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Hope For the Best: Clemson

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Though it’s being billed as the rubber match in a best-of-3, very little is the same about the two teams that will spar for the National Championship on Monday night

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Clemson Practice
Can Dabo win the rubber match and claim supremacy for Clemson?
The Greenville News-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Rubber Match. The Tie-Breaker. Round Three.

When Alabama and Clemson square off on Monday night in the first round of the College Football Playoff, much will be at stake. Sure, a continued sojourn into championship waters will await the winner of the game. But on a grander scale, the winner will seal a legendary series between the two teams that has produced two nail-biting, late-breaking victories in the National Championship Game: one for Alabama, and last year’s dazzling come-from-behind effort by Clemson.

The championship match-up between the class of the SEC and ACC has been nothing short of a gridiron Ali-Frazier. Alabama has undoubtedly cemented itself as the greatest team of the last decade, a dynasty, a perennial championship contender as long as Nick Saban reigns over college football. Clemson has been the hard-charging upstart, a team that defied the odds to snatch victory from the Once and Future King of College Football. Each team has a knockout to its credit, and for them, this Monday night’s game will be the Thrilla in Manilla.

The roles are somewhat reversed from last season. Last year the Tide, the presumed favorite after completing an undefeated regular season, was once again slightly favored over the Tigers. But phenom dual-threat QB Deshaun Watson was Clemson’s wild card: he had played a brilliant game against the Tide in 2015 in a loss, and the talented signal caller knew what it would take to beat Bama’s defense last season. This year, that role is somewhat reversed, as Alabama’s own dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts saw a rare loss at the hands of the Tiger defense with everything on the line. He now knows what it will take to beat a Clemson defense that, in many ways, mirrors the one against whom he competes each day in practice, and the one Watson conquered for the title last season.

Likewise, last year’s Clemson defense was good, but not up to the league-leading standard of the Tide defense. This year, that script has been flipped, as it is Clemson who many believe has the best defense in the college game, complete with a Bama-like roster of future NFL Draft picks in the front seven and a cadre of talented defensive backs behind them. Bama’s defense this season has taken a step back due to a rash of unrelenting injuries, and though they have still been solid, they are giving up approximately 20 more yards per game on the ground than in 2016.

This year’s rubber match will feature two different teams. Gone is Watson from Clemson’s sidelines, and for that Bama fans will be thankful. But the Tide no longer wields the likes of Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, and Ryan Anderson, which will likewise introduce glee into the hearts of those who pull for the Tigers.

The Tide heads into the game as an almost inexplicable three-point favorite despite a late-season collapse against Auburn and an offense that has stagnated against worse defenses than the elite unit the Tigers will field. That said, the offset is that against Clemson Bama will return several key defenders who missed much of the season in Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis. With a unit that is still in the top-five of most defensive categories, those returning starters will give the Tide defense a huge boost after they struggled against Auburn in the final game of the season.

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 Alabama is motivated by vengeance, so too is Clemson’s stellar defense. Motivation would be high for this rematch game, even if the national title wasn’t conceivably riding upon the victory.

Despite the dire forecasts of media pundits and Gumps gone wild (recency bias is a hell of a drug), this Alabama team isn’t necessarily out of the driver’s seat of this playoff game. Don’t be fooled by the premature proclamations regarding the demise of college football’s rightful ruler. Clemson has been good, but so has Alabama. The Tide has an equally talented roster, top to bottom. This season, Alabama has a defense that may be better suited to the style of offense Clemson plays. Alabama’s offensive strength (the run game) dovetails nicely into Clemson’s only perceived defensive weakness (run defense). Alabama has the intangibles. They have a cool-headed leader in Jalen Hurts who has faced the Tigers before. They have a secondary that can make QB Kelly Bryant pay for any errors in judgment. The Tide has a punter in J.K. Scott who can help keep Clemson battling in their own end of the field much of the night. 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 2017, Alabama’s offense hummed along, throttling opponents with the sophomore Hurts under center. The offensive line did its job, the stable of running backs embraced the shared carries in the pro spread 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. Things that were easy for the Tide early on became more difficult. That trend continued against Mississippi State, as the Tide had to come behind to win that game. Then, the offense stalled against the Auburn defense in a fashion that many who watched Alabama earlier in the season were shocked to witness. The offense became rigid; the coaching staff seemed to outscheme itself, opting for inexplicable low-percentage passes when the running game had previously worked well. It wasn’t that the Tide didn’t score, because they did. But to the eyeball, Alabama’s offense looked hamstrung, unlike its free-wheeling successful incarnation present through much of September and October.

