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Previewing Alabama vs. Clemson: The Tiger defense is fierce

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If any team has as good a claim to defensive supremacy as Alabama, it is Clemson. They’re big, fast, and mean…sound familiar?

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Miami
Clelin Ferrell is a straight up monster in pass rush.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

For the last several years, through two championship tries, it has been the explosive Clemson offense led by Deshaun Watson that has given opponents fits. However, with Watson now a Houston Texan, the focus has not only shifted in another direction, but to the other side of the ball, where it is the Tiger defense that has proven the greatest obstacle for teams to overcome this season.

With a solid back half and a front seven that will send many players to the NFL when all is said and done, the Clemson D is not unlike the defensive units that Bama has fielded under Nick Saban. They’re fast, they’re big, they’re relentless. They apply a great deal of pressure at the line of scrimmage, they are physical, and they have a secondary talented enough to allow defensive coordinator Brent Venables the latitude to call an aggressive game plan.

Through the 2017 season, it hasn’t always been pretty for the Clemson defense (as evidenced by a loss to Syracuse in which the Tigers gave up 27 points and 451 yards to a team that finished the season at 4-8), but as the season progressed, they got better and better. The Tiger D put an exclamation point on the season by absolutely shutting down a prolific Miami offense in a 38-3 rout, allowing a mere 214 yards in the ACC Championship Game.

While Alabama remains one of the nation’s best defenses (ranked second in total D), Clemson’s defense cannot be discounted. Statistically, they are a legitimate top-10 unit, ranked sixth in total defense, second behind Alabama in scoring defense, and second ahead of Alabama 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 sometimes plodding offense, 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 what only Auburn 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, Robert Foster, Jerry Jeudy, and Henry Ruggs 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 on early downs. Do the Tigers aggressively rush the passer and risk falling victim to the Tide’s misdirection and the chaos of their edge running game and dual-threat QB tactics? There are a lot of bullets in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s gun, even though that gun appeared to fire blanks at times as the season drew to a close.

Clemson’s defense is statistically as good as Alabama’s, with a better pass rush and slightly more exploitable run defense. They’ve done an excellent job of limiting opponents enough to give their young 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 backs like Josh Jacobs or the tight ends to create some space and force Clemson to adjust? Can Alabama’s edge running game wear down the Tigers’ bulky, lumbering front seven? What new wrinkles has Daboll added to the Tide offense since the final week of the regular season against Auburn, when despite its talent level, the Tide offense was largely a toothless pit bull?

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 to give Watson and the offense a chance to win in the final moments of the game, showing a kind of fight few other Tide opponents could muster.

Though many members of that salty 2016 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’ penchant for lining up three down linemen across front with an upright defensive end. That upright defensive end has usually been explosive sophomore Clelin Ferrell (6-5, 260 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 61 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, one pass broken up, and 12 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 junior Chris Register (6-3, 255 pounds), another end from the same smaller, faster mold from which the starter is made. Register has 10 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss on the season.

At the other, more traditional end position is junior Austin Bryant (6-5, 265 pounds), a lengthy, rangy athlete who has been explosive from the edge for Venables in 2017. Bryant has 54 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, two passes broken up, 10 quarterback hurries, and an interception. He is an elite talent who can do anything asked of him in the Clemson scheme: he is an aggressive pass rusher, an edge setter against the run, and can even drop into coverage on zone blitzes to bring his height and athleticism to bear. Backing up Bryant is freshman Justin Foster (6-4, 255 pounds), who has accrued five tackles and a tackle for loss in scant playing time. Another freshman, Xavier Kelly (6-4, 255 pounds) waits in the wings, and Kelly has eight tackles and a sack on the season.

Making the transition from end to tackle in 2017 is sophomore Christian Wilkins (6-4, 300 pounds), an active bruiser who specializes in run defense. Wilkins is the edge enforcer, and he has had quite the year, recording 47 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, four passes broken up, and 10 quarterback hurries. Behind Wilkins is junior Albert Huggins (6-3, 305 pounds) and sophomore Sterling Johnson (6-4, 300 pounds). Huggins has 21 tackles, five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and three quarterback hurries. Johnson has yet to record any stats in 2017.

