by Ian Boyd
The bowl season wrapped up on New Year's Day with a few interesting if undramatic games. Central Florida missed their bid at another undefeated season and failed to make a case to declare themselves repeat "national champions" when they lost to LSU 40-32. Penn State dropped their contest with Kentucky and veteran quarterback Trace McSorley wrapped up his career with the Nittany Lions after a disappointing senior season.
On the more surprising side of things, Ohio State had some difficulty holding off a late surge by the Washington Huskies, who scored 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Washington's defense did indeed have some success slowing up the lethal Ohio State passing attack with their quicker, lighter linebackers and skilled secondary, but they couldn't score enough to secure an upset. In the Sugar Bowl, Texas' mascot Bevo launched a surprise attack on Georgia's mascot Uga and nearly gored the English Bulldog in a pre-game photoshoot. Then Texas' football team did something similar and jumped on the Dawgs early with a 20-7 lead before holding on for a 28-21 upset victory.
The playoffs proceeded as expected by Vegas, to the consternation of some viewers hoping for more fireworks. Clemson blew away Notre Dame with some quick-strike points in the second quarter, then cruised to a 30-3 victory. The Fighting Irish couldn't handle the Clemson pass rush, particularly from the defensive ends, and a quarter without All-American cornerback Julian Love led to the Tigers picking on them with deep passes that blew the game open.
Alabama jumped all over Oklahoma early, scoring touchdowns on their first four drives to make it 28-0 while Oklahoma was struggling to handle the Tide defensive line and game plan. The Sooners eventually figured it out, scoring on all four second-half possessions with touchdowns on the final three, but Alabama played keep-away and kept adding points to come out ahead 45-34. Notre Dame knows that once again they were not really up for the challenge of contending with the elite teams, while Oklahoma has to live with the fact that poor defenses might have cost them back-to-back national championships.
Now we get Alabama vs. Clemson Round 4, with the Tide currently holding a 2-1 lead and favored to make it three.
All times are listed as Eastern.
College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T
Santa Clara, California
Clemson vs. Alabama (-6) -- January 7, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Clemson (14-0)||Alabama (14-0)||F/+||3||1||Special Teams S&P+||99||93||S&P+||28.6||29.6||When Clemson has the ball||Offense||Defense||FEI||9||1||S&P+||5||12||IsoPPP+||22||50||Rushing S&P+||6||3||Passing S&P+||17||5||When Alabama has the ball||Defense||Offense||FEI||3||2||S&P+||1||2||IsoPPP+||9||3||Rushing S&P+||1||4||Passing S&P+||4||1|
The first two rounds of Clemson vs. Alabama looked more like "Deshaun Watson vs. Alabama" than bouts between the two programs. Indeed, in 2017 after Watson went on to the NFL, the Tigers made it back to the Playoff but were shut down by the Tide defense in the semifinal, 24-6. The Tigers have been a balanced spread offense under head coach Dabo Swinney ever since he hired Chad Morris back in 2011 and really got his program rolling. However, they haven't been able to run the ball particularly effectively on Alabama in any of their three matchups.
Instead, Deshaun Watson threw for 400-plus yards in the first two contests, and that was the reason Clemson was able to keep things close in the first game (a 45-40 Alabama victory) and come out ahead in the second (a 35-31 Clemson win). When Kelly Bryant took over in 2017, Alabama held him to 120 passing yards at 3.4 yards per attempt with zero touchdowns and two interceptions while still locking down the Tigers run game. Clemson moved to address this potential pitfall early in the year, phasing out Bryant for freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence, who exploded against Notre Dame for 327 passing yards and three touchdowns.
Much like in previous seasons, Clemson's hopes depend on Lawrence finding a cast of talented receivers down the field, particularly the 6-foot-4 tandem of Justyn Rogers and Tee Higgins in one-on-one matchups.
