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Clemson-Alabama III: Scouting the Tide Defense (Again)

Sick of these guys yet? Nope.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson-Alabama III. Is it merely the third chapter in what seems a perpetual postseason series, or is this the final chapter in an epic trilogy? Is this contest the latest in an ongoing soap opera with an open-ending conclusion? Or the conclusion to a trilogy which has all but defined the budding College Football Playoff era? I lean towards the former, since Clemson and Alabama are now the unquestioned perennial powers/dynasties in college football and this is unlikely to be the final Swinney vs Saban contest.

Say what you will about Alabama’s inclusion in the playoff (count me among those who would’ve placed Ohio State at 4 even before watching the Cotton Bowl) but there is no doubt Bama is very much national champion material. While I think neither of these 2017 Clemson and Alabama teams come anywhere close to what each were in 2016, there are no teams in this playoff field anywhere near that level, and as such, this year the trophy chase is wide open in a relative down year for college football.

I’ve struggled trying to figure out how exactly this contest will unfold. I’m on record with only two incorrect predictions in the last 3 years (2016 vs Pitt and 2017 vs Syracuse) meaning I was correct in both of our previous contests with Bama, though each saw more points than I imagined. And since this is the third straight year diving into the Bama defense, there will of course be a bit of redundancy regarding scheme and alignments. The differences this year will be found in personnel match-ups. Sure, Deshaun Watson and company won’t be on the field for Clemson this time around, but neither will Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, A’Shawn Robinson, or Reuben Foster for the Bama defense. It’s lazy to suggest only Clemson had major pieces to replace.

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 (counting the Jack linebacker as a weak side defensive end) when facing spread teams like they’ll find in Clemson. In fact in both previous meetings, Bama ran its 4-2-5 almost exclusively against a much better Clemson passing attack than they’ll face this year.

Bama showing its 4-2-5 against Clemson’s empty set last year. Notice Jack backer Ryan Anderson on the line, and the back 7 aligned in pattern match cover 7 (4 defenders covering 3 on the strong side; 3 defenders covering 2 on the weak side).

I wonder if Bama will employ its base 2 gap 3-4 more than the last two meetings against what is a run-first Clemson team, but ultimately think Bama will stick with its 4-2-5; not only because Hunter Renfrow is too quick to be defended by anyone but a corner, but because of Clemson’s recent penchant for 10 personnel (4 WR) with Tee Higgins in the slot has revitalized Clemson’s aerial attack. We’ve seen Kelly Bryant look his best in his last two outings, though I expect Bama will still try and defend Clemson the way they did Mississippi State’s run-oriented spread: with a crowded box and Minkah Fitzpatrick brought back inside to the nickel position.

Pattern match coverage is nothing new to those who pay close attention to both Clemson and Bama, but with the talent employed in the Bama secondary it truly does blur the line between man and zone at a level unseen anywhere outside of the NFL. Pattern match coverages, intuitively, involve defenders matching the receivers’ routes. In a nutshell, it is a zone concept 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:

“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 own 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). And with Bama perennially fielding the most talented defensive backfield in America, a numbers advantage becomes all the more suffocating.

More often than not, Clemson should expect to see these two base coverages from a Bama defense which 1) is affected by injuries and 2) won’t have to be as exotic against a much simpler Clemson passing attack. The real question is will Bama still run cover 0 inside the 10 yard line ;)

When looking at the specific Bama personnel, things begin to look a bit more promising for Clemson, at least up front. Only Da’Ron Payne at 0 and 1 technique defensive tackle jumps off the screen relative to what the Tide fielded up front a year ago. Jack linebacker Anfernee Jennings will operate as a rush DE, but he is not on the level Ryan Anderson was a year ago when he was far and away the most disruptive defender in the national championship game.

Da’Ron Payne will look to disrupt Clemson’s best run blocking combination on inside zone: combo blocks from Justin Falcinelli and Taylor Hearn

At linebacker, all that seems clear is Rashaan Evans starting at Will. He’s been Bama’s best and most consistent linebacker in a year which has seen a rash of injuries. Which players may return given their time off remain to be seen.

It’s in the secondary where I see Bama with the greatest advantage. Clemson is much smaller out wide this year and likely will not find the same success in single coverage or back shoulder throws as they did last year against the Tide. Safety Hootie Jones was lost for the remainder of the year against Auburn, and this only amplifies the spotlight on safety/corner/nickel/superstar Fitzpatrick. He will align all over the field and probably never come off of it. His versatility allows Saban plenty of options to likely more than handle Clemson through the air unless Bryant turns in another transcendent performance like he did against Miami’s strong defense.

Clemson-Alabama III is far more uncertain than were the previous two contests. In each of the first two meetings, the offenses outdid themselves and found more success against either of the respective defenses than I expected. I simply don’t see the same level of offense from either team this season and the outcome will likely come down to quarterback efficiency: which QB can better protect the ball and make something out of nothing?

Both Kelly Bryant and Jalen Hurts have protected the ball well this season and made good plays out of bad situations. But Bryant has played better and better since early November, whereas Hurts has let defenses dictate his reads with woefully sporadic results. Alabama’s offense runs through its backs, but defenses have successfully forced Hurts to keep the ball himself on zone reads and RPOs. Combine Clemson’s success at harassing QBs (boasting top ranked QBR defense in the country) and at taking away short passes, Hurts faces a far more daunting task than Bryant does.

If Bryant is as patient and efficient as he’s been throughout the season, Clemson should be able to stay in this low-scoring game. If he’s as dynamic and on-point as against South Carolina and Miami, Clemson could find itself in a far less dramatic spot than the last two years against the Tide. As always, the reality is somewhere in the middle, and it’s enough for Bryant and his defense to overcome Hurts and his.

Clemson 21, Alabama 13