For the third time in four years, the Clemson Tigers won a CFB semi-final game by 20+ points. This time it came against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl and it told us a lot about the Tigers. Clemson’s schedule has often been called into question, and deservedly so. Notre Dame was the first top 25 rated team per current (Jan 2) S&P+ they’ve faced since Texas A&M. They looked really good blowing out the likes of Wake Forest, NC State, Florida State, and Pittsburgh, but that doesn’t always translate when the competition level steps up. Some felt that it wouldn’t translate:
Now we know Clemson’s dominance against a relatively weak schedule in a down year for the ACC is in fact indicative of how great this team is.
We also learned that Clemson’s offense is now - 10 games since the QB change - reaching its full potential. Justyn Ross, who always seemed to have great rapport with Trevor Lawrence has emerged as a second elite deep threat on the team. The ability to stress defenses with both he and Higgins on the field together is a game changer.
Lastly, and on a less positive note, we got more evidence that Clemson’s gaudy rushing numbers are exaggerated by absolutely shredding poor rush defenses. We had previously noted that the rushing attack had been cooled against all three top 30 rushing defenses we’ve faced (TAMU, NCSU, FSU). Etienne has an incredible combination of power and speed and used it to seal the game with a 62-yard TD run. On the Tigers’ other 36 carries, they averaged 4.1 YPC. That’s not bad by any means, but it’s not what you might expect from this rushing attacking if I told you Travis Etienne has averaged 8.3 YPC on the season.
So we’ve learned a little more and just in time for the final preview. Not only is it the National Championship, but it means just a little more that it’s against Alabama. First, a quick explanation of methodology for those who haven’t read this article series before:
In our analysis of the depth charts, we divide 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 overperform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Chris Finke) as well as those who underperform their star ratings. Additionally, there are occasions where the less talented team wins (e.g., 2016 Clemson vs. Pittsburgh), but there are exponentially more examples where the more talented team wins (e.g., 2009-2018 Clemson vs. Wake Forest, 2012-2018 Clemson vs. NC State, etc.).
What? How can anybody possibly be even slightly more talented than Alabama? Well, let’s pump the brakes a bit. Most of Clemson’s advantage here comes from Trevor Lawrence being a Rivals five-star with Tua was a four-star (one-third of the overall rating for the offenses). I’m not sure that you’d argue Lawrence is better and you certainly wouldn’t argue that he is much better. Alabama has a pretty stark talent advantage along the O-line. Here’s how their actual production compares:
Line Yards (Rushing yards attributable to the OL)
- Alabama: #2
- Clemson: #11
Power Success Rate (Rushing success in short-yardage situations)
- Alabama: #7
- Clemson: #98
- Alabama: #18
- Clemson: #16
Clemson is on par and actually a shade ahead of Alabama with the skill position talent (even with Hunter Renfrow counting as the lone 2-star) thanks to five-star WRs Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. We saw last week how much that kind of ultra-elite talent really matters. When we get to the defense, we’ll show why it is likely the key to Clemson winning this game.
Maybe more important and poignant than these head-to-head comparisons is taking a look back and how Clemson stacked up against Alabama last year. Here was this same chart from the 2017 season’s Sugar Bowl:
Last Season’s Sugar Bowl
Clemson’s QB and skill position talent has increased. Clemson is 0.20 up while Alabama is 0.20 down on the AVG star rating for the skill positions. There we point to changes in the two-deep at WR. In last year’s two-deep we had Deon Cain, Deondre Overton, and Ray-Ray McCloud. Now, those slots in the depth chart are filled by Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Derion Kendrick, respectively (while Overton continues to provide quality depth). WOW!
Now on to the defense:
This picture isn’t so pretty. Clemson’s advantage on the D-line is real, but it’s not as dramatic without Dexter Lawrence. At linebacker and in the secondary Alabama predictably holds the advantage.
Interestingly, the talent gap isn’t as troublesome as it has been in past years. Clemson holds the advantage at QB, Skill, and DL while Alabama holds the advantage at OL, LB, and DBs. Clemson’s defense has been more productive than Alabama’s and ranks #1 in the S&P+ rankings while Alabama’s offense has been more productive than Clemson’s and ranks #2 in the S&P+ rankings.
So how will it shake out?
Alabama blew the doors off Oklahoma early. By the time the Sooners found their footing, it was too late. When Alabama needed points later in the game as Kyler Murray attempted to lead a comeback, they torched OU over the middle before the blitz could reach Tua. Clemson’s defense is far better than Oklahoma’s, so there’s hope.
Alabama’s defense is #1 in success rate, but only 72nd in isolated points per play (preventing big plays). If the Cotton Bowl is any indication, Clemson’s offense is ready to attack with those sorts of plays. It hardly matters how talented the DBs are if Tee Higgins is making circus catches. Sure, Justyn Ross won’t blow by Alabama safeties like he did to Notre Dame’s, but he’ll still win his share of 50-50 balls. Clemson has little to no shot of playing conservatively, leaning on the run, and grinding out a win. The Tigers have a real shot of moving the ball just enough on just barely enough big plays to eek out a win.
Neither team has a strong special teams unit. Clemson’s ranks 99th while Alabama’s ranks 93rd, but because Alabama can rely on their power running in short yardage and at the risk of falling victim to recency bias after seeing a fumbled kickoff return (that thankfully trickled out of bounds), a missed field goal, a missed PAT, and 32-yard fair caught punt just last Saturday I worry this could cost Clemson.
I keep flip flopping on this pick. I was certain I would pick Alabama prior to going through this research, but seeing Alabama’s penchant for allowing explosive plays and Clemson’s slight advantage at the skill positions has me wavering on that. I have a hard time saying Alabama will hold Clemson under 30 points, but I also worry about Clemson’s offensive line giving Lawrence enough time to connect on the chunk plays that are absolutely necessary to beat the Crimson Tide.
Clemson has more than a puncher’s chance. They’re not a “lucky to be there” underdog. They’re Alabama’s near equal as the only two true elite programs in college football. If Alabama plays like they did against Georgia or like they did for the last three quarters against Oklahoma, Clemson will win... If Dexter Lawrence is able to play or if Alabama linebacker Christian Miller can’t play or if Tua gets banged up, Clemson will probably win...
I’ve picked Clemson in the last three matchups with Alabama, but despite that and despite what my heart is screaming, my head says Alabama will play their best game and it will be just barely enough for the Crimson Tide:
Nevertheless... Win One For Big Dex! Go Tigers!