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10 Jan 2016

SDA: The Best Possible Championship

by Chad Peltier

The national championship is finally here, and it's pretty clear that the game will be played by the two most deserving teams. Alabama looks like an unstoppable force, while Clemson looks like one of the few teams in the country that is built to beat the Tide.

The Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State was a blowout, sure, but it also proved something about the Alabama offense. We already knew the defense was far and away the best in the country, and that Derrick Henry was the Heisman-winning focal point of the offense. What we didn't know was that Lane Kiffin and the rest of the Crimson Tide offense were adaptable. Against Michigan State, which showed it could at least severely limit Derrick Henry on the ground, the Tide turned to the combination of Jake Coker and Calvin Ridley. Henry was held to 3.8 yards per carry, but Coker was incredibly efficient, missing on just five passes while averaging 9.5 yards per attempt. With a defense as good as Alabama's and an offense capable of adapting as needed (given sufficient planning time in the run-up to the playoff semifinal), who is capable of stopping the Crimson Tide consistently?

The answer, at least this year, might be Clemson. They're certainly the most worthy challenger. Underdogs in both postseason games despite being the only team to win every game this season, the Tigers are still fighting national perception -- and backing it up with big wins. Deshaun Watson is the clear leader and will likely be the most dynamic player on either sideline in the championship game. But this season he is at least balanced by a more consistent supporting cast, which includes the steady running back Wayne Gallman and a receiving corps that runs five deep. The Clemson defense excels in the red zone and in the front seven, with Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd rivaling any of Alabama's stud defensive players. The question is not whether Clemson has the top-end talent to compete with the Crimson Tide -- it is whether they have the depth.

National Championship: Alabama (-7) vs. Clemson -- January 11, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Overall Alabama Clemson
F/+ 1 6
When Alabama has the ball Offense Defense
S&P+ 25 4
FEI 28 6
Success Rate 39 3
IsoPPP 80 109
Rushing S&P+ 16 7
Passing S&P+ 25 4
Standard Downs S&P+ 18 2
Passing Downs S&P+ 37 62
When Clemson has the ball Defense Offense
S&P+ 1 10
FEI 1 12
Success Rate 1 8
IsoPPP 71 57
Rushing S&P+ 1 19
Passing S&P+ 1 3
Standard Downs S&P+ 1 4
Passing Downs S&P+ 1 16

Though the national discussion and the Vegas betting line (Alabama -7) have the Tide firmly entrenched as the favorites, the same national media wrote off the Alabama dynasty as finished following the early loss to Chad Kelly and Ole Miss. That was obviously premature, but there's reason to believe that Deshaun Watson is at least in a similar mold as past quarterbacks that have taken down the Crimson Tide. For instance, of the quarterbacks who have recently beaten Alabama, Chad Kelly averaged 4.7 rushing yards per attempt and Cardale Jones averaged 4.1. Deshaun Watson averages 6.3 rushing yards per attempt and a 45.4 percent opportunity rate. Not only is Watson explosive when he runs, he is also his team's most efficient runner -- compared to Gallman, roughly four percent more of his runs gain at least 5 yards, and Watson averages roughly a yard more on highlight yards per opportunity.

But it's not just strong running quarterbacks who have given the Tide defense problems in the past. It's also quarterbacks who can extend plays long enough to find breakdowns in the Alabama secondary for explosive passes. The Tide's last two losses were both to teams that rank or ranked in the top 20 in explosive pass plays: Ole Miss was tenth this season and Ohio State was 15th last season. Clemson is 18th in 20-plus-yard pass plays.

But this is not the same Alabama defense that fell to Ole Miss and Ohio State last season, or really even the same defense that Chad Kelly exploited earlier this season. Yes, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart has one foot out the door on his way to be head coach at Georgia, but the Crimson Tide defense has addressed many of its big weaknesses from last season on the way to becoming the nation's best defense. Alabama's defense is best in the S&P+ ratings, the FEI ratings, rushing and passing S&P+, and in defensive success rate. Whereas last season the defensive backs were exploited by Devin Smith and the Ohio State deep passing game and Alabama was just 19th in havoc rate, the Crimson Tide defense is now best in passing S&P+ and havoc rate, and leads the country in sacks with 50.

That's where the strength of this defense lies. The Crimson Tide front seven is first in overall havoc rate and fifth in front-seven havoc, with A'Shawn Robinson eating up blockers and Jonathan Allen getting in the backfield. While you could argue the front seven has always been the Tide's strength, they managed 19 more sacks in 2015 than they had a year ago, and 28 more than in 2013. Further, that kind of pressure up front has allowed the defensive backs to thrive, ranking 11th in passes defended-to-interception ratio with 18 total interceptions (up from 11 a year ago). That's why the Alabama defensive line against the Clemson offensive line is one of the biggest matchups of the game. Despite starting a true freshman at left tackle in Mitch Hyatt, Clemson is 15th in standard downs sack rate and eighth in passing downs sack rate. Can Clemson maintain a similar level of pass blocking success against the Crimson Tide? Alabama leads the country in passing-downs sack rate, but Deshaun Watson has only been sacked 13 times (2.8 percent) this season.

