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Clemson vs. Alabama National Title Preview: Alabama’s Offense is Fully Modernized, Oh No

Well at least we’ve done well against SEC offenses wearing red, right?

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl - Alabama v Oklahoma Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Alabama isn’t supposed to be able to pass the ball at this level and I blame Lane Kiffin for this. Remember how even a few years ago Nick Saban seemed like a relative curmudgeon, hoping to win games behind a ground control running game and quarterbacks destined to be fifth round draft picks? Turns out “is this what we want football to be” wasn’t a rhetorical question. Saban’s offenses evolved from single back schemes to spread to run before turning the reigns over to Tua Tagovailoa and this years pass first team. It’s weird, for the first time in recent memory Alabama’s defense is the relative weakness. Neither Clemson or Alabama can reliably kick, so at least we will always have that. The running game, while deadly, is a constraint. The Crimson Tide want to push the ball downfield, with five receivers averaging over fifteen yards per reception they’ve had plenty of success doing so. Clemson gave up 500 yards of passing to South Carolina pretty recently, this could get hairy. If the last three years are any indication the Tigers best chance to win, perhaps their only chance, is to win in a shootout.

Alabama gets a little greedy sometimes. While the scheme is designed to take what the defense gives, this offense knows how good it is throwing the ball and likes to use the pass to jump out to big leads before sitting on teams with the running game. Mike Locksley doesn’t have a receiver of Ridley’s caliber this year but he and his touch chart have done a good job spreading the ball out amongst gifted youngsters. Last year almost a third of passes went to Ridley, good for 97 targets. Jeudy, the second highest, had 25. There’s no one to key in on like that in 2018, with five receivers getting over 50 targets (and two backs getting 20+) Alabama is spreading and stressing defenses from sideline to sideline. Jerry Juedy is just straight up embarrassing people out there this year, he’s good enough to make “wrong” calls work because he has the ball in his hands.

Henry Ruggs III has ten touchdowns, Jaylen Waddle is averaging nearly twenty yards per reception and has a punt return TD, and DeVonta Smith caught last years’ title game winner. All of them are sophomore’s or younger. This is egregious. They don’t pay college defenders enough to deal with this.

The Crimson Tide operate mostly out of 11, 12 or 20 personnel. With four running backs, two tight ends and four receivers in the rotation, Locksley has done a good job getting his best players onto the field. He is also adept at shifting his receivers around to keep defenses from keying in on them.

Irv Smith Jr. is a matchup problem at tight end, fully capable of playing on the line, in the backfield or split wide. In other words, OJ Howard things. Smith Jr. isn’t the best blocker (Hale Hentges is, but also a marginal receiver at this point) but he can hold up at the point of attack. It’s what Smith Jr. brings to the passing game that makes him special. Alabama doesn’t regularly feature a wide receiver over 6’1”, and the 6’4” Smith Jr. fills the role very well. Because he is often matched up on a safety or linebacker, Smith Jr. can be particularly dangerous in the play-action game. Simmons, Muse and Wallace are going to have their hands full. If Lamar has to carry the tight end deep in the inverted cover two Clemson is fond of, the defensive line had better get pressure or the Tide will score.

Alabama likes to isolate its tight ends opposite the receivers, forcing teams to declare by alignment what the defense is going to give up. Either a pass to Smith Jr., a pass to the receivers or a run will have favorable numbers.

RPO’s to the tight end can also be used to slow down linebackers, like the Tigers’, that fill aggressively against the run. For example, #38 carrying the tight end here is what opens up the cutback lane.

RPO’s to the receivers stress the secondary, particularly the safeties, and Tua is particularly gifted at hitting longer developing throws.

On shorter passes, especially RPO’s, Tua relies on his pre-snap reads. This fools defenders into looking the wrong way, but also leaves Tua prone to misfires if the defense disguised the coverage or his receiver isn’t on the same page. Those misfires can turn into interceptions, and against an offense this talented stealing a possession could swing the game. With Alabama only losing two fumbles this year, this is probably Clemson’s best chance.

Alabama has a diverse run game behind an athletic offensive line. They run inside zone, outside zone (stretch and pin-pull), several varieties of power, counter, dart and draw and can feature Tua or the receivers in the running game. There’s even a wildcat package for short yardage situations. The offensive line is at its best using its athleticism on stretch plays or pulling. While Alabama produces shockingly few explosive runs its backs are efficient and good at finding the holes the OL opens.

The suspension of Deonte Brown is going to hurt the Tide here. 340 pounder guards who can pull like he can are irreplaceable. Lester Cotton got beaten out for a reason. The right side of the line are sophomores, and they’ve had their growing pains. Wills, the right tackle, is the weakest pass protector on the line. Ross Pierschbacher is experienced and one of the best centers in the country, so how Huggins and Pinckney hold up against him will be interesting. Alabama often uses its two-back formation to try and run straight at teams, and seeing it early would be an indication the Tide like the matchup.

Clemson can give this offense trouble a few ways. One, Alabama is prone to winding up in third and long. Against Miss. State the Tide struggled to move the ball against an active front that forced third and longs, then confused Alabama with exotic pressures. LSU and Georgia were able to find success blitzing as well.

Clemson has the best run defense in the country, and Venables has blitz diagrams taped to his eyelids when he sleeps. Sending pressure leaves Clemson prone to giving up big plays, and Alabama is explosive enough to capitalize. How many times Clemson is able to get home will be key. If Tua can’t escape the pocket as well due to his lower body injuries, that could be a big advantage for the Tigers.

Two, Alabama lacks size on the perimeter. Terrell and Mullen are going to have height and weight advantages on everyone but Smith Jr., and could have success pressing and getting physical. Especially if the defensive line can get home before Alabama’s deep routes develop. The Tide’s yards per reception are impressive, but they’ve been able to achieve that because Tua rarely gets pressured. Double moves and play-action take a long time. If Mark Fields is healthy there isn’t going to be a wide receiver matchup that can pick on him. If Fields isn’t healthy Terrell and Mullen may not come off the field.

Three, the Alabama running game is also best at slower developing plays, and aims to hit outside. Backside pursuit has given the Tide problems at times because they are hesitant to expose Tua to too many hits in the option game. Clemson’s ends are going to be a problem against that kind of approach, and there’s enough depth to weather what could be a long game.

Finally, The Tigers have enough talent offensively to keep up. Clemson and Alabama’s passing games are deadly. Tagavailoa and Lawrence are good enough to win the next two Heisman’s. Against an offense this good, Clemson’s best chance is to force three and outs and turnovers, and hope that the Tigers offense can score enough to cover up the big plays such an approach will give up. Oklahoma only needed to steal a possession in the second half to make it a game, and that’s after getting the hammer dropped on them in the first quarter. I don’t think Clemson’s defense will give up a lead like that, and I think the Tigers offense has a similar ability to counterpunch. This title game has the makings of another classic.

Clemson 35, Alabama 31