The Tigers have a pair of monsters at tackle in Wilkins and senior Dexter Lawrence (6-5, 340 pounds). 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 37 tackles, three tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hurries, and a pass broken up. Backing up Lawrence is junior Jabril Robinson (6-2, 270 pounds), who has 14 tackles and two quarterback hurries on the year. Also filling out the rotation is up-and-coming redshirt freshman Nyles Pinckney (6-1, 300 pounds), who has 18 tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack this year.

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 senior Sam linebacker Dorian O’Daniel (6-1, 220 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 a team-leading 99 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, five quarterback hurries, three passes broken up, and a pair of interceptions. Coming on in relief of O’Daniel is sophomore Jalen Williams (5-10, 210 pounds), who has 17 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, three passes broken up, and one quarterback hurry.

At the heart of the Tiger run defense is sophomore Tre Lamar (6-4, 250 pounds), who mans the middle at the Mike position. Lamar is surprisingly mobile for a large linebacker, and he brings his size and strength to bear in the middle against opponent running games. He is decisive and hits like a freight train, with good fundamentals and leverage at the point of contact. The sophomore has 52 tackles, five tackles for loss, four sacks, one pass broken up, and four quarterback hurries. Lamar, who has suffered late in the season with an injured shoulder, is likely a game-time decision for the Tigers, and if he can’t go against Alabama, the start will probably fall to junior J.D. Davis (6-2, 225 pounds). Davis has had a solid year behind Lamar, stacking up 48 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and a sack. Behind Davis is another ‘backer with reasonable experience in sophomore Jamie Skalski (6-0, 240 pounds), as Skalski has 34 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and two quarterback hurries in 2017.

Junior Kendall Joseph (6-0, 225 pounds) is the cemented starter at the Will position after spending last season at Mike. 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 80 tackles on the season to go along with four tackles for loss, half a sack, 10 quarterback hurries, two passes broken up, and an interception. Joseph’s back-up is J.D. Davis, who along with Skalski, platoons across the linebacking corps when needed.

The secondary is absolutely loaded as well, with a pair of hard-hitting safeties and elite corners. Sophomore Trayvon Mullen (6-2, 190 pounds) leads the pack, as he combines prototypical corner size with excellent coverage skills and an aggressive style of play. Mullen is explosive and opportunistic, as he has three interceptions on the season, along with 39 tackles and seven passes broken up. Freshman A.J. Ferrell (6-1, 190 pounds) is listed as the second-stringer behind Mullen, and he has 15 tackles, one tackle for loss, six passes broken up, and an interception this season. Sophomore Mark Fields (5-10, 180 pounds) is another option at corner, and in relief Fields has recorded 20 tackles, three tackles for loss, and two passes broken up. Fields is questionable versus Alabama, as he is suffering with an injured foot.

At the opposite corner spot, senior 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 28 tackles, two tackles for loss, 10 passes broken up, and a quarterback hurry. Carter is backed-up by senior Marcus Edmond (6-0, 180 pounds), who has a tackle to his credit.

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. Sophomore strong safety K’Von Wallace (6-0, 195 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. Wallace has parlayed that skill set into a fantastic season in 2017, as he has 32 tackles, four passes broken up, and an interception. While maybe not quite as developed as his predecessor Jadar Johnson, Wallace has a lot of upside to pair with his raw talent at the position. Sophomore Tanner Muse (6-2, 225 pounds) provides quality depth at the position and has been a steady contributor in 2017, with 62 tackles, two tackles for loss, four passes broken up, and a quarterback hurry.

At free safety is junior Van Smith (5-11, 185 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 Wallace are two of Venables’ most potent tools in stemming the tide of spread-style offenses. Smith has 54 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and one interception. Reliving Smith is a freshman in Isaiah Simmons (6-3, 225 pounds), who has 47 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack, and five passes broken up.

