The wait will soon be over and the Clemson Tigers will be taking the field in the CFB Playoffs once again in New Orleans. I count myself among the many who did not think this year’s team would be able to reach such heights considering all the departures on offense, most notably the intrepid Deshaun Watson. As I have declared in some commentary on other threads, I feel the team is playing with house money from here on out. It has already cemented itself among the great teams of Clemson history with another 10+ win season, a third straight ACC title, and another decimation of USCjr. What needs to be understood is just how ridiculously rare an achievement this year’s Tigers’ season has been. Most programs replacing a player like Watson over the last twenty years have failed to come close to the heights reached while that player was there. Tennessee’s run with Tee Martin in 1998 is about the only thing that comes close to what the 2017 Tigers have already done. Southern Cal was not the same after Leinart, Auburn faltered after Cam, FSU slid post Winston, Oregon has been a shell of what it was with Mariota, etc. Alabama’s run has not been built on the back of a great quarterback as the Tide signal callers under Saban have mostly been game managers charged with not making mistakes. Kelly Bryant’s accomplishments this season have been truly remarkable and Clemson’s only loss came in a game he was barely mobile for prior to being knocked out of the contest. There is no question that Clemson’s success or failure in this game will largely hinge upon Bryant’s play. Alabama’s last loss I can think of that didn’t feature a great game from the opposing QB would be the loss to LSU back in 2011. Much like Clemson, Bama forces quarterbacks to make plays to beat them. Jarrett Stidham totaled over 300 yards total offense with a TD and no turnovers in Auburn’s win over the Tide this year.
Clemson offense vs. Alabama defense: This was truly the clash of the Titans last year as Clemson’s offense eventually won the day over a Tide unit loaded with NFL guys. Clemson’s success the last two years largely hinged upon Watson’s unflappable nature and uncanny playmaking ability, true, but often overlooked has been Clemson’s OL being able to hold up at the LOS. You certainly can’t say the Tigers OL dominated, but they also have allowed Clemson enough time in the passing game to operate as well as enough of a run game to keep the Tide honest. The Tigers have been able to line up on the goal line and score on power runs with the running back in 2015 and 2016, a feat rarely accomplished against those Tide defenses. The best news for Clemson fans this year is the Tiger OL matches up against Alabama’s front much better than it did those previous years. The Tide are good up front as usual, but not to the all time good levels seen in ‘15 and ‘16. Meanwhile, this Clemson OL is perhaps its best ever with only the right tackle position being leaky at times. What’s more, I watched both Mississippi State and Auburn line up and run it at the Tide defense in a way I just haven’t seen folks be able to do in a really long time. Clemson had to have 400 yard passing games the last two meetings to contend, but that isn’t the case this time around (thankfully).
This Tiger offense has been built on being efficient more so than being explosive. Bryant has done a masterful job of protecting the football and avoiding disaster plays the vast majority of the time. This team knows it has a great defense and the staff and players understand how to play to it. While the offensive systems are not fully alike, you can say the Clemson offense and Alabama offense attack in much the same fashion this season. Both rely primarily on the run game and run/action passing vs. drop back with dual threat quarterbacks and a stable of running backs. Both feature undersized but explosive primary receivers in Calvin Ridley and Deon Cain who offer the over the top element every good running team needs. The head coaches are clearly very different personalities, but the makeup of both programs are very similar which is why Clemson has emerged as the first real threat to the Alabama dominance of college football. Assuming neither team really busts a coverage, it isn’t hard to say the game will come down to either Bryant or Hurts completing some contested throws. Saturday night’s Orange Bowl really was decided (taking some very iffy officiating misses out of the equation) by four contested throws executed by Wisconsin vs. tight coverage.
Clemson has had a tremendous luxury of being in full control of the last few games of the season which means several wrinkles the offensive staff have put in have been able to stay under wraps. We’ve seen some of the tendency breaking early on, especially vs. Miami, such as more jet sweeps in short yardage and working Ray Ray from the backfield. Those packages have not had to be fully unleashed, but they are there to be sure. One X factor in this year’s game, unlike the last two, is both teams have had a lot more time to pour over the other and prepare. This makes executing some new wrinkles even more important. 2015 and 2016 saw Clemson absorb some early shots from Alabama before settling in and getting going as the snap counts rose. I believe Clemson has to be better early this year during its scripted portion of the game if it is going to win. As great as Bryant has been, he really hasn’t had to bring the team back from much of a deficit (and obviously wasn’t available to try to save the day at Syracuse). Thankfully Clemson’s scripted offense has been outstanding all season long, especially in the higher profile games, and the Tigers have raced to leads in nearly every game. The second X factor for this game, in my opinion, is the freshmen on offense. Guys like Travis Etienne and Tee Higgins have shown their incredible potential as they have grown into the system, but now they have the season and bowl prep under them and can be featured much more, most likely, than before.
