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