The Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Boston Celtics in the finals of the 2007-2008 NBA playoffs. Typically, the losing team bolts from the court as the winner celebrates, but as the story goes, Coach Phil Jackson had the team watch the Celtics celebration and told them to remember it. That anguish drove them as they won the next two NBA Championships, including a seven-game thriller over the Boston Celtics.
Now, just as the Lakers eventually got their shot against the Celtics (though it was the season after next), Clemson will have a chance to dethrone the team that beat them last year and has won four of the past seven national championships. Will the anguish of defeat drive them to redemption?
We’ll come back to this topic, but let’s delve into our analysis. First our usual explanation and caveat:
We've divided the offense and the defense into three portions each. For the offense, the starting QB, the starting O-line, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall offense rating. Similarly on defense, the two-deep at D-line, linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.
This shouldn’t have to be said, but there are always players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Lamar Jackson) as well as those who underperform their star ratings. As such, this is only one portion of the analysis we will publish on the upcoming game, but we hope it’s an especially informative one.
Alabama is a uber-talented. Looking at their recruiting metrics was enough to give me heart palpitations. They average four-stars or better at each positional grouping we analyze. Nobody has come close to doing that so far this season. In fact, no team (including Clemson), has even averaged 4.00-stars or better in three of the six position groupings we analyze.
First we look at the offense:.
Seeing a ton of talent at Alabama is no surprise. We knew that. What’s a little striking is how much talent at the skill positions, because, well... their offense is boring. They have multiple five-star running backs and an elite defense so they get away with a conservative and un-balanced approach.
At QB, Jalen Hurts may be listed as a four-star, but he’s also a true freshman. He is a shifty runner with deceptive power, but he is not a great passer (yet). The Alabama offense had one great drive against Washington. After falling down 0-7, they responded with a dominant nine-play 78-yard TD drive. That drive included just one pass. They then punted eight-times before their offense scored another TD (they had a pick-six and a FG off a fumble during that span). In the whole game, the offense mustered just two TDs and seven completions.
One could argue this was by design, as their defense was so dominant that playing conservative turnover free football was enough to earn a victory over a great Washington team. That would be a fair argument, except that Nick Saban was displeased enough with the performance to “mutually agree” to part ways with OC Lane Kiffin just a week before the National Championship.
Last year, Alabama was able to rack up points by picking on Clemson’s bust-prone safeties with play-action passes. Those players have been replaced with a pair of safeties that may be less physical, but are also more reliable and better ball-hawks. Clemson’s defensive front will be among the best Alabama has faced (along with LSU, who they scored just 10 points against). If Alabama’s offense doesn’t find success by repetitively smashing their admittedly excellent five-star running backs into Clemson’s elite D-line, they will be forced to play with balance. That means Jalen Hurts passing the ball... maybe even on passing downs (gasp).
If Alabama wins this national championship, one of the two most likely narratives will be the coronation of Jalen Hurts as the next big thing in college football. He has never been relied upon to lead his team to victory. Alabama hasn’t need to rely on him, but to beat Clemson, he’ll have to keep up with Deshaun Watson, Mike William, Jordan Leggett, Wayne Gallman, and co.
The next most likely narrative if Alabama wins is that their defense is one of the all-time great defenses:
Whoa... This is what happens when you finish #1 in recruiting annually. They don’t just “typically have the best class.” They average the best class. It’s evident on their defense. They swarm to the ball with incredible speed, but still have the size and strength to shut down standard up-the-middle run plays. They specialize in non-offensive TDs such as the INT they returned for the a TD against Washington.
The good thing for Clemson is unlike a year ago when they were without Mike Williams and Deon Cain, the they’re are healthy and peaking at the right time. Clemson’s offense has been pass-happy all year. Alabama’s defense is known for stuffing the run. Clemson is dominant when they find offensive balance, but they can win even when the running game is significantly slowed. A run-heavy attack will be surely shutdown by Alabama. A pass-heavy attack at least has a chance.
Almost as encouraging is some of the creativity the Tigers offensive coordinators showed against Ohio State. On one play, they put a WR in motion to clear out the short side of the field, and then tossed the ball there for a quick first down on the edge. Later, Watson broke off a big gain after moving the linebackers with a fake toss before running in the opposite direction. Their creativity gives Clemson hope of having just enough of a run game to keep Alabama honest.
Barring a historically great defensive performance that allows Alabama to play their usual, boring-but-sufficient, ultra-conservative offense, this game could come down Alabama QB Jalen Hurts. The burning question is this... With Alabama having the stronger rushing attack and Clemson selling out to stop it, can Jalen Hurts out-duel Deshaun Watson?
With those advantages in his favor, he may, but here’s what Jordan Rodgers of the SEC Network said prior to the SEC championship game:
“If there’s any chink in his (Hurt’s) armor, it’s completion percentage and poise under pressure. Not that it’s horrible, but he’s only completing 40% of his passes against pressure this season. He’s thrown some interceptions the last couple games, so I think if you’re Florida, you have nothing to lose, and you have to pressure him.”
If there’s one thing Brent Venables does well, it’s pressure QBs and force them into passing situations.
Jalen Hurts is completing 23.7% of his passes under pressure when throwing at least 5 yds downfield— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) January 3, 2017
Jalen Hurts throwing the ball against good defenses..... not great. pic.twitter.com/10GnlcrDVf— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) January 3, 2017
Last week, Clemson played a run-heavy attack, forced their QB to pass the ball, and dominated them when they were unable to complete passes downfield. Two of Ohio State’s best plays were pass-interference calls they drew on deep throws. QB Jalen Hurts will have to connect on a few deep balls to keep the Clemson defense honest. If he is able to stretch out the Clemson defense with his arm, he’ll give those five-star running backs a chance to make big plays and dominate the clock. If that happens, the Tigers may go the way of the late-90s Utah Jazz - two championship game appearances against the greatest dynasty of their era with no rings...
But do not forget the anguish that fuels redemption:
I didn't come this far to only come this far. Still think about this everyday. One last ride. See y'all in Tampa. pic.twitter.com/tym9juQGAa— Ben Boulware (@benboulware7) August 1, 2016
Place your bets.