.
In summary, the Tide secondary should have a clear advantage over the Clemson receiving corps. If bowl practice is any indication, Hunter Renfrow should expect to get a heavy dose of Minkah Fitzpatrick while Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace deal with Cain and McCloud on the outside. If those guys are able to win, the onus will fall on the Clemson rushing attack to produce points with Ronnie Harrison pressing the box. I can’t imagine that Dabo Swinney really wants to see Bryant carrying the ball 15 times against what is going to be a hungry pack of hard-hitting Tide defenders, but that is probably their best chance to put a nice number on the board. Look for Tide DC Jeremy Pruitt to focus less on getting free runners and more on setting the edge and collapsing the pocket around the young passer.