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. Teams that have been able to hold Alabama in check on first and second downs have had great success against the Tide offense, as Alabama is 50th nationally in third-down conversions, earning a first down only 41.5 percent of the time. 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, 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 2017 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. This is absolute poison for the Tide offense due to the aforementioned struggle to convert third downs. 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 (as he did late in 2016), in all three cases his defenses typically play the run outside-in. Unlike the Auburn defense the Tide faced in its last live action, 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 Clemson 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 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). It worked in last year’s championship game prior to Scarbrough’s injury, but that’s even more reason to believe that the Tigers may be ready for a similar tack this season. Against the Clemson linebackers, two of whom come in at 225+ pounds, that is not a certain win for the big Bama back. Sure, Scarbrough will 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 2017, it’s their ability to stop the run. In terms of raw data, the Tigers have the 12th ranked rush defense, as they cede 112.8 yards per game on the ground. That’s a marked improvement over last season, when the Tigers gave up 183+ yards per game, but still, the run defense is the weakest portion of the Clemson defensive attack, in relative terms. They are still a really strong run defense, mind you. Advanced metrics are even more telling of the Tigers’ run defense, as the Tigers are ranked ninth in run defense S&P+. While those are both still top-15 rankings, they are far from the lofty run defense standard set by the Tide.

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 example, 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 horizontal run game based off the zone read/ inverted veer Alabama ran so well last season with Hurts’ dynamic athleticism from the shotgun. Because the Clemson linebackers (outside of O’Daniel) tend to be larger-framed, lumbering LB’s better suited for stopping pro-style offenses, teams such as Syracuse were able to run (and pass) at the edges on them with relative consistency. In fact, the Orange worked the boundaries enough to spread the middle later in the game, opening lanes for RPOs, read option successes, and shovel passes. Alabama under Daboll this year has moved away from many of the zone-read concepts embraced by Lane Kiffin previously in Tuscaloosa, preferring a more straight-forward running attack that vertically exploits the space created by spread formations. While one can expect to see Scarbrough hammer between the tackles a little, there is also room for Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs to scoot to the outside and pick up solid first- and second-down gains.

One large area of improvement for the Clemson defense since the Tide last saw them comes in their ability to squelch big plays. While last year they were ranked 16th in Iso PPP+, this year they elevated that metric of explosive plays allowed to rank second. This is largely because of the potency of the pass rush and the inability of opposing passing games to generate the protection to allow long passing plays to develop.

However, there could be a chance for the Tide to break some explosive plays on the ground if they can get past the bear-trap of the first level. 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 and Harris have shown the ability to make defenses pay for vertical over-pursuit, missed tackles and second-level size mismatches as of late, as evidenced in the bushel of 20+ yard runs mounted early in games by Harris in particular. 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 many have continued to snub Hurts as a second-rate passer, there’s no question that he has improved in several key ways. He sees more of the field than he did as a freshman, and though he still makes bad decisions at times, he has shored up his decisiveness in his second season as the starter. If the staff places its confidence in his arm, he can exploit one weakness in the Clemson defense that will allow the Tide to negate some of that explosive pass rush wielded by Venables and the Tigers.

Earlier this year, Hurts showed improvement in ripping short to intermediate passes to a variety of receivers. Down the stretch, against better secondaries, he more often locked on Calvin Ridley and searched for the big play rather than taking what defenses offered underneath. While a similar tactic worked as a one-read scheme to an extent last year (look for the open receiver then take off if he was covered up), this year, Hurts focused more on staying in the pocket if Ridley was covered up. However, due to whatever dynamic one wants to assign, he was largely unable to routinely connect with secondary receivers if Ridley was blanketed.

That can’t continue if the Tide is to have a chance against Clemson. Daboll would be wise to allow his quarterback to prove himself as a passer by giving him plenty of opportunities on first-and second-downs to move the chains with short zippy passes to the flats, into the slot, or anywhere that the spread formations Daboll has used this year create a little seam. It’s okay to operate out of something akin to a one-read, so long as that one read isn’t always predicated on Alabama’s best receiver. Alabama has elite athletes at receiver, and there’s always a chance that Ridley or one of the shifty newcomers (Ruggs or Jeudy) can take a short seven-yard pass for a much bigger gain. Even if they can’t stretch the play, a seven-yard gain on first or second ground puts Alabama in a much better position to convert third-downs and keep the chains moving. Against Auburn (and to a degree, MSU), that was a devastating problem for Alabama. A short passing game buoyed by confidence in Hurts on short routes and three-step drops (ala Tom Brady in the Pats offense) would neutralize the Clemson pass rush and allow Alabama to extend drives. It would also open lanes for the running game as Clemson is forced to dedicate personnel to the underneath receivers, thus turning the Tiger strengths into liabilities.