Why? Who knows? Maybe the games were perceived as having higher stakes, and the Tide had proven it could win a grinder against LSU without exposing itself to enemy fire. Maybe the MSU and Auburn defenses really were that much better than the fodder the Tide faced in the early portion of the season. 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. The Tigers have a nasty lineup that absolutely shredded Miami in a 38-3 championship game tune-up that left many startled given Miami’s success through much of the season. The Hurricanes 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 elite 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 sixth in total defense (277.9 yards allowed per game), second in scoring defense (12.8 points per game allowed), 12th in rush defense (112.8 yards per game), and seventh in pass defense (165.1 yards per game). On third down, the Tigers have the fifth-ranked defense nationally, allowing conversions on only 27.8 percent of attempts. They rank second in sacks with 44 (3.38 per game) and ninth in tackles for loss with 104 (8.0 per game). The Tigers’ team passing efficiency defense is excellent, as they are ranked sixth nationally.

In regard to advanced metrics, the Tigers rank second in defensive S&P+, second in pass defense S&P+, ninth in run defense S&P+, second in IsoPPP (a measure of successful explosive plays against a defense), and third 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 better statistically than every other unit the Tide has faced this season. To provide some context, none of Alabama’s previous opponents are ranked higher than Clemson in defensive S&P+. Only three other Bama opponents have defenses that rank in the top-20 in this advanced metric: Auburn is fifth, LSU is 17th, and Mississippi State is 20th. Given Alabama’s relative struggles against those three units, the prospect for the Tide against the Clemson D appears daunting.

The strength of the Tiger defense is the defensive line, as ends Clelin Ferrell (6-5, 260 pounds) and Austin Bryant (6-5, 265 pounds) are elite future NFL prospects. They are joined by two players certain to go high in next year’s Draft, senior Dexter Lawrence (6-4, 340 pounds) and junior Christian Wilkins (6-4, 300 pounds). At linebacker, the Tigers have three players who could start for any team in the nation with sophomore Mike Tre Lamar (6-4, 250 pounds), junior Will Kendall Joseph (6-0, 225 pounds), and senior Sam Dorian O’Daniel (6-1, 220 pounds). The secondary is also talented, with sophomore corner Trayvon Mullen (6-2, 190 pounds) sure to be a future early-round NFL Draft choice.

The real hero of the Clemson defense is an outstanding line that has utterly dominated opponents this season, applying pressure in the pass rush and otherwise disrupting opposing backfields regularly. The starting four linemen (DT Christian Wilkins, DE Clelin Ferrell, and DE Austin Bryant, and DT Dexter Lawrence) have 23 of the Tigers’ 44 total sacks among them. The Tigers fall behind only Miami 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 under Saban 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 loss to Auburn aside). 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 Daboll seemed to fall into a bit of a play-calling rut late in the season regarding the rushing attack, it is critical that the Tide finds a way to regenerate the running attack that allowed it the latitude to take chances on explosive plays earlier in the season. Against Clemson, probing with the run (and the short passing game) to find a soft spot in the Clemson front is the right thing to do. The Tigers aren’t a terrible rushing defense, but that portion of the scheme is also not its strength…they have struggled at times with physical running games that also incorporate spread concepts.

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 Lamar 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 is an adjustment Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables made after the 2015 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, whether with the running game or short passes to the empty spot that are delivered quickly after the snap. 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. 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 short passing game, and with a return to some of the zone read plays that Daboll seemingly abandoned in large part after arriving in T’Town. 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 Robert Foster and Calvin Ridley thrown in on an occasional jet sweep or WR screen to keep the Tigers honest. The goal is to stretch the Tiger defense, and make those big linebackers and tackles 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 or attack the passer 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 quick-hit passing and fast-slash running plays have a chance to work on the minds of the ends and linebackers, the Tide can come back with a healthy serving of explosive backs and inside zone/ outside zone/ power running plays. 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. Alabama has some of the nation’s best backs, and if an underneath passing game is what Clemson will cede, the Tide would do well to pair short strikes with a mix of inside and stretch runs to keep the Tiger D on its heels. With three years of tape of Clemson vs. Bama to review, Daboll has to know how Clemson will react, 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.

