Happy New Year, everyone. After 36 long days, you finally get to see Alabama play a football game again. Let’s dive on into the previews, shall we?
• Nick Saban says he doesn’t have a feel for how the game might play out. “I think both teams have the capability of scoring points, but I also think that both teams have pretty good defensive players. I think that our two defenses are one and two in scoring defense. I’m not sure who is first and who is second. So that means these teams have been difficult to score on for whatever reasons. But we have had some of those scenarios in the past, in the games we played in the past. And they have been high-scoring games. So it’s really hard to predict, in my opinion, as to how this game will turn out. I think there’s probably going to be six or seven plays in the game that will make a huge impact on the outcome of the game.”
Clemson’s defensive line vs. Alabama’s ground game. For the Crimson Tide, it all starts with the eighth-ranked rushing offense in the nation, a three-headed monster that combines a fleet quarterback in Jalen Hurts with running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough. The Tigers will answer with a defense that lives in the opponent’s backfield, averaging eight tackles for loss and 3.38 sacks. Along the front line, Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins helped smother Miami in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, limiting the Hurricanes to 214 yards.
This is not a great Alabama team in the traditional sense, hampered by injuries and an inconsistent offense. This was supposed to be a down year for Clemson after losing Watson and five other NFL draft picks.
Yet here they are again for a third go-around, two of the last teams standing.
Alabama and Clemson both recognize that Hurts has become a more complete player in 2017. He'll have to have his A-game on Monday night in the Sugar Bowl against a Clemson defensive front that brings pressure from all sides.
"I just have to stay true to myself, do what's gotten me here," Hurts said. "At the end of the day, this is my team. These are my guys, and my guys believe 100 percent in me. So I have to be myself and lead. They want to see the leader in me and that's what I need to do."
In essence, he's Clemson's version of Minkah Fitzpatrick -- Alabama's do-everything defensive back. O'Daniel is tasked with being the Nickel Sam -- a role that dovetails with the Star position Fitzpatrick mans in the Crimson Tide's scheme.
O'Daniel and Fitzpatrick are part of the new wave of elite defenders that have become prevalent in college football, operating both inside and the box. They are kryptonite for offenses that run hurry-up and switch personnel packages on the fly, helping to neutralize a play executed out of a two-back formation on one snap before breaking up a pass thrown out of a three-wide receiver set on the next.
The best way to get after them is the way Clemson did it a year ago: Throwing over and over and wearing out pass rushers while picking on matchups down the field. Watson threw 56 times, more than any Saban Bama team had ever faced, though doing it successfully is easier said than done, especially with a young QB.
Clemson should benefit from the fact that Alabama will have to lean on man coverage, to help its linebackers against the run. This defensive front is not the sort to totally snuff out a run game like Clemson’s with even numbers, though it also doesn’t give up big gains on the ground.
That means this game could come down to how well Bryant executes on third downs. And he still has Alabama’s public enemy No. 1: Renfrow.
The year before, Alabama had to manufacture bulletin board material, making up its own fake news to hang in meeting rooms, before blowing out Washington. Saban’s probably having an easier time convincing his players they’re actually underdogs this time around.
Last year, every computer predicted that Ohio State would beat Clemson, but Ohio State was shutout in a bowl for the first time since the 1920 Rose Bowl, so they don’t get everything right all the time!
Prediction: Clemson 21, Alabama 20. Clemson's had two weaker games all year, both about two months ago, after a Bryant injury. Bama's had three ... in its last four games. Nobody's running in this game, so expect a lot of squashed scrums as we wait for decisive passes. Bama's one-dimensional passing game doesn't look like a great fit against this pass rush, while Clemson's dink-and-dunk lifestyle can put a few decent drives together.
While I will continue to scoff at the notion that it has infected the playoff committee, an idea that should be put to rest after this season, it’s pretty clear that #BamaFatigue is real where college football media are concerned. Only two short months ago, a national writer groused about the challenges of covering a team that has dominated the sport for the better part of a decade now. Subconsciously, the reporters are ready for some new storylines.
The problem with some of these pregame predictions is that those giving them have seemingly either lost their minds or haven’t watched the Mississippi State and Auburn games that are supposed to portend doom for the Tide. Particularly galling is the assertion that Alabama is certainly not going to be able to run the football. Against Mississippi State, the Tide ran for a solid 5.3 per carry, including 8.5 from the running backs. Against Auburn, they gained 5.6 per, with 6.8 from the running backs. As our own balloons wrote for you following the Iron Bowl, Alabama actually had ample success on early downs and some inexplicable failures on 3rd-and-manageable.
It should be noted here that Auburn has actually been slightly better against the run than Clemson this season, and neither has been as good as Alabama. It’s also telling that the Tide managed 6.5 per carry vs. the Clemson front in last season’s title game while allowing only 2.2, with stud RB Wayne Gallman managing a paltry 46 yards on 18 tries.
Indeed, these Tide still run the ball and stop the run as well as anyone in the country, linebacker attrition be damned. It will be an upset if Clemson is able to completely snuff out the Alabama run game, particularly in terms of explosiveness. In the two previous seasons, Deshaun Watson beat Alabama with explosive plays in the passing game. It’s unlikely that Kelly Bryant can do the same, but he has been very adept at moving the chains. If Alabama has an Achilles’ heel this season, third down has been it, on both sides of the ball, and it showed up big in Auburn.
It’s fair to say that Saban is focused on that issue.
Nick Saban said #Alabama did a "total analysis" on third downs — on offense and defense – and also studied "what other people are doing to have success on third down."— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) December 31, 2017
We will have our predictions later, but this game profiles as a toss-up. You have to like some of the intangibles that seem to favor the Tide in a close one: Saban’s record after a loss, his record in rematch games against teams that beat him, Hurts’ experience on the stage and Bryant’s lack thereof. Of course, plenty of coverage has suggested that Hurts is the reason that Alabama won’t win. How did he process this? Will he come out coolly executing with something to prove, or will it cause him to press?
The Tide also have the better special teams. Ray Ray McCloud is a game changing punt returner but J.K. Scott doesn’t let anybody return the ball, and Clemson’s field goal kicking is as adventurous as any we’ve seen in the Saban era.
Usually, games like this one are decided when something goes off-script. For example, Scott had a fine night overall in January but a shanked punt at an inopportune time helped Clemson get back in the game. As Saban said, this one will likely come down to a few plays when we watch the film tomorrow. Here’s hoping the Tide can make more of those plays than Clemson can.
Enjoy all of the bowl games today and catch a nap when you can. It’s going to be a late one.