One can expect that Daboll will likely (by order of Saban) key on the running game (ranked eighth nationally with 265.3 yards per game), and 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 screens and passes to the edges, but there may not be time for those plays to develop against the Clemson front. Quick slants and outs, however, can be gunned with little time spent, and would give Alabama an advantage as the game went on.

Though Hurts throws a pretty nice deep ball in his second season, don’t expect to see a lot of that against Clemson. The Tiger pass rush is just too good to give Hurts the kind of time he would need to let such plays develop, and short of a broken play following a scramble, it’s hard to imagine Daboll dialing up calls that will give Clemson a chance to make explosive plays defensively. That’s okay, though. It’s not necessary 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.

Truthfully, some of the defensive tendencies that led to O.J. Howard’s big day in the 2015 championship game against Clemson still remain, though it may not be a tight end that the Tide uses to exploit them. The Tiger safeties still play in the box, and they’ll aggressively crash the line in run support. RPOs and a sharpened passing game could be a money-maker for the Tide over the middle, only it may be the play-making ability of Jacobs or a slot guy like Jeudy that generates positive things for the Tide. The New England Patriots, from whom Daboll borrows many of his tactics, uses athletic running backs and athletes prolifically as receivers, and Jacobs has the shimmy-shake to make the lumbering Clemson interior defenders miss.

Now, if Daboll can manage to coax a solid passing game from Hurts this week, whether through simplified reads or confident play-calling and short routes on early downs, there are far too many weapons for Clemson to counter in the receiving corps. Ridley is a given, though he has had something of a lackluster year due to Hurts’ supposed limitations as a passer. Robert Foster could be such a weapon, and if the Tigers cover Ridley up, the speedy senior receiver could be the beneficiary. Then there are the newbs, as Ruggs, Jeudy, and Devonta Smith have all shown game-breaking ability and lightning-in-a-bottle tendencies this season. Though long pass plays aren’t likely, even if 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 Cordrea Tankersley, this year it’s Mullen) play Man against the main receiving threat while the remainder of the Tiger secondary goes into pattern-matching coverage 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 Mullen’s solid corner play.

That said, the short passing game is exactly what the Tide needs on first- and second-downs to keep the chains moving. Whether it comes through the air or on the ground, a six- or seven-yard gain sets up success on later downs, and almost as importantly, it prevents negative plays in the form of sacks from Clemson’s dynamic front seven. Daboll would do well to let Hurts be decisive with one-reads, get the ball out quickly on short drops, and let the receivers get what they can get. The Tide can even use such a strategy with an RPO playbook to give Hurts a chance to leverage the success of short passes into explosive running plays once Clemson attempts to adjust.

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 Wallace and Van Smith, he has two players who are capable of 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). Wallace and back-up Muse are both physical presences in the box who are constantly moving downhill at the first sign of a run. The Clemson safeties are nasty, and outside of LSU and Auburn, 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 Hurricanes from start to finish in a way that Mark Richt’s team hasn’t been whipped this season. 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 Ridley or Foster (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 LSU 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 are their equal, ranked sixth nationally in total defense, fifth in third-down defense, seventh in pass defense, and 12th in run defense. They are good, and 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 Auburn, Daboll 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.

Expect Alabama to test the edges with both the passing and running games, particularly away from Mullen. The short area between (and beyond) the tackles may also be fertile ground for short gains, as Foster and Jacobs pose speed mismatches 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 Harris and 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, 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 zone looks could become Daboll’s hammer. If Jonah Williams and Ross Pierschbacher can attack the left side (or conversely, Matt Womack and Lester Cotton 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 than they have for most of the season. Alabama was RPO heavy under Kiffin, but recoiled from the practice somewhat early in Daboll’s tenure. However, the OC 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 aspects of Hurts’ game, the uncertainty created by 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, picking up solid gains on first- and second-downs, stretching drives, and working the clock and field position. As Saban has said in the past, 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 still-wounded defense by keeping 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 Mississippi State and Auburn.

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 (as it was far too often down the stretch this year). 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 after burning several late-season batches? Time will tell.