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 Daboll 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 screens and lateral perimeter passing to jump-start the Alabama scoring machine. Hurts will need to push the ball downfield vertically, even if only for six- and seven-yard gains. Such plays will keep the chains moving, will help Hurts build confidence, and will somewhat offset the oppressive rush Clemson fields.

Hurts won’t have time to search the field or wait for Ridley to work open (as he’s done in the last four games). Rather, Daboll will need to give him some quick reads that allow him to get the ball out quickly and sharply, even if the gains are only short. Throwing downfield against Clemson is risky, not just because of their excellent secondary, but because it gives the D line time to work. Sacks and other lost yardage plays will doom Alabama, as the Tide has demonstrated that it simply can’t overcome third-down-and-distance situations with any regularity.

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). It’s up to Daboll to blend the familiar with the novel, to give the Tide a comfortable game plan that will dissolve prior tendencies and throw Clemson off kilter.

That said, how can the Tide leverage the skill players it has on its roster against a ferocious front seven like the one Clemson brings to the table? First, Daboll must get the ball in their hands. Given Hurts’ continued struggles (despite considerable improvement over his freshman campaign) in operating a traditional progression-based passing scheme (and the offensive line’s difficulty in providing adequate protection against the better defensive fronts the Tide has faced this season), the obvious answer is a short, quick-release passing game that pits Bama’s shifty athletes against bigger, slower linebackers and safeties.

One of the few ways that Clemson can be exploited, as evidenced by Syracuse in the Tigers’ lone loss of the season, is to distribute the ball on quick drops to take their pass rush out of action. Hurts has to have quick reads, and he has to let his playmakers make plays rather than trying to do too much on any given down.

Alabama was consistently facing third-and-longs late in the season, and those situations create pressure points for the Bama offense. The way they evade similar struggles is by being successful on first- and second downs. Get the ball out of Hurts’ hands, beyond the line of scrimmage, and into the hands of the athletes the Tide has at its disposal. Run Foster on sweeps and let him attack the edges. Throw WR screens to Ridley and let him work the fringe for five-yard gains. Put Jeudy or Jacobs in the slot and let Hurts dart them the ball. Even if they only gain four or five yards per reception, those plays keep the chains moving and keep Bama’s defense off the field. They also will mount a critical mass at which point eventually a big play pops through…Ridley breaks a tackle and streaks down the sideline, or Jacobs stutters steps between the hashes and gets loose.

When that happens, the Tide opens a new can of worms. When the Tigers must commit men into that phantom zone between the hashes in the box on coverage, the Tide can force them out of man and into zone looks. As we’ve seen for years with the Patriots’ offense, it’s then that all-star receivers begin to see daylight down the field beyond the zone, and can thus make big plays. It’s then that the running game can begin to prosper in the space created by the spread underneath the zone coverage. And most importantly, such a scheme allows the offense to control the tempo, keeping the opposing offense (and critically, the Tide defense) off the field. That sets the stage for fourth quarter domination, and it is exactly what the Tide didn’t do last year in its championship game loss.

Against Clemson, Alabama will need to pass efficiently early on, despite the RTDB calls from the masses. But just as with the Patriot offense, it is the short passes that will buoy the run. 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. Daboll would do well to pick his spots for passing attempts. Once the running backs get a hot hand, by all means, ride that train until it reaches the station. But if the offense needs a jump start, the most effective way to do it against the Clemson D will be a punchy, electric short passing game. 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 Jeudy, Jacobs, or Irv Smith over the middle between the hashes. The Tigers have one linebacker (O’Daniel) who has a snowball’s chance of covering any of those Bama targets, and if the Tide can scheme away from him, they should be able to make hay.

If Clemson slams the middle shut, that only means they will have had to relent elsewhere. Surely, Mullen will likely draw coverage of Bama’s biggest receiving threat this season in Ridley. However, doing so will put explosive players like Foster, Jeudy, and Ruggs 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 those guys (or even Cam Sims at 6-4+), regardless of his aggressiveness? (Especially if Venables elects for pattern-matching coverages). Bama receivers could have a huge day underneath if, say, the Tigers must devote a nickel or safety to the middle due to Tide success.

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 Daboll 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 a zone read-ish playbook. 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. They must successfully play ball-control offense, which means tackling the bane of the Tide’s offensive existence this season: third-down conversions. 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 dangerous offensive weapons on the bench. If Alabama can do that, the chances of winning are greatly magnified, as it not only preserves the Tide defense and keeps Clemson 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 disadvantage in the match-up between the Tide offense and the Tiger defense, but that advantage can be offset if the Tide wins the turnover battle. The easiest way to win that contest is by protecting the ball on offense. The Tide simply can’t afford 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.

