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Hope for the Best: Clemson edition

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In what’s become a routine in the National Championship Game, Alabama will once again try to better Clemson…but how likely are they to beat the Tigers a third time in four tries?

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame
Can a true freshman QB lead Clemson to victory over the Crimson Tide for the title?
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It’s on. Round Four.

When Alabama and Clemson square off on Monday night in the College Football National Championship Game, much will be at stake. Sure, the accolades and glory of another national title will await the winner of the game. Both teams know the score, as the two teams have won the last three National Championship Games. They know the pressure, the discipline, and the razor-sharp edge that usually separates winner from loser when the two teams do battle.

But on a grander scale, the winner will seal yet another chapter in a legendary series between the two teams that has produced nail-biting, late-breaking victories in the National Championship Game: one for Alabama in 2015, and 2016’s dazzling come-from-behind effort by Clemson. Last year the teams met in the first round, and Alabama thumped the Tigers en route to a title game victory over Georgia.

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 championship game knockout to its credit, and for them, this Monday night’s game will be the Thrilla in Manilla.

This year’s match-up is like none of the one’s that came before it. In this contest, both teams feature stingy defenses, with Clemson’s unit usurping Alabama’s traditional title as best defense in the land as the top-ranked unit in Defensive S&P+. But Alabama’s offense has looked unstoppable with Tua Tagovailoa at the trigger, pitching a reverse of the traditional Tiger offense vs. Tide defense paradigm.

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 youth and an exodus of current NFL athletes who moved on after last year’s championship season. Though the Bama D has still been solid, they are giving up approximately 20 more yards per game on the ground than in 2017.

This year’s match will feature two different teams. Gone are Watson and Kelly Bryant from Clemson’s sidelines, and for that Bama fans will be thankful. But the Tigers have a young gun of their own in tow this season with Trevor Lawrence calling the shots for the Clemson offense. Thus far, he’s played well above the head of a true freshman, powering the most balanced offense the Tide has faced to date. The Tide no longer wields the likes of Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, Da’Ron Payne, or Minkah Fitzpatrick, former Bama defensive stalwarts who celebrated multiple victories over these same orange-clad enemies. That is a fact that surely introduces glee into the hearts of those who pull for the Tigers.

The Tide heads into the game as an almost inexplicable six-point favorite despite the defensive regression and a Clemson defense that is superior to any other the Tide has faced to date. That said, the Alabama offense is a thing of incendiary beauty, as evidenced by its 28-point first quarter conflagration against Oklahoma in the first round. Clemson is no Oklahoma, and Trevor Lawrence isn’t Kyler Murray. But there is beauty in the balance of the Tiger offense, they have a line that could road-grade a stampede of rhinoceri, and against Notre Dame, that tall freshman gunslinger ransacked the Irish like a pigskin Oliver Cromwell in the first round of the playoffs.

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, the roles have been reversed. It is Alabama that is now best equipped to win an offensive shootout, while Clemson must hope its juggernaut defense can do something no other unit has done to Alabama to date. These teams have met for the highest stakes often enough that each can taste victory, and neither can stomach defeat.

Despite the dire forecasts of media pundits, this Alabama team remains in the driver’s seat of this title game. Don’t be fooled by the premature proclamations regarding the demise of college football’s rightful ruler. Clemson has been good, good enough to be undefeated and potentially the first 15-0 national champion…but so has Alabama. The Tide has a more talented roster, top to bottom, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

This season, Alabama has a defense that may be better suited to the style of offense Clemson plays. Alabama’s offensive strength (the passing game) dovetails nicely into Clemson’s only perceived defensive weakness (pass defense). Alabama has the intangibles. They have a cool-headed leader in Tua Tagovailoa, who proved the ice-water in his veins in last year’s title game versus Georgia. They have a secondary that can make Lawrence pay for any freshman errors in judgment. The Tide has an offense that simply features too many weapons for any defense to neutralize. Most importantly, they have Nick Saban. In other words, take heart, 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

In past years, Alabama has brought a run-heavy offense into the game predicated on the zone-read and a steady stream of outside zone/ inside zone running plays. And it worked pretty well for the most part, as Clemson’s run defense was the weak link in the defensive chain. This year, however, both units have evolved. Alabama now has a high-flying, aerial assault offense that features the golden arm of Tagovailoa and an impressive armory of future NFL pass catchers. The running game has, for the most part, been a tool use to keep defenses honest and set up Tua’s deadly play-action machinations.

Clemson, on the other hand, has strengthened its run defense, holding opponents to 92.6 yards per carry this year, good for second in the country in raw stats. The advanced metrics bear out the evolution as well, as the Tigers rank first in Rushing S&P+ defense. Though many things remain static from the last time the two old foes faced one another, the Tide’s method of dispatch and the Tigers’ defensive strengths have changed considerably.

In the championship game Alabama will need that aerial aptitude 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 Notre Dame in a 30-3 first-round tune-up that left many startled given Notre Dame’s success through much of the season. The Irish 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 potent offense this Monday.

