by Ian Boyd
We're finally down to the last two teams standing, and once again it's Clemson and Alabama. The Crimson Tide under head coach Nick Saban are basically annual guests in college football's championship process. Their superiority along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball is their key feature to perpetually being a team that can run the ball and stop the run. In the last few years the Tide have added the ability to rush the passer to their defense with standout edge-rushers like Tim Williams, Jonathan Allen, and Ryan Anderson, who took the SEC West by storm this year with more than 24 combined sacks.
Clemson's house is built on Deshaun Watson in the spread offense. The gifted dual-threat quarterback overcame Alabama's talent advantages in the trenches last year with his ability to evade the pass rush and deliver accurate balls to his cast of skilled wide receivers.
The main characters from the epic struggle between Alabama's defense and Clemson's offense in last year's final return, so if anything, the stakes and entertainment quality of the showdown should be even greater. This is high-caliber football that we'll be treated to, and it shouldn't disappoint.
The game time is listed as Eastern.
National Championship: Clemson vs Alabama (6.5) -- January 9, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
The crux of this game may come down to the fact that Clemson is elite on both sides of the ball, while Alabama is only truly elite in one facet this season. It's common for people to suspect that the Alabama offense isn't great, but previous Tide offenses, while not always prone to lighting up the scoreboard, were often nearly impossible to shut down.
Championship-winning quarterbacks like A.J. McCarron and Jacob Coker ensured that opponents couldn't devote the resources necessary to stonewalling the dominant Alabama run game without being left exposed to their passing attack. In last year's championship victory over Clemson, Coker passed for 335 yards on 25 attempts (13.4 yards per attempt) and two touchdowns. He also took five sacks, which cost Alabama 31 yards, but it was a winning trade for the Tide.
Alabama's offensive skill positions include lethal wide receivers like ArDarius Stewart (852 yards and eight touchdowns this year) and Calvin Ridley (733 yards and seven touchdowns), as well as tight end O.J. Howard (489 yards and two touchdowns), who torched Clemson last year for 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns. These three players are very good, but Alabama has seen a marginal decrease in passing success this year with freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts in Coker's place.
This was particularly evident against Washington, who held Hurts to 57 passing yards at 4.07 yards per attempt. The Huskies couldn't shut down the Alabama run game, and running back Bo Scarbrough ran wild on them for 180 yards and two touchdowns on just 19 carries. Nevertheless, it's clear that Alabama doesn't have quite the same balance or ability to leverage all of their offensive talent in 2016 like they could in 2015 with a more effective passing game. They still have an elite run game, but their offense may not be elite like it was in previous national championship runs.
Clemson is shockingly still good on defense despite once again turning over a significant part of their roster and plugging in new faces. Redshirt freshman defensive end Clelin Ferrell and freshman nose tackle Dexter Lawrence have been essential new components who have managed to match the production of Tigers in years past. In fact, Ferrell dominated Ohio State with three tackles for loss and a steady presence on the edge that thwarted the Buckeyes' designs to run the ball on the perimeter with their option rushing attack. The Tigers will have a much tougher task dealing with Alabama's offensive line, which includes left tackle Cameron Robinson, a future first-round draft pick, along with some very strong companions to his right in left guard Ross Pierschbacher and center Bradley Bozeman. They're a better unit than the young line from Ohio State that Clemson just devoured.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables loves to dial up aggressive game plans when he can get away with it, and Ohio State provided a useful tune-up for Alabama by presenting many of the same features on offense. The Buckeyes and Crimson Tide both have running quarterbacks this year and both like to use power-read and zone-read schemes to force opponents to deal with their quarterback and running back simultaneously. Clemson handled this with a combination of blitzes and schemes that allowed their safeties to actively involve themselves in limiting space for the Ohio State run game.
That style puts a lot of pressure on the Tigers' secondary but cornerbacks Cordrea Tankersly, Marcus Edmond, and Mark Fields were up to the challenge. The biggest concern for Nick Saban in this game has to be whether or not his freshman quarterback can attack the Clemson secondary effectively enough to allow enough space for the Alabama run game to breath in.