If Daboll 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. After all, the best defense is a good offense, so the Tide’s chances of success ride upon the shoulders of a unit that struggled mightily down the stretch, but retains some of the most explosive talent in college football. If Daboll and the staff construct a plan that plays to the Tide’s strengths, if the offensive line plays its best game of the season in pass pro and run blocking, and if Hurts rises to the occasion as he has so many times in his career, then not even a defense as formidable as the one fielded by Clemson can hold Bama in check. The margin for error, however, is slim, and Alabama will need a near perfect effort to emerge victorious.

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. At least, that’s how the season began, before a rash of injuries gutted the starting line-up and forced reserves into starting roles, particularly in the all-important linebacking corps.

Last year, the Bama defense was gashed by Watson and the Tigers, and that’s not something Bama’s returning defenders have forgotten about. Vengeance is never a public motivator for the Tide, but one can’t help but believe that after giving up the touchdown that lost the Tide the championship in 2016, even a battle-scarred Bama defense will be out for redemption against a somewhat de-powered Watson-less Clemson assault.

There’s reason to believe Clemson won’t be as explosive as they were last year…mostly because their most invaluable weapon over the last two seasons now wears Texans blue. But this Alabama defense has changed as well in that time, flexing from a defense studded with future All-Pro linemen that dominated the line of scrimmage to a more flexible, pressure happy unit that leans heavily on the safety position. Despite the changes in pressure points, Alabama has retained its effective ferocity, and though the moving parts have changed, the blunt-force trauma effect remains.

What Clemson does well this season is not much different from last year, though it’s different in implementation. They have a big, mobile dual-threat quarterback in Kelly Bryant (6-4, 220 pounds), 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 Milan Richard, and let Bryant slash an offense with reckless abandon through the air. The WR corps is electric, with Deon Cain (6-1, 190 pounds), Ray-Ray McCloud (5-10, 180 pounds), and Bama-bane Hunter Renfrow (5-10, 180 pounds) providing the QB with adequate targets. They have a powerful rushing attack featuring Tavien Feaster (5-11, 220 pounds), Travis Etienne (5-10, 200 pounds), and C.J. Fuller (5-10, 205 pounds) that relishes in pounding between the tackles when necessary. In reality, Clemson does everything offensively Alabama can do, only they have a slightly 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 one of the nation’s best secondaries, and with the return of Miller and Lewis to bolster the pass rush, the Tide may be better equipped than last year to deal with the Tiger aerial attack.

The Tigers shouldn’t be able to muster much more success on the ground against what is always a tenacious Tide run defense. While the Tide is giving up more yards per game on the ground than in previous years, Alabama still gives up fewer than 100 yards per game (94.1 to be exact) and has the third-ranked rush defense nationally. Clemson, despite having three quality backs and a decent offensive line, will struggle to generate much headway on the ground without a substantial impact from its passing attack.

The Clemson running game is not just about the running backs however, as, like the Alabama offense, the Tigers have an explosive running threat at quarterback in Bryant. The same things that made for Alabama’s zone read success last year also power Clemson’s lethality with quarterback runs. In previous years against Bama, Watson extended some plays with his legs and picked up critical first downs after leaving the pocket. Unlike his predecessor Kirby Smart, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt went after Watson aggressively, and the QB still thrived despite taking fearsome hits often. The defensive front was the vector for the rush last season, and rightly so. This year, Pruitt has been forced to use defensive backs as pressure points due to the inability of the defensive front to create consistent pressure.

Bryant is not Watson, but he’s still the type of quarterback who has given Bama trouble in the past. That said, Pruitt is apparently not keen on a mush rush 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 Nick Fitzgerald and Shay Patterson.

Bryant is the most lethal dual-threat guy the Tide has faced this year other than Fitzgerald, but one must expect Pruitt will continue the effective aggression strategy against him. He’ll try to bring pressure with four with the “nickel rabbits” scheme with Miller and Lewis back in the fold, but if that fails to yield the desired results, expect to see more of the manufactured pressure from multiple angles to keep Bryant in a haze.

