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If Alabama Should Fear Anyone, it’s Clemson

Scouting Alabama: Clemson is a bad matchup for the Crimson Tide

Playstation Fiesta Bowl - Ohio State v Clemson Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Rematch. This is the opportunity we and the team wanted all year, a chance to correct last year’s shortcomings and clear the program’s very last hurdle. If there is a team on this earth who Alabama should fear — any team capable of backing up “WE WANT BAMA” — it is this Clemson team, which matches up extremely well against the Crimson Tide on both sides of the ball.

Before I begin: who else is making the supposedly once-in-a-lifetime trip again this year? A large segment of our commentariat will make the journey; if anyone wants to meet up, contact Ryan Kantor or me on Twitter. This scouting report will feature two parts: the usual film-related walkthrough on the opponent’s defensive strategy; and an extended narrative on why (HOT TAKE) Clemson should be expected to win the national championship.

Before I get too involved with the technical jargon, a primer:

Clemson racked up 40 points and 500+ yards on Alabama last year without a deep receiving threat. Deshaun Watson had the game of his life and generated efficiency unheard of against the Tide. While I certainly don’t expect the same level of success on offense, this year the Tigers enjoy the services of elite downfield targets Mike Williams and Deon Cain, who complement a similarly efficient offense far more capable of chunk plays than the 2015 edition. In short, this offense is better than it was a year ago.

Elite pass defense vs a struggling pass offense. Brent Venables always wants to force a quarterback to beat him by taking away the run and pressuring the QB, and Jalen Hurts (like Ohio State’s JT Barrett) is incapable of carrying the offense on his own against an elite defense. I thought the same of Jake Coker last year, but the secondary busts which gifted the Tide last year’s title are a thing of the past along with last year’s lazy and uninterested safeties. Hurts’ recent ineffectiveness plays right into Venables’ hands, who has the back 4 to prevent easy chunk passes and the front 7 to stop the run and harass a QB prone to pressure.

Clemson is the healthy and deep team this year. A year ago Clemson lacked serviceable depth overall, and especially missed the downfield element of its offense in the playoff without Williams and Cain. Furthermore, the two best players on its defense (Shaq Lawson and Mack Alexander) were limited and/or neutralized by injury. This year, Clemson is a much deeper team than in 2015 and at full strength, while the Tide come in far thinner than a year ago. A thin defense (relative to last year but still elite) being asked to contain Clemson’s tempo for 60 minutes, while its own offense likely struggles to move the ball? Unlike a year ago, I LOVE Clemson’s chances.

Defending the Spread

Despite his background in the 3-4, Nick Saban adapted his philosophy to prioritize flexibility in combating the prevalence of his erroneously supposed bane: the spread offense. His 3-4 is truly more blended, and resembles a 4-2-5 when facing spread teams like they’ll find in Clemson. A simple look at the depth chart emphasizes this sort of flexibility: Jonathan Allen is listed as both a DT and DE, meaning he can play 3-4 end and 4-3 tackle. Likewise, Tim Williams plays Jack LB in the 3-4 and the opposite end when in 4-3.

Tim Williams vs Sean Pollard is a nightmare matchup for Clemson.

Clemson will of course see Alabama shift between the two alignments depending on Clemson’s formation and Alabama’s call, all without needing to substitute; this is crucial against a Clemson offense which can run multiple formations out of 11 personnel, also without substituting. More often than not, here’s how Alabama will likely align against Clemson’s 11 personnel:

This is 3-3-5 personnel in a 2 gap, 4-2-5 alignment.

Pattern Match Coverage

The most notable upgrade in this year’s Alabama defense juxtaposed against last year’s is the conventional pass rush. Between Allen and Williams, Saban doesn’t have to blitz to generate adequate pressure quite as much as he did a year ago. This means Saban can rely on his front to terrorize Clemson’s offensive line while sitting back and baiting Watson into bad throws against his trademark pattern match coverages: Cover 3 Rip/Liz and the Venables staple, aggressive cover 4/quarters, which Saban refers to as cover 7.

Pattern-match coverages, intuitively, involve defenders matching the receivers’ routes. It is a zone coverage which entails playing tight man coverage when a receiver enters a defender’s assigned zone. For cornerbacks, this means dropping into deep coverage when the opposite receiver runs a short, inside route; manning up when a receiver runs a deep route into his zone. It affords Saban the ability to play plenty of cover 3 (which brings 8 defenders down to defend the run) and defends the weak point in cover 3, the seams.

Illustration of the playcard above: Watch the free safety (F) who has two responsibilities: carry the vertical route to the deep safety and then cover the flat. He was late to the flat and UT enjoyed one of their better plays that day.
Typical of Saban when he shows two-high safeties: pattern match cover 3 in which the strong safety rolls down to robber and the free safety retreats to the deep middle. Dropping a safety creates an 8 man box to better defend the run, but he also reroutes a slot/TE to defend the 4 verticals play which led to Saban’s creation.

“Cover 7” is much more familiar to those who follow Clemson, since it is Saban’s take on the aggressive pattern match cover 4 from which Venables bases his defense. The 7 derives from covering the strong side with 4 and the weak side with 3 defenders (creating a 4 vs 3 and 3 vs 2 advantage on the respective sides of the field).

While not quite cover 7 because of the Will blitz, the back 4 is playing pattern match quarters, i.e. picking up 4 verts into their respective zones.

No matter the coverage, Clemson will need big games from William and Cain downfield. Saban likely won’t have to blitz to pressure Watson or contain Clemson’s run game. This means one on one matchups for Clemson’s boundary receiver will be at a premium against two high safeties, and the Williams/Cain rotation will have to capitalize. It’s crucial for Clemson to establish some sort of run threat to try and draw more 1 high safety looks. If Alabama can sit back in cover 7, they have a strong chance to contain Clemson.

Bottom Line

Alabama has been the best team in the country all year — but they have yet to face a team capable of taking advantage of their limitations. LSU shut down their offense, but had no offense themselves to capitalize. Ole Miss fell short in a shootout, but crumbled behind porous defense and Alabama’s return touchdowns. Like LSU, Clemson has a great defensive line and will force Hurts to beat them. Like Ole Miss, Clemson has the offense to stress Alabama but even better playmakers.

I expect this to be a relatively low-scoring affair; Watson will not run wild on Saban two years in a row, and Clemson won’t bust simple deep zones over and over to give the Tide three free touchdowns. Clemson has the defense to shut Alabama down; Hurts is ineffective when pressured and Clemson lives in the opposing backfield. If Alabama doesn’t score the non-offensive touchdowns to help Hurts out, Clemson will win by two scores. Given Clemson’s proclivity for turnovers and Alabama’s penchant for scoring on them, I expect turnovers will render this a back and forth affair.

Ultimately, Clemson is the more complete team; the Clemson defense is a horrible matchup for the Alabama offense, and on the other side Clemson has the best player in America at quarterback. Barring catastrophe (turnovers), Venables will force Hurts to beat him, and he won’t be able to. Watson will still do enough against a defense more equipped to slow him, and Clemson brings home its second national championship at long last.

See y’all in section 308.

Clemson 26, Alabama 17