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10 Jan 2017

OFI: Wearing the Tide Down

by Chad Peltier

In what is likely to go down as one of the best college football championship games of all time, Clemson managed a last-second score to upset the defending national champs and get revenge after last year's similarly thrilling contest.

In retrospect, it was a lot to ask of Alabama, who replaced their offensive coordinator last week and started a true freshman quarterback, to dual a two-time Heisman finalist. The fact that Alabama could have those clear deficiencies on offense and still go down to the wire against Clemson shows just how stable and deep the Crimson Tide are. Even in the game itself, any of several tiny moments could have swung the game the other direction. For one, Ryan Anderson was tripped up on the 16-yard line following his fumble recovery. If he had furthered Alabama's national lead in defensive touchdowns to start the third quarter, then it's possible that Clemson wouldn't have been able to muster the comeback. Or if Bo Scarbrough, who had two explosive touchdown runs in the first half, had not been injured, then Alabama might have been able to run out the clock in the second half.

Alabama had the decided talent advantage -- according to the 247 Sports Composite Rankings, Alabama has 60 blue-chip recruits with an average recruiting ranking of 92.7, compared to just 41 blue-chip recruits for Clemson with an average ranking of 89.0 -- but the combination of a star opposing quarterback playing the game of his life, a broken leg for the Tide's explosive running back, an offensive line that struggled against one of the most havoc-creating defenses, and the total lack of a passing game ultimately doomed the Crimson Tide.


  • As good as the Clemson offense looked during its final two drives -- where the Tigers managed three critical explosive plays on the 88- and 68-yard drives -- they were only sporadically successful up to that point. Overall Alabama's defense had forced two three-and-outs and two fumbles in the game up to that point. In the first half, Clemson had five punts, a fumble, and a turnover on downs, compared to just a single touchdown drive. But Clemson did manage to run an incredible 45 plays in the first half, with frequent runs that attacked the defensive perimeter, tiring the country's best defense. The disparity in defensive snaps would ultimately be felt during those final two drives for the Alabama defense -- Clemson's offense ended the game running an incredible 33 more plays than Alabama's offense. Put another way, Clemson managed to run 50 percent more plays than Alabama's offense did. More defensive snaps, like time of possession, are meaningless stats by themselves, but in context they illustrate how even Alabama's incredible depth on defense could be challenged.
  • In fact, Clemson's offense got better and better as the game went on. According to Sports Source Analytics, Clemson went from a 33.3 percent offensive success rate in the first quarter to a 44.4 percent success rate in the second, then averaged 53.7 percent in the second half. Clemson was more efficient on offense overall, with a 47.5 percent success rate to 30.3 percent for Alabama. With Deshaun Watson's 420 passing yards (7.5 yards per attempt, completing 64 percent of his passes), it should be obvious that most of Clemson's offensive success was through the air, but Clemson was still efficient on the ground with a 42.1 percent overall rushing success rate. But they managed only three explosive runs compared to six explosive passes (and ten passes over 15 yards), highlighting the clear disparity between the junior and freshman quarterbacks. Clemson would end with four receivers totaling over 90 receiving yards, including former walk-on Hunter Renfrow, who both made the game-winning touchdown and the touchdown-saving tackle on Ryan Anderson's fumble return.

    Clemson's offensive success was unexpected given their season trends in rushing success. The Tigers offense tended to struggle when the run game was ineffective -- typically a lack of rushing success forced the Tigers to put more in Deshaun Watson's hands. He would occasionally have games with 45-plus attempts, and more attempts usually led to more turnovers. Clemson running back Wayne Gallman was unlikely to have success against the country's top S&P+ rushing defense, but he only had 18 carries for 46 yards, forcing Watson to throw the ball 56 times. But Watson didn't throw any picks, and overcame early sluggishness with perfect ball placement in the second half.

  • Now that the game is over, and assuredly over the next nine months until football returns, it'll be easy to criticize an Alabama passing game that managed just 131 yards -- 68 of which came on a single play -- from its starting quarterback. And their inability to throw the ball was a critical reason for the Tide's loss -- but it wasn't the only reason. Along with a dismal 18.8 percent passing success rate and related 13.3 percent third-down success rate, Alabama's offense only managed three points off of Clemson's two turnovers, didn't do anything with a decisive 11-yard advantage in average starting field position, and was incredibly inefficient when they created a scoring opportunity, averaging just 3.5 points per trip inside the Clemson 40-yard line (compared to 6.0 points per scoring opportunity for Clemson).

