For the third year in a row, Alabama finds itself facing the Clemson Tigers. And, for the third year, Brian, the league manager at Shakin’ the Southland, has been good enough to drop by and give us some intel on the Tigers. Those expecting the fast-paced point-a-minute Deshaun Watson-esque Tigers are in for a surprise, as this iteration is a very different, but no less lethal, opponent: This is one of the most bruising teams in the country at nearly every position.
1. Clemson has the nation's top defensive line, and probably the best front seven in the game. The Tigers particularly excel at pass rushing on early downs, but the production drops off somewhat in standard passing downs. Is this the product of scheming by Venables or are offensive lines having some success picking up the rush in must-make situations?
I think it is a combination of things. The first is that Venables is less likely to bring the house compared to previous years. We finally have a LB corps that can cover routes. I loved Ben Boulware, but his attempt at ballet moves to cover routes was difficult to take. Dorian O'Daniel has done an excellent job this year in coverage and because of it Venables will only rush 4, maybe bring 5 guys more than we've seen in the past. We also haven't seen a fully operation Dexter Lawrence this year. Offseason surgery on his foot never completely healed so he couldn't get that explosive push we saw last year. Theoretically he is healthy now so we should see him getting into the backfield more often. Finally, the one thing that outside of BillC most national guys aren't talking about is Clemson's substitution pattern. Dabo has decided to substitute more frequently and earlier in games this year. And the key is that he's doing it before garbage time so things like S&P+ are getting affected. Especially when teams are behind and more likely to throw the ball. Through the midway point of this season backups were getting about 8-10 snaps on average more than last year. I'm not sure how much of an effect that has, but it definitely takes are stats down a bit.
2. Travis Etienne has been the do-it-all guy for Clemson this year: running, receiving, kick returns. How do you think he will be used to attack the Tide defense.
The big thing for me is that we just have to get him into space. Obviously the Alabama defense has the team speed to catch up to him, but Etienne uses his speed to glide by tacklers and forces a lot of guys to miss. And then he has a gear that I haven't seen since C.J. Spiller and he's not touchable when he gets into that gear. I'm not sure that Clemson does anything unique with him compared to previous games this year, I think it is just about executing.
3. Special Teams played a critical role in the first two meetings between these teams. What is Clemson's best chance to make a big play on special teams? What is the Tigers' glaring weakness in the kicking or return games?
"Pray y'all screw up?" Special teams have been a bit rough this year after Greg Huegel tore his ACL in practice. Alex Spence has taken over all kicking duties and it isn't great. His kickoffs have gotten better, but you'll likely see most of them fall short of the end zone and give y'all ample return opportunities. For FGs SPence made a 46 yard FG in the ACC Championship game, but usually Clemson has avoided kicking a FG unless the ball is in the red zone. Anything outside the 20 ends poorly for the most part. To me, special teams for Clemson isn't going to be about winning the battle, it is just going to be avoiding any big mistakes. Things like onside kicks out nowhere, blocked punts, etc. I will say our punting has been much better this year under Will Spiers. His rugby kicks could use work, but in general he's consistent and gets a good kick off even if he can be a bit slow at times.
4. The perception is out there than Kelly Bryant is more of a run-first guy than Deshaun Watson was, but his carries, TDs and YPC are similar to Watson's last season -- and he actually has far fewer attempts than Watson did in 2015. Is Bryant being used similarly in the running game as Watson was, or are Bryant's contributions on the ground resulting more from scrambling and improvisation?
Bryant's runs are mainly off of RPOs or designed runs. He doesn't scramble like Watson does. Whereas Watson might scramble because there isn't anyone to hit, Bryant is usually taking off early in his progression. I think some of that is by design because the staff has emphasize protecting the football to Bryant. We've seen ample evidence where his 3rd guy is open, but Bryant tucks and runs because he doesn't want to chance the throw even if it is a relatively open throw. Bryant is also built more like a bruiser than Watson, and that's helped the coaching staff with their decisions to call more QB runs than before when they were trying to protect Watson.
5. Clemson has slowed its play a great deal this season. The Tigers are on pace to run well over 100 fewer plays. Is this deliberation because of personnel or game situation (i.e., Clemson has been in a few tight ball games)?
