Clemson-Alabama IV. This is the best rivalry in American sports right now; it may not have ancient history or hatred behind it like you’ll find in our respective Palmetto and Iron Bowl rivalries, but no other sport has seen consistent meetings — or so clearly projects to further ones — between the same teams at the championship level like this.
Clemson-Alabama IV appears the most evenly matched meeting in a series which gave us two earth-shattering endings, and should prove the most compelling despite universal malcontent with the venue; if this has to be on the West Coast at all, do not get me started on why this isn’t at the Rose Bowl (blame the Pac12 and 49ers) for what would have been the perfect setting for the most anticipated college football game in recent memory.
Both teams possess unparalleled quarterback talent with elite receivers, a stable of running backs, and dominant defensive lines which smother the passer and stuff the run. Both teams find relative weaknesses in the secondary and especially in the kicking game. And for the first time, both teams bring identical, largely unchallenged 14-0 records to the meeting; the winner can stake a very real claim for one of the greatest teams of all time.
How are you tired of this unless you’re a UGA, Auburn, or South Carolina fan (the last of which are actually Bama fans)? How could you not want to see the only two elite teams in the sport fight for supremacy each year? Because you’re either tired of the uniforms and emblems, or jealous your team isn’t at this level.
Here is the only narrative which is acceptable: Clemson-Alabama IV is an all-time meeting and the hype can not be overstated. Even if the game itself fails to deliver a captivating ending, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen such a collection of NFL talent collide at the highest stage. We should anticipate and revel in it as such, and you’ll find such treatment here.
Well if it isn’t my old nemesis. Nick Saban with his Cover 7 and Cover 3 Rip/Liz are once again all which stand in the way of Clemson’s second national championship in three years. But this year’s Alabama team is different from powerful yet limited offenses and suffocating defenses of yore.
This Alabama team is more Clemson’s mirror image than its old self, both for better and worse. I could bore you with the very same strategic outline from each of these past 3 years, but instead want to focus on those differences, particularly the personnel, with only an obligatory regurgitation of the overarching Saban defensive philosophy.
Despite his background in the 3-4, it would seem Saban has all but abandoned the traditional 3-4 in an effort to contain the frequent 10 and 11 personnel looks which have even found their way into the SEC West. We’ve seen more blended fronts and nickel sets against the Tide each year, and given Clemson’s recent penchant for 4 wide sets, I expect this will continue; though I am curious how Saban’s front will look if DE/Jack LB Christian Miller is unable to perform given his pulled hamstring. The Tide front doesn’t lack for talent, but Miller’s havoc would be missed.
With Tee Higgins’ emergence late in 2017, Clemson’s Sugar Bowl gameplan relied heavily on aligning him in the slot alongside Deon Cain to add a second deep threat. After Higgins’ injury, that gameplan was toast and Bama had only had to worry about Cain, shading a mere single-high safety toward him with little regard for any of Clemson’s tight ends or other receivers doing anything downfield. With Cain effectively bracketed in Saban’s favorite cover 3 call, it was a smothering approach and Clemson had no counter:
Like Higgins a year ago, Justyn Ross paired with Higgins is the counter which will force Saban to play more conservatively on the back end, particularly without the all-world secondary he enjoyed a year ago; this year’s secondary is comprised of new faces and has endured its share of growing pains and chunk plays, plus has to face a drastically better Clemson receiving group.
Thus, I think we’ll see more of Saban’s take on pattern match cover 4 than a year ago, “cover 7” in Saban terminology which he uses to effectively play tight man coverage outside with linebackers sitting on underneath routes and (Saban’s supposed bane but truly anyone’s) the quarterback run threat. This was the primary defense against Deshaun Watson and Clemson’s prolific receivers in 2015 and 2016:
In cover 7 Saban can cover the 3 strong side receivers with 4 defenders (corner, SS, Sam, and Mike) and cover the 2 weak side receivers with 3 defenders (corner, free safety, Will) all behind a 4 man rush. But this is old hat around here by now; it’s the personnel which bears watching this year.
There’s nowhere else to begin but with defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who came out of nowhere this season and became Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence put together. This is the one area to which I can immediately point and say, “nope, not winning this matchup no matter how Elliott and Scott scheme; double team and try not to die.”
Clemson’s run game looks great on paper, but give up on any hope of establishing much of a run game right now unless the play count or injuries mount. Clemson’s interior line is a huge disadvantage — likely the single biggest mismatch — in this contest and has been underwhelming against the few merely above average run defenses Clemson faced. There’s no way to sugarcoat it or escape it: for all my optimism found in Clemson’s receivers against Bama’s secondary, Williams is undoubtedly where I find the most pause.
Mirroring Clemson, there are playmakers aplenty up front and athleticism is found everywhere. On the next level, Mack Wilson, Dylan Moses and Christian Miller are the next in the endless waves of freakish Bama linebackers. Miller may literally be hamstrung and would be a big loss in Bama’s efforts to pressure Trevor Lawrence, but Moses is the typical Bama Will linebacker who runs like an overgrown safety flying the alley and is more than a match when manned against whichever poor tight end Clemson might send into a route.
Again mirroring Clemson, it’s in the back end where we find vulnerabilities despite no shortage of athleticism. Their safety talent is certainly stronger than Clemson’s but there are vulnerabilities at cornerback which Clemson lacks; 5 star freshman Patrick Surtain being of particular note given Oklahoma’s glimmers of a comeback came overwhelmingly at his expense.