Alabama regularly fields an elite defensive front from year to year, and the 2018 unit is as devastating as most any other. Nose tackle Quinnen Williams is the star of the show, but the Tide also have a pair of massive and talented defensive ends in Raekwon Davis (6-foot-7, 306 pounds) and Isaiah Buggs (6-foot-5, 292 pounds) and several star linebackers led by Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson inside and Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller outside (13.5 combined sacks). While Alabama's secondary has been vulnerable at times to big plays, their defensive front is exceptional at applying pressure. In addition to their outside linebackers' 13.5 sacks, the aforementioned three defensive linemen also combined for another 19 sacks.
The big problem Alabama can cause for Clemson (or any other team) is their ability to create quick inside pressure with Williams and flush Lawrence into their defensive ends, outside linebackers, and speedy defensive backfield players. Lawrence showed really good footwork in the pocket against Notre Dame, and he'll need more of the same to buy time against Alabama. The other big issue for Clemson is how they're going to set up Lawrence to suss out the Alabama coverages and defenses in order to attack them down the field. Watson had big Jordan Leggett, a 6-foot-6, 255-pound flex tight end who could be moved around to force the Tide to reveal their coverages. Lawrence will have to lean on sensational slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and Clemson's size outside forcing Alabama into conservative calls, and then hope that they can punch through with star running back Travis Etienne against the Alabama front. It's a much better bet to be able to just out-execute Alabama on the perimeter with the passing attack, but Clemson may not have the matchup weapon they need inside to make that work.
On the other side, Clemson may have a chance to get after the Alabama offense. Tua Tagovailoa is something close to full healthy due to a surgery he had after the SEC title game, but doesn't seem totally comfortable yet. His outrageous 24-for-27, 318-yard performance against Oklahoma was largely a function of the Tide feasting on RPOs while the Sooners were sending everyone and their momma to stop the run. It was all Oklahoma could do to play off, load the box, and hope that Tagovailoa couldn't be consistent enough throwing slants, swings, and hitch routes all day. That bet didn't pay out, and the Tide lit them up throwing the ball.
Clemson will have a different plan. They'll change up their coverages to keep Tagovailoa on his toes, but they'll play a lot of coverages in which they keep both safeties deep on the hash marks and have them rob routes over the middle before closing on the run. They have a much deadlier pass rush than Oklahoma. In addition to their defensive end tandem of Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, who had 20 combined sacks this year, the Tigers also have All-American defensive tackle Christian Wilkins (five sacks) and a wide variety of linebacker blitzes they can use to get after Alabama's passing attack. They aren't going to allow the Tide to get easy reads and yardage on RPOs like so many of Alabama's opponents did, and they're going to force Tagovailoa and the offense to get out of their comfort zone and try to beat them down the field throwing the ball.
Alabama's wide receivers are usually much too athletic for teams to survive playing that style, but Clemson has some big, athletic players covering receivers outside. Cornerbacks A.J. Terrell and Trayvon Mullen are both over 6 feet tall, and slot defender Isaiah Simmons led the team in tackles and shut down Notre Dame's passing attack with his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame. It's difficult to attack the Clemson safeties, and the Tigers have sub-packages that could try to protect them when Alabama uses their 11 personnel package with tight end Irv Smith Jr. as a fourth vertical threat. If they were to slide Simmons inside and match him up on Smith with a nickel out wide on the Alabama slot, they could potentially force the Tide to try and run the ball against their own lethal front.
With Tagovailoa facing a much stiffer test than he's accustomed to, and Trevor Lawrence going up against the Alabama defense as a true freshman, this game may come down to turnovers. Short of that, the Tide look like the more balanced and complete team overall, with the Tigers probably lacking either the experience on offense or the one key weapon (flex tight end) that could allow them to pick apart Alabama's defense.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Alabama
S&P+'s pick against the spread: Clemson
Ian's pick against the spread: Alabama
S&P+ Picks against the spread this year: 46-38
S&P+ Picks against the spread in bowl season: 18-20
Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 49-34
Ian's Picks against the spread in bowl season: 15-23