I have quite a few Clemson items in my possession as you might guess. One is an old faded poster commemorating the 1981 season that came out that next year. It was in my room growing up, and I have it up now in my classroom. On the other wall opposite is the current 2015 season poster. I can't tell you how many times I looked at a schedule and wondered if the Tigers could navigate it to a title. This was a very real exercise in the late 1980's before the 1990's cast what seemed to be a mile long shadow of doubt over this kind of moment ever happening again. But the good old days are here again and then some as the Tigers have dominated national headlines in the sports world heading into an epic showdown with the current bully on the block. As you know from last week's preview, I had every confidence the Tigers would dispatch the Sooners. Now I am ready to just enjoy the moment and let all the fandom hang out on Monday night. It wouldn't hurt if Governor Haley would give the state a day off on Tuesday...
It is very fitting that this is the game remaining for all the glory. In a way, it was Alabama who helped get the wheels turning on what has become an elite football program (yes, we have earned the term at last). I've maintained that C.J. Spiller's signing was the turning point, but it took the physical beating at the hands of the Tide in Atlanta to shake the Clemson brass to the core and demand change. As Oklahoma found out last week, you can bring the flashy skill guys and a quarterback with big numbers to the party, but only the guys who can play bully ball up front will get the glory in the end. That 2008 game was a watershed moment as the Tigers were a paper giant, so to speak, ranked in the top ten. I had visions of Spiller and Davis busting runs and Jacoby Ford blazing past press coverage before I was reminded that your offensive line can't be blown three yards into the backfield on the snap if you hope to win. I recall the outrage of one of the Bostic brothers who rightfully called out the program as being soft. A few weeks later, Tommy Bowden was shown the door and a young wide receivers coach stepped up to the microphone and said things I had been waiting many years to hear. The best part has been, of course, that Coach Swinney has backed up that talk with action and this program can go toe to toe with the giants. So, thanks to Coach Saban for the nudge Clemson Nation needed. It is truly my honor to write game preview number 15.
Clemson offense versus Alabama defense: This is going to be something to watch. The Tigers have been nearly unstoppable since early October thanks to incredible balance and versatility on offense. 10 straight 500 yard games AFTER playing the "soft" part of the schedule is impressive to say the least. It all hinges on the play of Deshaun Watson who has continued to stay cool under all circumstances and make big plays left and right. Heck, I'd only give him a C+ for the Oklahoma game as I thought he played very average for his level and didn't throw the ball well at all. It didn't matter because his C+ is better than most people's A game. Of course, we all know that he's going to need to play a lot closer to A level versus this impressive Alabama defense. The Tide's defense, much like the Florida State teams of the early 1990s, is most dangerous because of its ability to handle a run game with a light box. They haven't had to use safety support nearly as much as most teams to stop the run game and can therefore keep things in front of them. They don't have to blitz much, and when they do, it is usually devastating. I would hope they are this good considering all the #1 recruiting classes they have brought in under Saban. Of course, a lot of their success has also come against some pretty limited offensive attacks. The glimmer of hope comes from knowing the spread operated by a mobile quarterback has been the kryptonite during Saban's time.
Clemson's ability to go multiple formations with the same personnel package is going to be key in this game. I expect we will see a lot of the empty formation with Leggett and Gallman split out wide as part of the 5 wide package. Watson's running ability keeps the run game in play even in empty sets and the Tigers can motion in and out of one and even two back looks here. I expect to see a lot more pre-snap motion from the Tigers in this game than what we have seen prior. Alabama loves to match personnel and disguise coverages, so Clemson not subbing to go five wide and shifting can help negate some of that. Alabama is very beefy up front and plays a lot of 2 gap out of that 3-4 to gum up the inside run game, so I look for the Tigers to try to get those guys running. I watched Gus Malzahn do a piece on the 2010 Alabama defense (which was even better than this current one), and he was adamant that you had to use pace to attack their defense in hopes of generating any kind of running game. I would agree with that and look for Clemson to do just that. The key will be getting the initial first down or two in order to wind their defense. Teams like Michigan State, LSU, and UGA are just too one dimensional to hope to deal with Alabama as we have all seen.