While Alabama's offense this year is very strong and the Clemson defense as good as most any other they've had, the other side of the ball is the real money match-up. Clemson's offense features multiple players who will have NFL attention for their prowess in the passing game, while Alabama's roster includes several players who will have NFL attention for their ability to defend the passing game.
On the Clemson side, it all starts with quarterback Deshaun Watson, whose dual-threat abilities allow Clemson to run the best spread schemes that exist in the modern game. They can run the option, they can snap the ball to Watson and have him immediately take off behind lead blockers, they can mix in outside pass options to run plays, they can flood the field with four or five excellent wide receivers and let Watson drop back, or if all else fails they can count on him scrambling for time or yardage.
When you have a quarterback with the skill to handle all of that, it becomes very easy to plug in skill players around him to thrive. That said, Clemson has other talents on offense as well that allow them to get after opponents. Tight end Jordan Leggett is arguably the best of the bunch, and his 641 receiving yards and seven touchdowns don't speak to how much stress he can create in the seams for opponents. The Tigers love to flank him with slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, who had a coming-out party in this game last year when he ripped Alabama for 88 yards and two touchdowns.
On the outside Clemson boasts big receivers Mike Williams (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) and Deon Cain (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) both of whom are favorite targets for Watson on outside passes, and neither of whom Alabama had to worry about in this game a year ago. That addition alone probably puts a lot of fear into Nick Saban, since his defense was similarly elite last year and couldn't contain a Clemson passing game that only had Charone Peak on the outside to worry about.
Last year Alabama eventually fell to rushing three guys, using athletic linebacker Rashaan Evans to spy on Deshaun Watson, and then dropping seven defenders into coverage to try and contain the Tigers. It worked alright, but they might be more aggressive with the blitz this time around in search of better answers because Watson and these receivers can beat coverage. Clemson has a great offensive line, but they'll be under enough pressure trying to deal with all of the threats Alabama can put on the field without worrying about a frequent variety of stunts or blitzes.
The Clemson run game is very effective, but they haven't had as much success with it when facing big fronts filled with NFL players like Ohio State or Alabama can boast of. When push comes to shove, they rely on quarterback runs to stay ahead of the chains. Against Alabama last year Watson was sacked twice and ran the ball 18 times for 87 yards at 4.8 yards a run. This year against Ohio State Watson was sacked twice and ran the ball 13 times for 74 yards at 5.7 yards per carry with two touchdowns.
It's hard to get enough numbers to the point of attack to stop these runs by Clemson when the running back becomes another blocker for Watson up front, and it's their second best trump card. Their ultimate trump card is rolling with a five-wideout set and overwhelming opponents with the combination of Watson's dual-threat abilities and their loaded cast of receivers all working in a great deal of space.
Alabama's hope for handling this will come from having one of the nation's most athletic defensive backfields, if not the very best. They'll play mostly a 4-2-5 nickel package against Clemson that includes four defensive backs who can lock people down in man coverage with cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett, safety/nickel Minkah Fitzpatrick, and nickel Tony Brown. Their other safety, Ronnie Harrison, is a big, intimidating player at 6-foot-3, 218 pounds, and he finished second on the team in tackles behind All-American linebacker Reuben Foster. The Tide can force teams to execute in limited space as well as any defense in college football -- better in fact. Their only problem in this game is that the perfect pass beats good coverage.
- Can Alabama throw the ball well enough to ease pressure off their run game, or do they need to in order to move the ball on the Tigers?
- Does Alabama try to sit back in coverage against Deshaun Watson or do they attack him with the blitz?
- Clemson's young defensive line includes some amazing young talents, but are they ready to go toe to toe with Alabama's big offensive linemen with NFL futures?
- Does the team that throws the ball better win, or does this still come down to the run game?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Alabama
S&P+ ATS Pick: Clemson
S&P+ Picks against the spread in the regular season: 35-49
S&P+ Picks against the spread in the Bowls: 12-23
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 47-72
This was a tougher year for S&P+ in picking against the spread, but it still stands as a solid metric for its performance over the last few years.