The Alabama Crimson Tide are set to face Clemson in the playoffs for the third consecutive year. Clemson finds itself in the position of being more highly ranked and the defending champions this time around, but remains an underdog according to Vegas and S&P+. After the last two years I expect this game to go to the wire either way.
The Alabama offense looks different this year from the unit that Lane Kiffin coached. Brian Daboll’s offense runs the ball nearly 2/3rds of the time, with four excellent running backs complementing lead ballcarrier Jalen Hurts. The jet sweep Kiffin loved has been mostly replaced with more pro style shifting. Daboll, the Tide’s 3rd offensive coordinator in under a year, appears to be trying to combine a spread option running game with a pro style intermediate passing game.
The Crimson Tide base out of 11 personnel, almost always from the shotgun or the pistol. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. is not as athletic as OJ Howard was, but is versatile enough to flex out wide. In addition Smith Jr. is more physical and a better blocker. He’s third on the team in receptions, although Alabama receivers not named Calvin Ridley have had a disappointing season. Backup tight end Hale Hentges isn’t thrown to much, but is a threat in the red zone, where the Tide often have two tight ends on the field.
The Tide have always had talent up front, and that remains true, with center Bradley Bozeman and left tackle Jonah Williams standing out. Left guard Ross Pierschbacher has typically been solid, but missed the Iron Bowl. The right side of the line is a little slower and generally less productive.
Alabama mostly runs inside zone, outside zone, counter, draw and power. The Tide haven't always ran inside zone well this year, conceding more penetration at the point of attack than you’d expect. Auburn’s elite defensive line was able to keep blockers off their linebackers, who got to the ball rapidly. Between Wilkins, Lawrence, Huggins and co. I’d expect the interior offensive linemen to have their hands full.
Hurts is still a threat on zone read keepers, especially from the pistol, but has carried the ball inside more this year. Hurts has always been incredibly strong, and he is at his best using that strength between the tackles. Power read remains a foundational piece of the Alabama offense. Daboll has added a few new ways to either get his running backs the ball in space or Hurts running up the middle against a poorly matched front. One is an RPO with the offensive line blocking QB draw or counter and attaching it to a RB flare from the backfield. Focus too much on Hurts and Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Najee Harris or Josh Jacobs gets the ball with a lot of room to work.
Alabama has taken a Chip Kelly staple, outside zone with a midline read, and used it heavily. By switching the read key from an end to a tackle Alabama is able to throw off attempts to scrape exchange or slow play the option. College defensive ends deal with the option almost every week, defensive tackles are slower and less used to it.
Outside zone might be Alabama’s best running scheme, in no small part because Alabama’s receivers and tight ends block in space as well as any unit in the country.
Hurts will get the ball on called QB runs, often away from trips. Alabama has a deadly play action look off it.
A lot of Hurts passing production comes from short passes to the sidelines. Hurts has grown as a passer this year, particularly in attacking the middle of the field, showing some comfort running concepts like dig pivot.
The Tide vary who runs which routes, but the ball is almost always going to Calvin Ridley. Ridley has been targeted more often than the 2nd-4th most prolific receivers combined. How Clemson is able to cover him will go a long way towards deciding the game. Ridley didn’t play well in the last matchup, but Clemson doesn’t have the same caliber of corners this year.
Hurts makes the right reads, though he is extremely risk averse, and will not try to force a pass that might be there. Alabama has been able to live with short gains and passes thrown out of bounds if it means not turning the ball over. Hurts doesn’t throw well on the move which limits Alabama’s ability to run bootleg or roll out passes.
Hurts tends to drop back very deep in the pocket, especially when pressured. He’s a capable game manager, but has yet to throw twenty-five passes in a game this season for a reason. If Clemson’s front, which is as good as any in the country, can shut Alabama’s running game down the Tide may be in trouble.
Alabama has struggled at times with pass protection. Blitz pickup has been hit or miss. Mississippi State was able to generate pressure on third and long with stand up pass rushers and pressure from linebackers/safeties. Clemson is athletic and experienced enough up front to do that. Brent Venables has had a lot of time to think of and install pressure packages.
Alabama struggled on third down in last years title game, as well as in a close win against Mississippi State this year and a later loss to Auburn. The Tide’s ability to avoid passing downs will go a long way towards determining how successful they are on offense.
Another thing to watch is play calling. In the loss to Auburn no running back carried the ball more than six times, and against Mississippi State no running back got ten carries. The Tide were only able to generate 112 yards on the ground against LSU, and 44 of those came from Hurts.
It should be noted that Vegas expects Alabama to score more than thirty five points, and each of the last two games between these teams have been high scoring. Between both teams slower pace this year and the talent on defense I don’t expect that, but I’ve been wrong before. A lot will come down to how long Clemson is able to stay on the field on offense, Alabama was able to take advantage of a tired Tigers defense last year. Clemson is well positioned to win this game, and in a year we expected to spend rebuilding that’s more than you can ask for.