    Without an effective passing game, the Alabama offense was lifeless after Bo Scarbrough's injury (which turned out to be a broken leg). The biggest margin between the two teams ended up being their passing success rate -- 18.8 percent for Alabama and 50.8 percent for Clemson. In many ways Alabama mirrored Ohio State, featuring a ground-heavy offensive attack that relied on quarterback runs. Clemson was able to generate incredible defensive havoc and limit Alabama's rushing efficiency, just like they did against Ohio State (Clemson had seven tackles for loss against Alabama). The difference is that Alabama was still able to generate explosive plays, actually tying Clemson with nine each. So the Alabama offense was one-dimensional, relying on explosive plays to move the ball against a Clemson defense that was content with allowing the occasional explosive play if it meant getting tackles behind the line and being efficient overall. And the Tigers were successful, forcing an incredible seven three-and-outs. Those three-and-outs contributed greatly to the Alabama defense's decline as the game wore on -- they simply couldn't keep the defense off the field. And the Crimson Tide defense, as deep as it was, was still without two starters due to injury.

  • It's fair to question why Alabama didn't stick to the ground game more despite Bo Scarbrough's injury. For most of the season fellow running back Damien Harris was the better player, and still entered the game as the slightly more efficient (45.0 percent to 45.8 percent for Harris) and explosive (averaging 0.7 more highlight yards per opportunity) running back. Even with Scarbrough in the game, the Alabama run game was somewhat reliant on explosive plays. Scarbrough had a 38 percent rushing success rate and a 31 percent opportunity rate, but managed two explosive scoring runs in just around a half of play. His upside was clear. But why did the Alabama running backs only get 23 carries total, including just seven carries for Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs? They averaged 4.8 and 8.0 yards per carry, respectively.

    With Alabama moving away from the ground game and without finding consistent success throwing the ball, the Crimson Tide struggled both in the red zone and with holding on to the ball to close out the second half. Alabama couldn't shorten the game with the lead like they are normally able to. Up 17-7 in the first half, Alabama had two three-and-outs, managing just 7 total yards and taking only 2:11 off the clock. Then at the start of the fourth quarter, Alabama led 24-21, but had three drives for 27 total yards, with all three drives ending in punts.

  • The Crimson Tide typically use a dominant defense to put their offense in position to score -- and they did just that against Clemson, gift-wrapping two turnovers for the offense to turn in to points -- then use a similarly-commanding run game to sit on a lead. The defense and run game, both buoyed by incredible depth, work in tandem to slowly bleed out opponents who either aren't as talented or as explosive enough to catch up. But while the defense did their part, the one-dimensional offense couldn't do its part to convert incredible field position into points. On both Alabama drives following Clemson fumbles, false starts killed both drives by taking the Tide off schedule.

    In the end, Alabama was unable to overcome a transcendent talent at quarterback, a havoc-generating defensive front seven, a completely unreliable passing game, and an offense that overall couldn't ride out a lead. The result was that even the country's best defense couldn't hold on to the lead forever, as Watson and company grew steadily more efficient as the game went on.

Posted by: Chad Peltier on 10 Jan 2017

2 comments, Last at 11 Jan 2017, 2:05pm by Aaron Brooks Good Twin


by andrew :: Wed, 01/11/2017 - 12:41pm

In retrospect, it was a lot to ask of Alabama, who replaced their offensive coordinator last week and started a true freshman quarterback, to dual a two-time Heisman finalist.

But he's a dual threat....

by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Wed, 01/11/2017 - 2:05pm

"In retrospect, it was a lot to ask of Alabama, who replaced their offensive coordinator last week and started a true freshman quarterback, to dual a two-time Heisman finalist."

While "dual" is a nice pun, I think you meant "duel".

The thing about this sentence is, both parts of it were caused by Saban's hubris. He volunteered to put himself in a bad position. Alabama's inability to move the ball in the second half is on Saban's choice to let a drunk drive a freshman QB. Alabama's history tells us they don't need brilliance, only competence.

Now, that said, the real issue was Scarbrough got hurt. The least important position in college football is Alabama QB. Ohio State's kicker was more important to their season's outcome than Jalen Hurts was to Alabama's. Hunter Renfrow made more season-saving plays in this game than Hurts made all season.