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National Championship Preview: Q&A with Shakin the Southland

Editor Ryan Kantor joins us to discuss the keys to the game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Sugar Bowl - CFP Semifinal - Alabama v Clemson Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Clemson Tigers are new money in the college football hierarchy, but they will undoubtedly be the toughest opponent Alabama has faced this season. Hey, if you’re going to be the first modern team to win 15 games, the last test should be the most difficult one, right? Welcome Ryan Kantor, editor of Shakin the Southland, to discuss the matchup.

RBR: Clemson’s offense came into the Notre Dame game with very high success rate numbers but pedestrian explosiveness. Against the Irish, they kind of flipped the script and became a bit more boom-or-bust. What do you attribute this to, and does Clemson have to get big plays to beat the Tide, or can they sustain drives as they’ve done all season?

Ryan: Clemson is 10th in success rate and 34th in isolated points per play (isoPPP) so you’re right in that it’s been more about chugging along than getting chunks – in theory – but I think that’s a little misleading when looking at this particular upcoming game. There are several reasons.

The first and most obvious is the QB change. Clemson’s offense under Kelly Bryant was much less explosive and more focused on steady progress down the field. We learned (rather harshly) that such a plan doesn’t work against Alabama. It won’t this year either. Fortunately, that changed after week 4, but nonetheless those statistics from the early part of the season are still in the numbers.

True freshman WR Justyn Ross has also matured throughout the season and seems to be a favorite target of Trevor Lawrence whereas he was seldom targeted downfield by Kelly Bryant. His big day against Notre Dame highlighted this progress and he is now a second WR (alongside Tee Higgins) that Lawrence can throw to in single coverage and trust to win.

Lastly, Clemson played a lot of weak teams where we didn’t need to take risks. NC State, who was our prime competition in the ACC Atlantic, got completely embarrassed by Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl. Syracuse was probably the second best team in the ACC. With Miami, FSU, and Louisville down this year, the ACC provided no imperative to mash the gas on offense.

Alabama’s defense is #1 in success rate. If Clemson has any illusions of slowly meandering downfield, it is unlikely to go well. We need explosive plays, but we’re capable of getting them.

RBR: Besides the QBs, most of the pundits will focus on the matchup between Clemson’s vaunted defensive line full of NFL talent and Alabama’s offensive line that averages 4.6 recruiting stars per man and was a Joe Moore finalist. Who do you favor in that matchup and why, and which other matchup do you consider to be an underrated key to the game?

Ryan: If Clemson can mostly shut down Alabama’s rushing attack and put them in third-and-long situations, I like the Tigers chances. Georgia was able to get pressure on Tua, and Clemson’s D-line is better than the Dawgs’, but Tua is healthy now so the task is tougher. I favor Clemson’s D-line in this matchup (you generally go with the D-line whenever it’s close), but I wouldn’t bet on them stuffing the run, especially without our best run stuffer, and pressuring Tua to the point that they can’t score at least 25-35. This Alabama offense is too good to be held down like Notre Dame.

Clemson’s secondary against Alabama’s lauded group of WRs is another interesting matchup. They’ve been the target of criticism ever since Kellen Mond made some big plays early in the season, but they’ve exceeded my expectations. Safeties Tanner Muse and Nolan Turner in particular have made very noticeable strides.

RBR: Most college football fans seem skeptical of Dexter’s claim that he accidentally ingested ostarine, and some have been critical of Dabo’s rush to defend him. What is the pulse of the fanbase on this?

Ryan: I think it would be fair to say that Dabo Swinney has earned a lot of trust on these sorts of issues in the Clemson community. When Sammy Watkins was caught doing drugs, he was suspended for the Auburn game. It seemed to be the case that he took the tough love well and matured from the experience. When Deon Cain was caught doing drugs, he was suspended for the National Championship game. One of the key reasons we lost that game in 2015 was the lack of a deep threat in the passing game, precisely what he provided all season. The point is Dabo has not shown he is willing to win at all costs. I don’t think any rational person with all the facts that have come out about this situation would think Dabo is lying about this being “a sliver, a trace, a fraction” that could have come from anything accidentally used.