Honestly, if Alabama can stop the run, get consistent pressure on Bryant, and disrupt the pocket with four rushers, there is really nothing Clemson will be able to do offensively 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 have been excellent (Anthony Averett and Levi Wallace), 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). Minkah Fitzpatrick will also have to play the game of life, even if the end result is just that he forces Clemson to play away from him. The real key, however, will be getting more pressure out of the Tide defensive front, particularly the front four. 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 Bryant’s decision-making.

The keys for Alabama defensively are 1) stop the traditional running game, 2) keep pressure on Bryant with four or five rushers, 3) create favorable third-and-long situations, and 4) account for Renfrow and Richard, especially on third downs and in the red zone. If Alabama can accomplish these four goals, Bryant may make a few plays to Cain 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. With the lighter, faster, spread-oriented look of Bama’s 2017 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.

One other important note pertains to Alabama’s secondary. Though they saw Marlon Humphrey depart for the NFL, Alabama has an extremely talented group in the back end this time around. Starting safety Fitzpatrick and nickel/ corner Tony Brown are both five-star guys. 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. Levi Wallace made his way under the radar, but he’s emerged as an able counterpart to Averett. The amount of talent in the Tide secondary is insane, and they have largely lived up to their billing this season, and that was without a dominant pass rush. Don’t expect this Tide secondary to get shelled by Bryant the way Watson did the last two times the Tide and Tigers met.

Special Teams

J.K. Scott once again proved himself the nation’s best punter in 2017, routinely pinning opponents 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.

Andy Pappanastos has quietly emerged as a true weapon for the Tide this year at place kicker, and he has added stability to a position that has sorely needed it for some time. Pappanastos is the kind of ice-water kicker one wants on the roster in a game that could very well come down to a field goal, and if his performance in 2017 has been any indication, Alabama is well served with him at place kicker.

Alabama’s return teams have been quite scary this year (and not in a good way), though they stabilized late in the season. Trevon Diggs and Henry Ruggs have been the go-to guys on kick returns, but they’ve been less than explosive in that role. It’s not that either man lacks the speed, shiftiness, and explosiveness to be an excellent return man. What they’ve lacked to date is the confidence to make a decision and execute it. Xavian Marks has handled the punt return role, and his performance has not been without excitement…not the positive kind. At this point, Alabama doesn’t have a weapon in the return game, which will be unfortunate in what is likely to be a closely contested match-up.

Clemson has seen improvement in their punting game with the departure of Andy Teasdale and the arrival of Will Spies. The freshman has averaged 40.8 yards per punt (nearly three yards better per punt than his predecessor) with a long of 64 yards and four touchbacks. He’s no J.K. Scott, but in fairness, there’s only one J.K. Scott and he wears crimson. Advantage, Bama.

Junior place kicker Alex Spence has not instilled confidence in the Clemson faithful, as he is converting field goal attempts at a rate of only 58.3 percent. He’s decent on short-range kicks (5-for-5), but anything beyond that is a crap shoot (1-for-4 between 30-39 yards, and 1-for-3 between 40-49 yards). He does have a 46-yard FG to his credit, but it’s one of only two beyond 30 yards he’s hit this season.

The Clemson return men are explosive and dangerous, as punt return duties are handled by receivers Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud (12.1 yards per return). Kick returns are handled by Feaster (21.6 yards per return) and Etienne (15.5 yards per return).

Alabama has a tall task ahead in this championship rubber match versus Clemson, as the Tigers are a worthy adversary with arguably the nation’s best defense on the field. 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.

The Tide defense has a score to settle, not just because Bama lost last season, but because of how they lost. While it’s obvious Clemson wants to snatch the series lead, it’s a testament to the grit of Alabama defenders 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 super-competitive, hyper-aggressive, pressure-craving Pruitt will likewise want revenge in his swan song in Tuscaloosa, and he is likely to call the type of defensive game that can disrupt what Clemson does best.

As good as the defense must be, the Tide offense must be better if Alabama is to win. They must solve the third-down quandary. They must find ways to keep Clemson in flux, and prevent them from entrenching and attacking the Tide front with their relentless legions of defenders. It is up to the offense to help support the defense, and with all the talent the Tide fields, it will be a matter of game plan and execution that will determine whether or not that happens.

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 almost 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 Miami…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 2017 national title.

Will Alabama’s vaunted defense slam the door on Clemson’s passing 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 after faltering down the stretch? Or will the status quo render more of the same on Monday night? Did Clemson discover a magic bullet in their win over Bama last season? 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…