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Blue Chip Depth Chart Analysis: Clemson vs. Alabama Sugar Bowl Preview

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The #1 seeded defending National Champion Clemson Tigers are underdogs according to Las Vegas.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a special time to be part of the Clemson family.

In a supposed rebuilding year, fresh off a National Championship, the Tigers will head back to the playoff and face a powerful blue blood. Over the past couple years, Swinney and company have faced some of the best coaches in the game. The list of national championship winning coaches they’ve defeated in bowl games includes Les Miles (2012), Urban Meyer (2013, 2016), Bob Stoops (2014, 2015), and Nick Saban (2016). Since Brent Venables has been on staff at Clemson, the Tigers have beaten a Championship-winning coach in a bowl every year. Our staff is racking up wins against Hall of Famers like Danny Ford’s teams did in the 80s.

So, before we delve deep into analysis (and we’re about to go deep), I want to remind our readers to enjoy this run. It will not last forever. Swinney, Venables, Elliott, Scott, et. al. will not be here forever. Imagine, two decades ago, asking a Tennessee fan if they could ever envision going 0-8 in the SEC and making the fourth best hire in the conference (surely behind Mullen, Fisher, and Morris). They would have rightfully scoffed. Hopefully (probably) we’re never there, but we won’t be here forever. Enjoy this!

Now, let’s turn our attention to the most talented team in the country and one of the trickiest to analyze. To start, we look at who they’ve played en route to their 11-1 record.

The Tigers undoubtedly have the better resume, hence earning the #1 overall seed. Alabama, to no fault of their own, played a relatively soft schedule. Their opponents from the East, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, happened to be the two worst teams in the conference and their huge season opener against FSU became tarnished as the Seminoles skidded to a 6-6 record. Alabama has played four S&P+ top 40 opponents (Auburn, LSU, Fresno State, Mississippi State). One of those ended in a loss and another is a Group of Five team.

Clemson has played five S&P+ top 40 teams (Auburn, Louisville, Miami, VT, Wake Forest). Per S&P+, Clemson has three wins (Louisville, Miami, Virginia Tech) better than any Alabama has earned (LSU). Context is important though. LSU, had turned their season around by the time they faced Alabama. Alabama is LSU’s only loss in their last 7 games. I’d pick LSU to beat Louisville, Miami, or Virginia Tech today.

With that background let’s move on to the breakdown of recruited talent. For our first-time readers, please see the caveat in italics below.

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, Eric Dungey) as well as those who underperform their star ratings. Additionally, there are occasions where the less talented team wins (e.g., 2017 Clemson v. Syracuse), but there are exponentially more examples where the more talented team wins (e.g., 2009-2017 Clemson vs. Wake Forest). As such, we also rely on other traditional and advanced metrics and offer this article as just only one of the analyses we will publish on the upcoming game.

It should not be a surprise that Alabama has more recruited raw talent than Clemson. They have two five-star running backs (Harris and Scarbrough), two five-star receivers (Ridley and Jeudy) and a five-star left tackle. The exceptional talent on their offensive line has been a major key to their program’s long-term success. They have a strength there and without Lane Kiffin calling the plays, they’ve been content to stubbornly run behind it. In fact, 66% of their offensive plays (carries/carries+pass attempts) have been runs.

Alabama averages 6.0 yards per carry compared to 4.87 for Clemson. It’s because of this and better ball protection (Clemson has 14 turnovers, Alabama has just 8) that the S&P+ ranks Alabama’s offense above the Tigers (19th vs. 35th). Fortunately for Clemson, the Tigers boast an elite defensive line that can go toe-to-toe with their one-dimensional offense.

Clemson has moved towards a more run-heavy offense this season, but at just 56% run, it’s dramatically more balanced than Alabama’s offense. Kelly Bryant has thrown for 2,678 yards on 244/362 (67%) passing. This compares very favorably to Jalen Hurts who has thrown for 1,940 yards on 135/222 (61%) passing. What’s also interesting is how those receptions are distributed. The Tigers have five 200-yard receivers, while the Crimson Tide, being more focused on getting the ball to Calvin Ridley, have only two.

Couple this with how Kelly Bryant has looked in his last two contests and how Jalen Hurts looked against Auburn (12/22 122 passing yards) and it’s hard not to think the Tigers have the advantage in the passing game. With the balance Bryant provides this offense, the Tigers may have the better overall offensive unit, despite what the advanced stats say.

Next, we look to the defenses, which is where these team’s have made their marks this season. Clemson ranks #2 and Alabama #3 in the S&P+ defensive rankings.

The hot topic with Alabama’s defense is the health of their linebackers. In their 3-4 system, they have approximately 1,000 5-star linebackers (this might be a slight exaggeration), but injuries have made an impact nonetheless. I compared their posted Sugar Bowl depth chart back to their Week 1 depth chart. Here’s what I discovered:

  • The first and second-string SAM linebackers from Week 1 - Christian Miller (bicep) and Terrell Lewis (elbow) - have been hurt, and although not listed on the Sugar Bowl depth chart, are supposed to return to practice play in the game.
  • The first and second-string MIKE linebackers from Week 1 – Shaun Dion Hamilton (knee) and Mack Wilson (foot) – have been hurt. Hamilton remains out while Mack Wilson, despite not being listed on the Sugar Bowl depth chart, is expected to return to practice play in the game.
  • The first and second-string WILL and JACK linebackers on the Sugar Bowl depth chart match the Week 1 depth chart, however freshman five-star linebacker Dylan Moses suffered a foot injury in practice and will not play.

(Note: If any Alabama experts have updates, please share in the comments below.)

It appears Auburn got to face the Tide at a more advantageous time. This extra time off will serve help Alabama get their defense healthy. Many think getting these players back will be the difference in the game. It certainly may.

Three weeks ago, the smart bet would be on Alabama’s defense completely baffling Kelly Bryant and controlling the game, but after stellar performances from Bryant against South Carolina and Miami, I’m not so sure that’s still the case. While Miami’s offense has been reeling, their defense is still relatively healthy and playing well. The only team besides Clemson (38) to score over 28 on Miami this year was Toledo, and that was the game that followed Hurricane Irma at the beginning of the year.

Some worry that New Orleans’ proximity to Tuscaloosa will be an advantage, and a heavily Crimson crowd will help pull them through. Alabama has lost their last three Sugar Bowls (Utah, Oklahoma, Ohio State). Interestingly, they won the National Championship Game in New Orleans in 2011 when they played LSU in front of a heavily gold and purple crowd.

Prediction:

Clemson’s offense likely isn’t dynamic enough to win while losing the turnover margin by two like they did last year. Nor will have the luck of the Auburn Tigers to get them at home while their linebacker corps is depleted.

It’s been a long while since I’ve picked against Clemson in a game preview (though I had the Tigers going 11-1 last season and 10-2 this season). There’s only one team in the playoff that I would pick to beat Clemson, and...it’s not Alabama.