His teammates certainly believe him and are rallying behind him. According to Matt Connelly at the State, Christian Wilkins had No. 90 on his eye black, and defensive end Clelin Ferrell wore an undershirt that said “This for Big Dex” in the Cotton Bowl.

40 NCAA athletes have tested positive for osterine and most win on appeal. Maybe most notable was Arizona basketball star Allonzo Trier, who tested positive, but was allowed to play after it was out of his system. Pro triathlete Lauren Barnett was suspended for a positive osterine test and sued the makers of the contaminated salt tablets that caused the positive drug test.

Alabama already has a raw talent advantage. Dexter Lawrence not being allowed to play is maddening and swings the odds even further in Alabama’s favor. I expect Clemson to win on appeal over the off-season and the two other suspended players to be ruled eligible for the 2019 season (Dexter is draft-eligible so next season is irrelevant for him).

If I believed cheating was involved, I’d be all for taking our due punishment. I mean, I wrote THIS for goodness sake. I don’t believe that’s the case and less objective Clemson fans certainly do not. Clemson fans are completely behind Coach Swinney and the three suspended student athletes.

RBR: Which player that Alabama fans may not have heard of has a chance to have an impact on this game?

Ryan: Justyn Ross, a former 5-star recruit from Alabama, has become a bigger and bigger part of the offense as the year’s progressed. He, along with Tee Higgins, will be called upon to make the explosive plays the Tigers absolutely need to keep up with the excellent Crimson Tide offense.

Some more under the radar players who must perform well are center Justin Falcinelli, who will oppose Quinnen Williams, and Albert Huggins who will fill-in for Dexter Lawrence and must help stuff Alabama’s always strong rushing attack.

RBR: When Clemson has the ball on offense, what individual or position matchup gives you the most optimism? Which worries you most?

Ryan: Alabama has elite talent all over the field, so we’re picking the matchup that we’re relatively most optimistic about, and that’s Clemson’s WRs versus Alabama’s DBs and LBs. Hunter Renfrow has done his damage in the past and he’ll be a key in this one, but its Clemson’s “9” receivers – Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross – that have to take the top of the defense so Clemson can attack on the ground and horizontally. I think they’re talented enough that it doesn’t really matter how elite Alabama is. If a jump ball is thrown their way, you bet on them.

On the flipside, Quinnen Williams and the Alabama DL shutting down Clemson’s rushing attack is a concern. Clemson hasn’t consistently generated a push for the running game against the better rushing defenses. Sure, they burned Wake Forest and the underbelly of the ACC, but the run game has struggled, been inconsistent, or taken a while to get going against all the top 30 rushing defenses Clemson has faced. It’ll likely be tough sledding against Alabama and if Alabama can also get a lot of pressure on Trevor Lawrence, then it becomes extremely difficult to win.

RBR: In your estimation, what needs to happen in the game for Clemson to pull the upset, and how likely is it to happen?

Ryan: Offensively, Clemson is so much different than a year ago. Last year, we had a strong rushing attack (which doesn’t get you far against Alabama) and avoided turnovers. This year, we’re dynamic and can attack all parts of the field and still don’t commit turnovers. Our offense needs to stress Alabama’s defense horizontally and especially vertically to open up Travis Eteinne in the rushing game and create a little balance.

With a few big plays in the passing game and an all-world effort along the O-line in run blocking, Clemson can score enough to win.

This year’s Alabama team is unique in that its offense is #2 in the country (behind only Oklahoma in S&P+) and not the usual ball control unit that leans on its defense. With a win over Clemson, I think Alabama would prove to be the best college football team of the playoff era. Clemson’s defensive line must slow their rushing attack and then get pressure on Tua, because he can pick apart any secondary given enough time.

Those things are possible. I’m worried Alabama will find balance on offense with him out so I’d say there’s about a two-in-five chance we prove the oddsmakers wrong and win our second National Championship in three years.

Good stuff. Many thanks to Ryan for his input. You can follow him on Twitter here. May both teams play a clean, injury free game on Monday.

Roll Tide.