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Previewing the Opponent Offense: Clemson Tigers

This is not the plodding offense we saw with Kelly Bryant last year.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Cotton Bowl-Notre Dame vs Clemson Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama has faced Clemson in the post season for the last three years in a row, and their offense in year 4 is still basically the same style. It’s most often in a 11 spread, with the running back lined up offset and behind the QB in the shotgun while the TE is more of an H-back who is generally close to being in the backfield.

While the quaterbacks have changed over the years— Kelly Bryant was not Deshaun Watson, and Trevor Lawrence is definitely quite different from Bryant— the basic concept is the same. The entire running game is based off of the read option, and the receivers are quite involved in the screen game.

The true life of this offense goes through running back Travis Etienne. The 200 pound sophomore is an explosive sparkplug of a back who, lost in the Tua/Murray debates, quietly finished 7th in Heisman voting this year. He led the nation in rushing touchdowns with 22 and won ACC player of the year while leading the conference with nearly 1600 rushing yards. Most impressively, he did it with only 190 carries (for those not math-inclined, that comes out to a ridiculous 8.3 yards per carry). He’s quick, fast, explosive... whatever other overused adjective you like— Etienne is just inches from breaking a big play any time the ball is in his hands.

He’s spelled by the much larger junior in Travien Feaster, who has 429 yards and 6 touchdowns on the year. 5th year senior Adam Choice splits the backup role with Feaster has 536 yards and 7 touchdowns with 5 fewer carries. At 210 pounds, he’s right in between Etienne and Feaster.

To dabble in Football Outsider’s advanced metrics, Clemson has the 6th ranked rushing offense in S&P+ rankings, a 119.2 compared to Alabama’s 120.5, which is barely a difference. They also tend to rush the ball about 45% of the time in standard downs, which actually makes them one of the most pass-happy teams in college football— nearly identical to, you guessed it, Alabama.

Passing-wise, we all know by now about freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence taking the starting job away from Kelly Bryant and running with it. Lawrence is completing 65% of his passes for nearly 3000 yards and 27 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions. He’s been both efficient and explosive, averaging 8 yards per attempt. Though not an extremely dangerous runner, he’ll still take a read option around the back end of an over-zealous defense and can gobble up yards quickly with his lengthy stride.

He has two 6’4” receivers on the outside in Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. Higgins has been touted as a future 1st round pick since he was a freshman last year, and now Ross is right behind him. Higgins leads the team in catches, yards, and touchdowns— with 56, 855, and 11, respectively. He’s the go-to guy at any distance or situation, and is about as complete a receiver as any QB could ask for. Ross is only a few yards behind him with 847, but has done so with 16 less catches. He’s drawn comparisons to A.J. Green with his height and build. With his height and speed, he’s a demon down the field and is a go-to target on deep balls, averaging over 21 yards per reception.

The third receiver is the immortal Hunter Renfrow. The diminutive slot man has been cloned and repackaged at least 3 times now, as he’s been a thorn in the side of the Alabama defense since 2015. He’s second on the team with 47 catches, but is mostly used near the sticks and targeted on 3rd downs. He’s only averaging 11 yards per catch, but they’re quite often critical, drive extending catches.

The 4th cog in the receiving game really isn’t even 4th at all. The 5’9” Amari Rogers has 52 catches for 540 yards. He hasn’t been all that effective down field or at breaking big plays, but he’s dangerous underneath nonetheless and is often used on screens as a YAC guy. He’s the team’s starting punt returner as well.

The Clemson passing offense is not quite as potent overall as their rushing attack, and their passing S&P+ is a mere 17th in the nation (still really, really good... just not quite as elite as their running game).

The Clemson offensive line is an elite unit as well. Going back to some advanced stats, they’re averaging allowing their running backs 2.95 yards before contact, which is good for 10th in the nation. As you might guess though by the explosive nature of Etienne, they’re actually not the most consistent at run blocking in an overall view. They are 26th in opportunity rate (the rate at which the running backs get at least 4 yards on any given carry... think of it as viewing rushing stats in a median, rather than a mean) and 86th in the nation when rushing in short yardage, power situations.

In pass protection, they allow sacks on 4% of passes, good for 18th in the nation, but drop to 5.8%, or 33rd, on passing downs. Interestingly, these numbers are, yet again, nearly identical to the numbers that Alabama’s offensive line posted.

Overall, the Tigers are the 5th ranked offense by S&P+, and the 9th ranked by FEI. They are the 8th ranked in success rate, but drop to 22nd in IsoPPP+, which is a measure of an offensive’s penchant for explosive plays. They are extremely efficient in both the running and passing game, but can rip off big plays in both areas at any given time as well.

The offensive line is capable of opening some gaping holes, even if not the most consistent, and are generally solid at pass protection as well.

So, they’re pretty good.

The Alabama defense will definitely have their work cut out for them this year, and will be looking early to exploit any nerves or jitters that freshman QB Trevor Lawrence might have on the big stage.