Back shoulder throws against tight pattern match coverage were how Clemson began to find success against Bama with Watson at quarterback, and unlike a year ago Clemson has the personnel to attack with Higgins and Ross against both Surtain and the stronger Saivion Smith. The secondary’s relative growing pains have had more to do with young players refining their technique rather than busting, and even seasoned NFL corners struggle with back shoulder throws to lengthy receivers.
Strong safety Xavier McKinney is still who I consider to be the biggest recruiting miss in recent memory (not simply because Clemson hasn’t signed a true safety in years but because he was an absolute lock to Clemson until he stunned everyone) and has had a solid sophomore season. He is a freak athlete who would’ve been a starter at Clemson the moment he stepped on campus, likely quieting much of the angst with safety play this season. But it’s free safety Deionte Thompson who leads the group in experience and is the biggest hitter of the unit.
Though we saw UGA and Oklahoma have success against Bama, even on the ground, this is still a dominant defense. Clemson doesn’t have the offensive line either of those teams enjoy (nor Kyler Murray’s feet), and Clemson’s gaudy YPC numbers reflect explosiveness and poor run defense rather than dominant line play. But even a modest ground game (again, racking up the play count is key) would ease the pressure on Lawrence and eventually lead to room for Clemson’s most explosive weapon in Travis Etienne.
This is still a supremely talented Bama defense but not the experienced or mercilessly refined unit Clemson saw 2015-2017. They can be beaten and Clemson has the personnel to do so; it’s up to Lawrence, Higgins, and Ross to stretch the field like Watson, Cain, and even Hunter Renfrow did.
On the other side, key for Clemson’s defense will be withstanding Bama’s opening onslaught; Bama seemingly is up 21-0 before you can blink, while Clemson’s offense with rare exception feels its way through the first quarter before coming alive in the second and third.
Clemson should be able to pressure Tua with its front and presumably force him into rare mistakes; he’s near-perfect when given time but suffers from Superman syndrome — a tendency to try and do too much every play — resulting lately in injury and subsequent mistakes (see SEC Championship game) when he holds the ball far too long. The question will be how well Clemson holds up in deep coverage if the pressure isn’t there, or worse, if Tua finds holes underneath behind blitzes.
I do feel Bama has somewhat neglected the run in a sense and grown a bit pass-happy, but we will find a recommitted Bama run game Monday night which will try and mitigate Clemson’s pass rush and of course protect Tua. Dexter Lawrence’s absence wasn’t glaring against Notre Dame except on a few runs when Christian Wilkins was doubled, but I expect his absence will be far more noticeable against the Tide; they throw it around to build a lead but still run to win. Albert Huggins is a fine defensive tackle, but there’s no real replacement for a top 5 NFL draft pick at nose tackle.
For all the talk of Clemson’s poor secondary, the Tigers have enjoyed deceptively strong cornerback play. It’s been safeties deep and linebackers underneath where Clemson’s coverage deficiencies are found, and it’s why the primary concern shouldn’t be the outside receivers; Trayvon Mullen and AJ Terrell have the size and speed to press and prevent a clean release, forcing the timing off while the pressure hopefully reaches Tua before he finds his usual deep openings.
But Bama can pick on Clemson’s coverage with the tight end and slot positions, and it’s why Mullen and Terrell must hold up one-on-one in tight pattern match coverage. Pair it with the 4 man pressure Clemson should generate with its front (not even considering its blitz packages), and they are better equipped to stop Bama than anyone else.
Clemson-Alabama IV: A New Hope? Perhaps. All season long Alabama has been a destructive machine, a Death Star if you will, and a smaller group of orange-clad believers appears to be little threat right?
No, that was 2016; 2018 Clemson is mature, even more established, and doesn’t need last second heroics to stun the evil empire. Your Star Wars metaphors are inaccurate, and forever stanning for the Star Wars brand, I am here to correct you.
Herein lies the Star Wars film to which each meeting correlates; do not argue, for I am an unabashed nerd and this is part of my inner hype. Longtime readers know I’m overdue for a crazy tangent somewhere in here before talking about actual football stuff, and mercifully I gave you real insight first:
Clemson-Alabama I was Rogue One. A prelude to further clashes in which the overlooked upstarts sought and eventually exposed the Death Star’s fatal flaw in a losing effort.
Clemson-Alabama II was the original Star Wars (A New Hope). With the weakness exposed in the previous entry, the spunky rebels did the unthinkable; need I say more than this:
Clemson-Alabama III was The Empire Strikes Back. Despite a strong defense, the undermanned rebels were routed by giant plodding walking elephants and found out who their daddy is.
SO CLEMSON-ALABAMA IV BETTER BE RETURN OF THE JEDI OR ELSE THIS NARRATIVE IS SHOT: A FULLY DEVELOPED REBEL FLEET MASSING A DIRECT ASSAULT ON THE SECOND DEATH STAR. THE EMPIRE KNOWS ITS OLD WEAKNESS AND RECTIFIED IT BUT THE REBELS STILL HAVE THE SKILL TO DRILL DEEP INTO ITS ONLY VULNERABILITY.
Clemson has the deep weapons to attack Bama’s corners, and has the defensive front to punish Tua for holding the ball waiting for his beloved deep routes. It’s why Clemson has a real shot in this game and why even a bold few predict an outright win.
The bottom line is each defense faces a “get to the quarterback or bust” scenario. With Clemson’s stronger cornerback play and pass rush, the Tigers are better equipped to do so; each defensive line has to protect its secondary, and with the known ferocity in Clemson’s front four plus Tua’s recent propensity to do too much and put himself in harm’s way, it’s enough for Clemson to outscore the Tide.