I think a lot of Alabama fans would love what Clemson has done this year because it really does look like past Alabama teams. Dabo is subbing earlier as I've mentioned, but we also aren't trying to kill off any teams. When Clemson gets a 14-point lead or so, the offense goes conservative to a big degree and the staff just lets the defense suffocate the opposing offense. That more than anything is a reason the tempo is so low. To me that accounts for at least half of the difference from last year, and then I feel like some of it has also been because we are a much more run-focused team than last year and bleed the clock more often.
6. With the departure of freakish Mike Williams, who does Clemson turn to for its vertical threat? Who has the big body or physicality to make plays over the middle?
This year we've seen a lot of Deon Cain, though he isn't the big body most expect from a Mike Williams replacement. This yea, outside of Cain, we've seen a lot more of spreading the ball to receivers, I believe Bryant's completed passes to 8-10 different players in a lot of games this year. But two names I'd keep an eye on are Tee Higgins and Diondre Overton. Both are freshman, and Tee is a 6'4" speedster, while Overton is 6'5". If I had to pick that, "random guy out of nowhere" for Clemson, Higgins would be the one. But don't be surprised if both of these guys are used in ways we haven't seen on film.
7. What have been Kelly Bryant's greatest strengths and weaknesses to-date as a first-year starter?
Bryant's ball security and his running ability are his strengths. There have been very few bad decisions by Bryant when throwing the ball this year. Sometimes he doesn't hit open receivers because he pulls it down rather than risking the INT, but it has been effective and a change from Watson. His running ability is also great. Not only does he run hard, but it requires a lot of effort to bring him down and there are multiple instances of Bryant bouncing of tacklers for an extra 5-6 yards.
His biggest weakness is going through his progression properly. Which isn't unexpected, but it has made the offense less explosive because he doesn't always see the deep ball options well. One thing to keep an eye on is if the Miami game was the new way of doing things for Bryant. Against Miami he looked comfortable and confident in those downfield reads and looked like a "normal" QB. If he does that against Alabama then the offense may be more explosive or at least have enough of a vertical threat to keep the Alabama defense honest. But if he plays like most of the regular season then I bet Alabama's safeties will begin to creep down into the box because they don't respect Bryant's deep arm.
8. DB Ryan Carter leads the team in both PDs and INTs. How has he been so effective and is he moved around the field, a la Minkah Fitzpatrick or Derwin James?
Carter doesn't move as much because he isn't that lockdown corner like Mac Alexander or Cordrea Tankersley. Most of his movement tends to be more based on what Venables wants to do play=wise. As much as I hate the term, Carter's success has come from his grit and fight. He's not the biggest, fastest, or athletically-inclined guy on this defense. But he's always fighting, and he's done an excellent job of shutting down opposing WRs and getting his hands in to breakup passes.
9. We all saw the Syracuse game, and while Kelly Bryant's concussion affected the offense, it wasn't responsible for the Orange lighting up the defense. (This has a point, promise.) Did the way Syracuse move the ball and then capitalize in the red zone underscore weaknesses that can be exploited in the Playoffs, or was that a one-off bad night; a team loss that you can't really take anything away from?
The defense definitely didn't show up in the Syracuse game and it is hard to say it was more than a one off. The only other ugly defensive performance, against NC STate, came because of injuries to the secondary. But Syracuse absolutely showed the best way to exploit a Brent Venables defense. Alabama needs to spread the field, up the tempo, and rely on a lot of quick passes. They need to frustrate the Clemson defense and force them to be too aggressive going after Hurts rather than playing sound and disciplined defense to contain him.
10. I don't think, for our part at least, that anyone seriously expects the Rubber Match to be played at a frenetic pace or have the late scoring orgy that the first two affairs did. How do you see it playing out? What's the general mood in Tigerland?
I went into the last two years expecting a rockfight and instead both offenses went crazy. This year seems more likely than not to be an actual low-scoring defensive performance by both teams. But that's making me believe it will be a shootout again. So, who knows, but I have to say there seems to be a lot of optimism among Clemson fans, mainly because of the Iron Bowl. With my history of watching Saban, I'm less optimistic, but on paper at least it seems like this Alabama team is more ripe for the taking than the last two versions.
11. Admit it: you'd rather play Ohio State again, right?
I'm not sur3 why you would say 1 want to play 0SU again. No Clue.
Again, thanks to Brian and everyone at STS. May as well add them as a conference game the way this trend is going, amirite? They’re a pretty active bunch, so the odds are good any followups can be asked in the comments below.
Feel free to give STS some traffic and check out the Clemson side of this scrum. You can follow Brian on the Twitters.