Clemson has the tools to cause problems for Alabama’s 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 solid 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 second in total defense (274.6 yards allowed per game), first in scoring defense (12.9 points per game allowed), second in rush defense (92.6 yards per game), and 16th in pass defense (182.1 yards per game). On third down, the Tigers have the fifth-ranked defense nationally, allowing conversions on only 28 percent of attempts. They rank first in sacks with 52 and second in tackles for loss with 129. The Tigers’ team passing efficiency defense is excellent, as they are ranked 13th nationally.

In regard to advanced metrics, the Tigers rank first in Defensive S&P+, fourth in pass defense S&P+, first in run defense S&P+, 50th in IsoPPP (a measure of successful explosive plays against a defense), and fourth 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 four other Bama opponents have defenses that rank in the top-20 in this advanced metric: Mississippi State is third, LSU is 13th, Georgia is 15th, and Auburn is 16th. While Alabama won all four of those games and only struggled mightily against Georgia (though the contest with MSU was a challenge), Clemson is in a different league defensively. Tackling Clemson will be a steep hill to climb.

The strength of the Tiger defense is the defensive line, as ends Clelin Ferrell (6-5, 265 pounds) and Austin Bryant (6-5, 280 pounds) are elite future NFL prospects. They are joined by a player certain to go high in the coming NFL Draft, senior Christian Wilkins (6-4, 315 pounds). At linebacker, the Tigers have three players who could start for any team in the nation with sophomore Mike Tre Lamar (6-4, 255 pounds), junior Will Kendall Joseph (6-0, 235 pounds), and sophomore Sam Isaiah Simmons (6-2, 230 pounds). The secondary is also talented, with junior corner Trayvon Mullen (6-1, 195 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 replacement DT Albert Huggins) have 27.5 of the Tigers’ 52 total sacks among them. The Tigers lead the nation in team sacks, 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 the Alabama offensive line struggles with Clemson’s mighty rush.

Tagovailoa is the key to Bama’s offensive machine…there’s no secret about that. There’s also no secret that he spent much of the last quarter of the season dinged up, and the injury critical mass came to a head in the SEC Championship Game, easily his worst performance of the year. While he looked in top form against Oklahoma and emerged unscathed, the Clemson defense will exert considerably more pressure on the QB and his protectors. It will be critical for the Tide line to prevent Clemson from getting pressure with the front seven. Doing so will force Venables to commit safeties to the box, which will open up all kinds of options for the Tide passing game. Conversely, if the Tigers disrupt the pocket rushing four, Alabama’s goals in the passing game will become markedly more difficult to achieve. For Alabama to have its best chance to win, the line will need to stem the Tiger pass rush and keep Tua upright, even if only briefly if Locksley elects to use a quick-strike passing game to move the chains early on the stingy Clemson D.

Though Locksley prefers to keep defenses guessing with the vertical passing attack out of spread formations, 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 and set the stage for play-action later is the right thing to do early on. That said, the Alabama offensive staff has made it a habit of prediagnosing chinks in the armor of opponents all season, so Alabama may be able to go on the attack form the start with aplomb.

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 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 outside zone in the running game. First, the Tide needs to commit to the edge a little early on. 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 move 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, Locksley 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.

If there’s been one knock against the otherwise stellar Tagovailoa this season, it’s been that he sometimes holds the ball too long in the pocket while waiting for his receivers to run open. That would be a huge no-no against the Tigers given the potency of their pass rush. Tua won’t have time to search the field or wait for Jeudy, Waddle, or Ruggs to work open. Rather, Locksley 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 early can be 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 and prevent the quick start on which they thrive.

One of the edges Alabama has over every other team in college football is diversity of talent. One of Alabama’s strengths is the roster. As good as the Clemson defense is, it (nor any other defense) cannot cover every weapon the Tide puts on the field on every down. Double Jeudy, and one of the Smiths will torch your corner. Bracket Ruggs and Jacobs will make you pay from underneath. Play Cover-2 with both safeties back, and Waddle will turn a short reception into a YAC-tastic highlight reel play. Alabama has the talent, the scheme, and the trigger man to make things happen against any defense, so long as they remain calm and play within themselves.

One of the few ways that Clemson can be exploited is to distribute the ball on quick drops to take their pass rush out of action. Quick read, quick throws, and RPO shiftiness keeps them off balance. 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. 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.

Against Clemson, Alabama will need to pass efficiently early on, and it is the short passes that will buoy the run. The passing game will be important in keeping Clemson honest and augmenting the Tide rushing attack. If the offense needs a jump start (and getting off to a good start against Clemson will be critical), 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, there will be open field for Jeudy, Jacobs, or Irv Smith over the middle between the hashes. The Tigers have one linebacker (Simmons) 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 Jeudy. However, doing so will put explosive players like Ruggs, the Smiths, and Waddle on the field against lesser coverage (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.

Overall, the Tide has a few things they must accomplish offensively if Alabama is to win its 18th national championship. They must successfully play ball-control offense to preserve their own defense for the inevitable late offensive run by Clemson. 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 advantage in the match-up between the Tide offense and the Tiger defense, but that advantage can be magnified 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.

