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Title Game Preview: Clemson vs. Alabama

Clash of the Titans: Part 4

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff-Head Coaches Press Conference Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

So this is it folks, the one we have all expected and waited on since the clock hit zero in New Orleans last season. All the chips are in the middle of the table and both players are holding strong hands, staring the other down with steely determination and a belief he will win.

There is little doubt that both of these staffs have had folks within the program working on the other. Alabama isn’t the only team to do this type of thing. Now it will come down to who can execute and impose its will on the other in some form or fashion. Most of the time, the national championship game features one super heavyweight facing a strong opponent who is a bit of an upstart in some ways. Many times, that upstart has found a way to win, like Ohio State did in 2014 and Clemson in 2016. Alabama was the four seed last year but few would call them an upstart considering they have boasted the most talented roster in college football every year since at least 2011. For the first time, we have the ultimate heavyweight bout in the final game between undefeated and dominant teams with game changers on both sides of the ball. The two senior classes featured have won over 100 games and every title. It is quite possible the #1 overall pick of the 2020 and 2021 drafts are facing off. The only real downer in this equation is the NCAA’s brainless decision to use San Francisco as the site over a traditional bowl location. Win or lose, the greatest Clemson senior class ever have honored their families, coaches, University, and fans with their efforts on and off the field. Clemson nation salutes you, class of 2018!

Clemson defense vs. Alabama offense: While the clunker game against the cluckers took this year’s Tiger defense off the mantle of greatest of the Dabo era, it’s still right there at the top and strong in the right places to challenge what is easily the greatest Alabama offense of all time. I don’t care who your secondary is; if you can’t cause problems with your front four against this Tide offense, you are going to be toast eventually. Look no further than the LSU game when even their loaded back four couldn’t hold the Tide down completely. Of course, LSU struggled mightily to get pressure on the quarterback. Mississippi State, however, provided a lot of positive film and gave a fully healthy Tua some real problems for chunks of that game. Of course, the Bulldogs had little hope their one dimensional offense could complement their defensive effort, and they folded. This was not much different than what we saw in the Sugar Bowl last year.

I still believe the problems Clemson has had in the back end from time to time are a result of focus lapses, rather than ability. While Tanner Muse, K’von Wallace, etc., are not top-of-the-draft board talents, they are certainly very capable players when they are dialed in properly. We saw a very dialed in effort vs. Notre Dame and the Clemson defense dominated that pretty good offense. Alabama presents the challenge of having elite speed at the WR position which has consistently punished corners and safeties who don’t get proper depth or take proper angles. Technique and physicality are going to be essential for this game in order to offset some of those issues. For example, Will Fuller would win a race with Mackensie Alexander every time, but Mac shut Fuller down in 2015 by being stronger and smarter, as well as knowing his DL was going to get to the quarterback before too long.

The Alabama offense is going to make some plays... there’s no question about that. It will be up to the Tiger defense to limit the damage, hold to some field goal attempts, and find a way to take the ball away a time or two. It is especially important for the Tiger defense to come out hot, as it has done in many big games of the Venables era, and provide the Clemson offense time to break down the Tide’s defensive approach. Alabama simply cannot be allowed to run off to the two or three score lead early on as they’re accustomed to doing. Even the 2015 and 2016 games saw the Tigers fall behind early and teeter on the edge of getting knocked out before they got things going.

Nick Saban has come around to allowing his offense to sling the ball, but he is very apt to get antsy and irritated with his offensive staff if things go awry in any way in that regard. The Tigers also have to play without Dexter Lawrence, who all but assured double team attention on every snap. Of course, like last week, Clemson can benefit from having the more explosive ability of Albert Huggins IF the team can stay sound on the Tide’s inside running game. It is hard to see either team finding much room on the inside runs, but the one who can find it with any consistency will have a serious advantage. As usual, the Tide have a stable of very good running backs to throw at the Tiger defense.

You know the Tide are going to throw some packages with Tua and Jalen Hurts in the game together at Clemson. Clemson was rock solid on the trickery Notre Dame attempted, and the defense will again need to be ready for some chicanery with a Tua/Hurts package. The biggest advantage Clemson should have, in my opinion, is inside with Wilkins and Huggins vs. the Tide’s guards and center. That advantage would be only greater if Dex were available, but it is what it is. Austin Bryant is coming off an outstanding game against the Irish and another performance on that level could elevate his draft stock significantly. It isn’t hard to remember Kevin Dodd’s rise to second round status on the back of the 2015 playoffs, and most notably the Alabama game.

The final question is how aggressive Brent Venables will be in this game, especially early. Will he show a bunch of pressure looks but back out, a la the South Carolina game of 2017? Or will he come with pressure early and often as he did against the Irish last week? Tua is the type of quarterback who has the makeup to be problematic, of course. He is mobile, though how healthy he really is remains a question, and he has shown the fearlessness to keep his eyes downfield even amid guys bearing down on him. That UGA game last year showed Tua’s makeup as very special, as he faced serious adversity with a bad turnover and a bad sack taken, but still rallied the Tide to victory with some unreal plays. He is very, very tough to get off his game.