Even though the Alabama defense seems to have most advantages over the Clemson offense, there is a blueprint for the Tigers to score on the Tide. First, the Tigers seem to have the edge in explosiveness. Though the Tide defense ranks in the top of almost every defensive statistical category, they are 71st in IsoPPP. Clemson's offense isn't great at connecting on explosive plays overall, ranking 57th in IsoPPP, but there's enough a separation to expect at least a few explosive plays from Watson, Hunter Renfrow, Charone Peake, and leading receiver Artavis Scott. Deon Cain led the Tigers' receivers in yards per catch and has three games with at least 90 receiving yards this year, but the big-play freshman was suspended for the Orange Bowl and the championship game. The Tigers should try for big plays on standard downs more than passing downs, as the Alabama defense seems to tighten up in obvious passing situations -- and the Clemson offense doesn't seem to connect on as many big plays when opposing defenses know what is coming (20th in standard downs IsoPPP, 109th in passing downs IsoPPP). Second, Clemson might try to use tempo to create more opportunities. The Tigers are ninth in adjusted pace, 12th in plays per game, and 17th in possessions per game.

Just like the Alabama defense, the Clemson defense seems to have almost every advantage. Ranking fourth in overall defensive S&P+, sixth in defensive FEI, seventh in rushing S&P+, and fourth in passing S&P+, the Clemson defense is undoubtedly among the elite in college football this season. While Alabama's defense may be on another level relative to the rest of the country, Brent Venables had the tougher job reloading this season after the Tigers lost most of the star power in their front seven to the NFL last year. Clemson had to replace first-round picks Stephone Anthony and Vic Beasley as well as third-rounder Grady Jarrett from the front seven, but reloaded to be even stronger than last year's group. The Tigers' defense prevented the Orange Bowl from becoming a shootout by holding Oklahoma's stud running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine to 33 carries for 67 yards. The big question for Clemson's defense in the national championship game is whether they can do the same to Heisman winner Derrick Henry.

The Tigers don't have a clear advantage in rush defense (seventh to 16th in rushing S&P+), but they do have an overall advantage in success rate (third to 39th) and in standard downs S&P+ (second to 18th). Further, Clemson's defense is fourth in standard down line yards per carry, while Alabama is just 42nd. Just as critical as the matchup between the Alabama defensive line and the Clemson offensive line is the reverse. Shaq Lawson (23.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks) and Kevin Dodd (18.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks) are the key cogs here in a defense that is fifth in overall havoc rate and sixth in front-seven havoc rate. While Lawson was injured in the Orange Bowl, his knee looks to be ready for the championship game.

But even if Clemson's defense slows Henry on standard downs, the Alabama offense showed that it can adapt and make Jake Coker the focal point of its offense. As opposing defenses have focused on Henry, Coker has had an excellent two-game stretch, averaging 8.8 yards per attempt and completing 77 percent of his passes, and he has not thrown an interception in four games. The Alabama offense is 37th on passing downs, which is good, but not great, but the Clemson defense falls from second on standard downs to 62nd on passing downs.

Clemson has to pay extra attention to Calvin Ridley on passing downs. Though he only averages 12.4 yards per catch, he leads the Alabama offense in both receiving yards and yards per catch, and is the biggest threat to connect on an explosive play on passing downs. The big personnel matchup will be Ridley versus Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Alexander is projected as a first-rounder in most 2016 mock drafts and even giving up 2 inches in height, he looks to be a formidable matchup with Ridley. Alexander was matched up with Oklahoma's Sterling Shepard for much of the Orange Bowl and allowed seven catches for 87 yards, but held him without a touchdown and under his season average in yards per catch. Clemson's defense is 100th in passing downs IsoPPP, and the Alabama offense improves from 91st to 27th in offensive IsoPPP. So even if Clemson can consistently limit Henry, that might not be enough to shut down the Alabama offense due to big passing plays on passing downs.

Two final factors that might come in to play: the Alabama offense not only has the advantage on passing downs, but also in the fourth quarter, where it ranks 28th. Clemson's defense, meanwhile, goes from an average of fourth in defensive S&P+ through three quarters to 68th in the fourth, potentially signaling depth and conditioning issues. So don't count out the Tide even if they are behind through three quarters. The Tide are fairly consistent on offense, averaging 25th in offensive S&P+.

Finally, Alabama might particularly struggle in the red zone, ranking 53rd in finishing drives (Clemson is 16th in average points per scoring opportunity) and 30th in red zone S&P+ (Clemson is fifth).

This adds up to Clemson likely limiting Henry for the most part on standard downs; Alabama holding an advantage in big plays on passing downs; and the need for the Tide to hit big plays to score, as the Tigers tighten up in the red zone. Overall, Alabama seems to hold the more decisive advantages, particularly when they are on defense, but Deshaun Watson's play will be critical in creating opportunities for the Tigers to get the upset. The numbers are close enough that turnovers and taking advantage of scoring opportunities -- scoring touchdowns, not field goals -- will go a long way in determining the outcome of the game. It's easy to imagine an Alabama blowout or close win, or a Clemson close win, but it's difficult to see Clemson winning big over the Tide given Alabama's defense.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 10 Jan 2016

1 comment, Last at 01 Sep 2016, 3:43pm by dab3dab3


by dab3dab3 :: Thu, 09/01/2016 - 3:43pm

What time will SDA be out today