Clemson defense vs. Alabama offense: Last year’s win really was made possible by the defense putting together a string of stops which allowed Watson and company to roll up the play count and wear the very tough Tide defense down. It wasn’t quite the feat of the 2012 Clemson squad vs. LSU but I felt those games unfolded in similar ways. Both of those defenses had control of things early while fresh, but Clemson was able to get the snaps up and gain traction behind some outstanding play from Boyd in 2012 and Watson in 2016 as well as dudes like Nuk Hopkins and Mike Williams on the outside. In both cases, the Clemson defense did not allow the ball control offenses of LSU and Alabama to control the ball and clock. It goes without saying that Clemson must stymie the Tide rushing attack and force Hurts to execute in the passing game to beat them. The Tigers are well equipped to do that with what should be a fully healthy Dexter Lawrence next to Christian Wilkins, not to mention the presence of Dorian O’Daniel at SAM which allows Coach Venables to not go small vs. spread formations.
When Hurts does look to pass, Clemson must have Calvin Ridley under wraps. The Tigers have done a great job on him the last two years, but Clemson doesn’t have that one true alpha corner like Mackensie Alexander or Cordrea Tankersley on this year’s team. Both Travon Mullen and Ryan Carter have been outstanding, for sure, but Mullen is still young and growing while Carter’s size can sometimes work against him. Thankfully Ridley is not built like Julio Jones so Carter is not as overmatched size wise as he might be. The other issue is Hurts on a scramble, which we nearly saw win Alabama the game last year. Thankfully Clemson has dealt with other scramble threats, namely Lamar Jackson, with very good success this year. The lone exception was the Syracuse game when Eric Dungey hurt Clemson with his legs on multiple occasions. Despite some of the grumbling from Alabama fans I’ve heard about Hurts, the kid is strong between the ears and not easily rattled. He also takes care of the football. Venables knows that he has to keep Hurts in the pocket and take away his first read, which will then play into Hurts’ weaknesses as a quarterback. Auburn masterfully did this by only sending four the vast majority of the time, jumping Ridley, and making Hurts hold the ball. Clemson can duplicate this and I expect fewer blitzes beyond five man pressures as to keep more guys with eyes on the QB should he try to escape. All this is predicated on stopping the Alabama run game on early downs, of course.
Special Teams: When you have teams as equally matched as Clemson and Alabama have been, this third phase becomes much more pronounced. You can make a very strong argument the 2015 game was decided by Alabama’s special teams with the onside kick and then the kick return TD. Clemson’s epic final drive last year was sparked by a good kick return by C.J. Fuller. Clemson is as equipped to hit big in the return game this year as they have been with Ray Ray McCloud at punt returner and Travis Etienne on kick return. The Tiger coverage teams have been strong all season, certainly much better than that 2015 unit. The looming question mark remains at placekicker where Alex Spence has improved but still struggles to put kickoffs in the end zone. I don’t think any Clemson fans really want to see this game come down to a Spence kick, no offense intended.
Overall: We’ve heard all bowl season about “revenge” and “angry Alabama” and how Watson is gone. Watson is gone to Houston, I’m sure Alabama is angry, but unfortunately for them, I don’t feel they have the advantage up front on either side of the ball this time around. Lawrence’s health cannot be understated, as a full strength Dex Star has largely been touted as the future #1 pick of the NFL draft. Clemson has the same tools, if not better, than what Auburn employed in its decisive victory over the Tide in December on defense. Clemson isn’t busting coverages or gaps like it did in 2015 and, to lesser degree, 2016. Barring a poor Bryant performance or unforeseen injury, I feel more strongly than ever that Clemson is the better team. I placed all my hope on Watson’s transcendence last year in my prediction, but this year it is all about this team as a whole.
Clemson 24-Alabama 14