I still believe an opponent has to surpass 28 to truly feel it can beat this Clemson team. Alabama surely has the firepower to do that, but likely would need at least three explosive touchdowns in order to do it (barring turnovers on the other side). I certainly feel there will be some opportunities for the Tigers to turn the Tide over, but the secondary simply can’t miss the chances they had in the Texas A&M game.

Clemson offense vs. Alabama defense: Tua is the package that can beat the Clemson defense, as noted, but Trevor Lawrence presents the same kryptonite for the Alabama defense. Other than that low scoring game against LSU way back in 2011 and the kick six Auburn loss since then, it has taken a gunslinger quarterback with some mobility and fearless demeanor to topple the Tide. Johnny Manziel, Chad Kelly, and Deshaun Watson all fit the bill of guys able to extend plays and give zero @#$%s about putting the ball into some tight spots. Hit them? Big deal. Pick them off? They shrug it off. While Trevor is not as laterally elusive as Manziel or Watson, he can run. Lawrence hasn’t looked off his game at all since the very beginning of the year against Texas A&M and has laughed off a few big hits he’s taken.

I have very little doubt the Clemson offense will find ways to attack this Alabama defense. As long as all world DT Quinnen Williams is not allowed to be a one man wrecking ball all game long (though he will make some plays, for sure), the Tigers can beat the Tide’s back four with Ross, Higgins, Rodgers, and Renfrow. I’m not sure Alabama’s safeties can run fill as well as Notre Dame’s, which prevented at least three explosive Etienne runs during last week’s game and as long as the Tigers can keep the Tide having to worry about #9, good things can happen over the top.

I think Alabama will risk a targeting ejection to knock Lawrence out of this game. I believe Saban would go there, especially after seeing what they tried to do to Watson. Trevor will need to be smart about how he runs and anticipate somebody launching on him as much as he can. While I believe Dabo didn’t insert Lawrence with Alabama in mind after four games, there is no doubt Alabama has been in the mind of the offensive staff all spring, summer, fall, and now winter. Beating Alabama requires running just well enough and making plays in the air. Only the Ezekiel Elliot led Buckeyes were truly able to run the ball at will, so to speak, on Alabama, and even then they had the deep ball gunslinger (with very little film available) Cardale Jones to help keep the Tide honest.

Clemson has gotten its perimeter screen game working again, at least well enough to get an easy 4-6 yards if the numbers allow, and that is a big thing to remember going into this game. Staying ahead of the chains will be job 1, especially early, as the Clemson staff gets a sense of the Tide gameplan. While I echo the frustrations of many folks on here about some of the early scripted plays the Tigers have used this season, there is no doubt that Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott have been terrific at adjusting in game and getting to things that hurt the opposing defense. Slow starts against FSU, Wake, Duke, etc, all eventually turned into routs with explosive plays coming by the bundle.

The stacked four wide formation proved lucrative for the Tigers in the Notre Dame game. Having a fast, physical force like Justyn Ross in the slot is a major problem, especially if you are trying to give Hunter Renfrow extra attention on the other side. Clemson showed off the slot wheel and crack/go actions last week which should give the Tide defensive staff something to think about with how aggressive they want to be.

Special Teams: Both fan bases can collectively roll their eyes on some aspects of this phase of the game. Neither punter is getting any Ray Guy awards any time soon. Punting was a big problem in last year’s game as Clemson was unable to flip the field and get that part under control. All we can do is hope Spiers can produce and not let the Tide offense set up shop around mid field as it seemed they did the majority of the game last year. Clemson missed a field goal last week, had an extra point blocked, and nearly lost a fumble on a kick return. Those are obviously things that cannot be afforded when playing a team of this magnitude as the Tide will no doubt make the Tigers pay. Likewise, Alabama’s shaky kicking game could rear its head and tilt things in Clemson’s favor as well. It is a very interesting X factor to watch.

Overall: I’ve been hyped for this game for a long time now. There used to be a lot of those games where you felt really unsure going in, which adds a level of anxiety and, of course, potential euphoria should the game go well. I’ll be the first to admit being a little spoiled by the dominance of this Tiger team. I have surely enjoyed it, but I have rarely felt much anxiety since that Syracuse game when Chase Brice and Travis Etienne saved the day. There is no question that I, along with every Tiger fan, will be on the edge of my seat from opening kick to the end of this one. No amount of a lead will feel safe and every play will feel like a must-have.

I don’t know how it will go. I do feel pretty strongly that if Clemson can get out of the first quarter very close, or even ahead, that the Tigers will win. There is a lot more veteran moxie on this team in respect to this stage than what the Georgia Bulldogs possessed when they blew healthy leads two years in a row to Alabama. The Tide will look to race out of the gate and then pin their ears back defensively against the Tigers as they strain to get back in the game. The Power Rangers came back, most of all, for this very moment, and they know they have the weapons on the other side to get it done if they bring it. Win or lose, it has been, and continues to be, an amazing time to be a Clemson Tiger fan. I wouldn’t want any other roster than the one we have heading into this one.

Let’s do this.

Let’s be legendary again.