Using depth charts from OurLads.com, I collected the Rivals star rating for each player listed on the first team offense and defense for the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide. I have left Clemson's metrics unchanged from the original iteration of this series (FSU preview) rather than replacing Tyrone Crowder with Maverick Morris since Crowder is getting the majority of the snaps despite a turf toe injury. They're both redshirt sophomores, but Crowder was a four-star recruit, while Morris was a three-star.
As is always true, this is just meant to provide two lenses, initial talent recruited and years in college football. There are obviously many things that go into winning a football game - including luck - but these are two huge ones. In fact, it's breathtaking that the mainstream sports media missed the boat on the Orange Bowl so badly when these numbers pointed to Clemson being more experienced and more talented.
So, as usual we begin with the offense:
As we expected, Alabama has an advantage in recruited talent, but it's actually quite modest. The difference in seniority is also negligible. Unfortunately, the numbers for Alabama are a bit skewed by one player... This guy:
He wasn't rated by Rivals, and he's in the data as a 1-star. When you remove him from the average, Alabama's average star rating jumps to 3.92. That's just nasty.
Let's layer on some more data. According to the S&P+, which is our advanced statistics guide for college football, Clemson has the #10 offense, while Alabama has the #27 offense. This adjusts for opponent quality and removes garbage time. You can point to the quarterback position to explain this. Obviously, quarterback is the most important position in football, and that's one of the few positions where Rivals says advantage Clemson (the others being RG and TE2). The Tigers are #3 in the S&P+ Passing Offense rankings, while Alabama is only #28. Despite what ESPN says, we have the advantage at QB.
Alabama has a great offensive line. Let's take a look:
Alabama is averaging a four-star along the O-line. When we looked at Oklahoma, they were only at a 3.20 and inexperienced on top of that. We highlighted that weakness and Clemson exploited it. The task will be much tougher in Arizona. A Heisman Trophy was won behind this O-line and their center, Ryan Kelly, won the Rimington Award. They finished 13th in the country in S&P+ rushing (Clemson #28). One would imagine Mac Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley will be out on islands and just have to win one-on-ones as the defense focuses on stopping Bama's rushing attack.
So while the recruiting numbers on offense look great for Alabama, Clemson's are relatively close, and the S&P+ numbers give reason for optimism. Blame it on scheme, Watson, or the imperfection of recruiting rankings, but the Tigers' offense is every bit as good as the Crimson Tide's despite the slight recruiting deficit.
Now, on to defense:
This is where you really see the recruiting prowess for the Crimson Tide create an advantage. I'm all but certain a 4.08* average is the best of any defense in the country. There are four five-star players on the unit. This isn't a Kentucky basketball situation either, as they're nearly as experienced as Clemson's lineup.
The S&P+ validates this as they're the #1 defense overall, #1 rushing defense, and the #1 passing defense. Boston College has a comparable rushing defense to the Tide, and we saw Clemson shred Boston College by going to the air. The problem here is that their passing defense is better than BC's (#1 vs. #11). If we look back at their loss to Ole Miss, Chad Kelly threw for 341 and 3 TDs, while Rebel running backs only earned 72 yards on the ground. They still managed to score 43 points (Texas A&M was the only other opponent to exceed 17 points).
Finally, we look at the recruiting numbers holistically. I've left out the seniority as there wasn't much story there.
(Graphic courtesy Heath Gregory)
OurLads listed a few more players in the line-up than Clemson (they'll include extra players if they are used in different packages), but the story is clear. They have a ridiculous amount of five-star talent.
When previewing the Orange Bowl, we pointed to advanced stats and recruiting rankings, but heard that Baylor beating UNC was a better indicator and that recruiting rankings are woefully inaccurate. Those retorts died hard. Now, at least on defense, we are at the disadvantage.
Some of the sentiment I've seen from the Crimson Tide faithful may overstate their advantage though.
"They will spend the next few days trying to convince everyone that the game will be compelling, but they know."
This will be compelling.
Over the past few years, Clemson has beaten LSU, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Florida State - all talent rich programs. We can only hope the Alabama players are this overconfident.
Hopefully, Alabama DC Kirby Smart needs to spend some time finalizing his staff and recruiting for his new job at Georgia.
Frankly, I like the way we matchup against Alabama with a speedy quarterback and an offense that can attack through the air if Alabama shuts down the traditional rushing attack as they did against LSU.
Florida is the best defense they've faced (per S&P+) and in that game they were held to 12 points in the first half. Wisconsin, LSU, and Michigan State are the other very good defenses they've faced this season and they scored 14, 13, and 10 points in each first half, respectively. If Clemson's defense can perform similarly, but avoid the second half fade, Watson and company have a chance to eek out enough points to pull the upset.