The best defense is a good offense, so the Tide’s chances of success ride upon the shoulders of a unit that has been the strength of the Bama squad down the stretch. If Locksley 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 Tua is able to do Tua-type things with that wide receiving corps, 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

Alabama’s defense has regressed slightly this season thanks to youth and lack of depth, but the Tide still ranks as a top-15 defensive unit despite a few glaring weaknesses that emerged against quality opponents. Clemson too has changed, with freshman Trevor Lawrence taking over the reins from Bryant, who is now bound for other pastures.

What Clemson does well has not changed, however, as other than a slightly heavier tack towards the passing game, the Tiger zone-read offense is as potent as ever. They still run the ball exceptionally well behind an NFL-caliber line. They still dial up explosive vertical pass plays, and despite his youth, Lawrence showed against Notre Dame that he has the golden arm to drop a ball in a bucket from 50 yards out. Those characteristics will challenge the Tide defense, as lapses in coverage (especially among the inside linebackers) have not been altogether uncommon this year.

What Clemson does well this season is not much different from last year, though it’s different in implementation. They have a big, mobile quarterback in Lawrence (6-6, 215 pounds), and all the benefits that come with that. They don’t run as much QB run zone-read as they have in the pass, as Lawrence is mobile but more of a passer than his predecessors. They’ll flex out three and four receivers, including tight end Milan Richard, and let Lawrence slash an offense with reckless abandon through the air. The WR corps is electric, with Tee Higgins (6-4, 210 pounds), Amari Rodgers (5-10, 213 pounds), freshman phenom Justyn Ross (6-4, 210 pounds), and Bama-bane Hunter Renfrow (5-10, 180 pounds) providing the QB with adequate targets. They have a powerful rushing attack featuring Travis Etienne (5-10, 200 pounds) and Tavien Feaster (5-11, 215 pounds) that relishes in pounding between the tackles behind a corps of future NFL linemen. In reality, Clemson does everything offensively Alabama can do, only they have a slightly less 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 dominant play of Quinnen Williams, Raekwon Davis, and Isaiah Buggs to bolster the pass rush, the Tide may be even 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 ranks in the top-20 in run defense (19th) in raw data and third in Rushing Defense S&P+. Despite the problems that Bama has experienced at ILB this year, they still only allow 120 yards per game on the ground. Clemson, despite having a pair of quality backs and an excellent offensive line, will struggle to generate much headway on the ground without a substantial impact from its passing attack.

Lawrence is not the running threat that Bryant or Watson was, but he’s still the type of quarterback who has given Bama trouble in the past. In fact, one needs to look no further back than the SECCG to see what a dime-dealing, elite pocket passing quarterback can do against Alabama’s secondary when the defensive line can’t generate enough pressure to squash the pocket. Jake Fromm carved the Tide pass defense, and Lawrence has the skill set and receiving talent to do the same if Alabama doesn’t pressure him and force him into freshman mistakes.

Honestly, if Alabama can stop the run, get consistent pressure on Lawrence, and disrupt the pocket with four rushers while dropping five in coverage, 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 imperfect but solid (Patrick Surtain Jr. and Saivion Smith), there could be a coverage liability if they can scheme a safety or linebacker coverage on the likes of Higgins or Hunter Renfrow (5-11, 185 pounds). Deionte Thompson and Xavier McKinney will also have to play the game of their lives, even if the end result is just that they force Clemson to adopt a shift towards their running attack. 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 defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi 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 Lawrence’s decision-making.

The keys for Alabama defensively are 1) stop the traditional running game, 2) keep pressure on Lawrence 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, Lawrence may make a few plays to Higgins, Rodgers, 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 more explosive offenses (like the one they faced last week in Oklahoma) that run schemes similar to the one used by Clemson. With the lighter, faster, spread-oriented look of Bama’s 2018 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.

Alabama has a tall task ahead in this championship 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 18 in tow.

Clemson’s offense presents the Tide with a unique challenge because they run the ball well and have a passing game that can take advantage of Bama’s weaknesses in pass defense. Saban and Lupoi will need the Alabama defense to repeat the display of dominance they used to bludgeon the Sooners in their previous game, as Clemson can be nearly as potent despite some of the relative differences between the two teams.

As good as the defense must be, the Tide offense must be better if Alabama is to win. They must attack early and often, and successful drives must result in touchdowns. 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 previously-undefeated Notre Dame…Clemson is a worthy opponent with a high-octane offense and a gritty, physical, attacking defense. The Tigers are a fierce adversary, and realistically, the only team nationally that can give Alabama a run for the 2018 national title.

Will Alabama’s rejuvenated 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 dominate the nation’s best defense as they have all others this season? Or will Clemson’s ferocious defense prove to be the kryptonite to Tua’s heroics? Does defense still win championships? Or will the Tide roll over another vaunted defense on the way to number 18?

We wait on bated breath for these answers and many more. It all comes down to this. Hope for the best…