Alabama's linebackers are huge. One guy who could potentially cause them problems is Jordan Leggett. Leggett had a forgettable game against Oklahoma but can really be an impact player against these linebackers in coverage. His versatility as a receiver and blocker is likely going to be essential to the gameplan on Monday night. Points are going to be at a premium and Leggett is the team's best red zone threat, especially against a run defense as good as Alabama's.
Dabo has already said that you have to win some key matchups in a game like this. Alabama is going to win their share, but the Tigers have enough weapons to win too. It is imperative that the team takes care of the ball and avoids silly penalties. Clemson has overcome turnover issues in many games this year but this will not be one they can expect to win if they lose that battle. Watson will need to be at his analytical best in recognizing the Alabama coverages. Michigan State's best hope in the semifinal was dashed when Connor Cook threw a fade into press-bail coverage he didn't recognize for an interception at the end of the first half. If Clemson wins this game, we will likely point to a couple of top shelf plays from Watson as the catalyst.
The bravado coming out of Alabama and the majority of the national media is to be expected. I'd be overconfident if I were them too. Their defense is very good, though I hesitate to use the "best" moniker as I've seen thrown around by some in their camp. They cannot hope to comprehend just how much better the Clemson offense is from what they have faced to this point. Ole Miss, at best, is Clemson-lite. Texas A@M can operate at about 55% of Clemson's capacity on that side of the ball. Only Baylor at full strength can offer the run/pass threat that Clemson presents from what I have observed this season. Which group adjusts to the other faster is going to be a major key in this game. Clemson is not nearly at the physical disadvantage in the trenches it was in 2008. SEC folks just don't ever want to own that Clemson can play their brand of football just like Ohio State could last year.
Clemson defense versus Alabama offense: To me, a big part of this game is keeping Alabama under 24 points. This is a doable task as long as Clemson's corners, who have been stellar all year on the outside, hold up when Alabama decides to take their deep shots. Clemson is going to roll at least one safety down in the box against Henry and the Tide run game. Coker is, at best, a moderate threat as a runner. Clemson has done an excellent job at putting a physical beating on the opposing quarterbacks the last few years. Even tremendous playmakers like Braxton Miller, Marquise Williams, and Baker Mayfield have eventually wilted under the physical strain that Clemson's front seven puts on you. Sure, Coker looked great against Michigan State and he's made the plays to get Alabama to this point, but it remains to be seen if he can do the same in this type of contest where the Tide will very likely struggle to establish the run game in the beginning. If Clemson's offense can step up and establish a lead, Alabama will not be able to just keep pounding the run in hopes of wearing the defense down. Now, Lane Kiffin is a pretty sneaky guy and has shown he'll use elements of the Auburn offense to go with their normal pro-style attack. How often we see Alabama try to go hurry up or use those elements will be an indicator of how much Kiffin respects the Clemson defense's ability to stop their traditional attack. No team has been able to produce sustained success against this defense. Big plays, usually from busted assignments, have been the issue setting Clemson back at times. Clemson cleaned a lot of that up against the Sooners, of course, and will need to do so again on Monday. If Coker threads perfect throws to Ridley who catches over tight coverage, so be it. That is what Clemson is going to try to force.
Special Teams: I was in a state of total shock when Clemson FINALLY found a game changing positive play in this phase against the Sooners. I felt really good about winning when that happened. However, this is again an area of concern where the Tide could have a decided advantage. It goes without saying that Clemson simply cannot allow Alabama to get cheap points off a return or blocked kick situation. Just play solid here and let the defense and offense do their thing. I will give Dabo tons of credit for having the stones to run that fake when the world had to think we wouldn't try anything after that UNC game debacle.
Overall: I can't say I expect to win this game like I did last week. I really have no idea what to expect. I do know I have faith the Tigers will hold up physically and make this a great game. Watson is a once in a generation player and you always have a chance when you have that at quarterback. The defense is plenty good enough to keep Alabama under wraps. You never can foresee turnovers or critical calls that could swing a game. Alabama has all that "been there, done that" going for them, but this Tiger team is a team of destiny. I don't feel bad in the least about the pizza party or anything else. I hope we do that every time we have a year like this. If Alabama wants to sit around and act like it isn't a big deal and take on their coach's persona, fine. There is nothing else to say if Clemson wins this game because it is Alabama at the end. There is no better way to earn it than this. Let's party like it's 1981! Go Tigers.