by Chad Peltier
Most of the advanced stats projected that the national championship game would be closer than Vegas, and most commentators, predicted. It's fair to say that Alabama was favored by most analysts, and with good reason, but the numbers suggested that the Tigers were really 1A to the Crimson Tide's top ranking. S&P+ favored Alabama by only a point.
Beyond the numbers, which reflected Clemson's general excellence since Trevor Lawrence took over, there was the general, and usually safe, assumption that the Tigers' true freshman quarterback would make a critical mistake or two that would keep this postseason rivalry on Alabama's side.
Instead, Lawrence and his incredible receiving corps outperformed any reasonable expectations against the Crimson Tide defense, and Clemson rolled to a 44-16 victory. It was the largest loss of Nick Saban's tenure at Alabama. The Tide didn't score a touchdown after the first nine minutes of the game. Alabama mistakes -- Tua Tagovailoa's interceptions, the offense stalling in the red zone, and the defense allowing big plays on passing downs -- defined what was actually a close game, if you go by raw efficiency numbers.
Nick Saban agrees. "If you look at the stats of the game, the yards and all that are fairly equal," he said to the New York Times after the game. "But the score -- because of turnovers, not finishing drives in the red zone, not getting off the field on third down, giving up explosive plays -- the score doesn't indicate anything like that."
Looking just at per-play efficiency, Alabama was actually significantly more efficient than Clemson, with a 59 percent overall success rate to Clemson's 41 percent. But drive efficiency was another story. Clemson had eight offensive possessions before the game went in to garbage time. Five of Clemson's six scoring opportunities ended in touchdowns (Clemson's two non-scoring opportunity drives were early three-and-outs).
In contrast, while Alabama also had eight drives before the game went into garbage time, they had five scoring opportunities (only one less than Clemson!), but managed just two touchdowns. The Tide had three drives end on downs, two interceptions (one for Clemson's first score), and a field goal. That's a lot of missed opportunities despite an efficient per-play performance. All in all, Clemson averaged 6.2 points per scoring opportunity, while Alabama managed 3.2.
So why did Alabama's drives stall while Clemson managed a touchdown on almost every drive that wasn't a three-and-out? Well, explosive plays and passing downs efficiency. Overall, Clemson converted two-thirds of their third downs, while Alabama converted just 31 percent.
Some of Clemson's most explosive plays actually came on third down, too. Lawrence actually didn't have a successful chains-moving pass until his fifth pass of the night -- which also happened to be a 62-yard bomb to Tee Higgins on third-and-14 that would set up Clemson's second touchdown on the next play (a 17-yard Travis Etienne run). Two drives later, Lawrence would convert third-and-7 with a 26-yard pass to Amari Rodgers, who got to the Alabama 5 (Clemson punched it in two plays later). On the Tigers' first drive of the second half, Lawrence faced third-and-8, only to find a wide open Justyn Ross on a 74-yarder. He would then hit Ross again on third-and-12 and third-and-9 on the next drive, for 37 and 17 yards. Finally, he capped his incredible third-down passing with a beautifully placed third-and-goal pass to Higgins. You just don't get many better third-down passing performances than what Lawrence, Ross, Higgins, and Rodgers did against Alabama.
Of course, Alabama's defense has been a little more suspect this year than you'd think. It was still 12th in S&P+ and first in overall opponent-adjusted success rate, but they also were 14th in opponent-adjusted passing-downs S&P+. But still -- the kind of explosive success that Lawrence and company had on third down just doesn't happen to top-15 defenses. At the end of the third quarter, Lawrence had gone 8-for-11 for 240 yards (21.8 yards per attempt) on third down.
- The national championship was also a microcosm of modern football -- elite quarterbacks who can stretch the ball downfield to spectaculer receivers, with freshmen and sophomores playing starring roles because the best coaches aren't afraid to play the most talented players as soon as they're ready.
Both Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa -- two of the highest-rated quarterback recruits ever -- grabbed starting jobs from older, established starters who had taken their teams to the Playoff in previous seasons. Kelly Bryant and Jalen Hurts are both quarterbacks that 98 percent of college football teams would love to have as their starter, but they didn't offer the high ceiling that Lawrence and Tagovailoa do in terms of precision intermediate and downfield passing. Saban made that call in last year's title game, while Dabo Swinney let Bryant start this year until Lawrence was ready to take over.
Then, with those prodigious throwers on board, similarly gifted, tall wide receivers followed. Ross and Jerry Jeudy, the Clemson and Alabama leading receivers in the championship game, both averaged over 25 yards per catch and totaled more than 130 receiving yards. Higgins, Clemson's second-leading receiver, added three catches for 81 yards, including a 62-yarder, as he also averaged over 25 yards per catch. All three of those receivers are freshmen or sophomores. Higgins and Ross are both listed at 6-foot-4, and Jeudy is every bit of 6-foot-1. Jeudy and Higgins were both five-star recruits, while Ross was a near-five star and ranked 45th overall. Put simply: these offenses had the two best quarterback recruits in their classes throwing to big, incredibly skilled, young wide receivers.
That's what winning at the highest level takes -- the willingness to pull high-performing starters in favor of higher-ceilinged underclassmen, while also committing to a dynamic, downfield passing game.
Extremely efficient quarterback run games were all the rage several years ago, highlighted by Clemson's Bryant, Alabama's Hurts, and Ohio State's J.T. Barrett, but ultimately these offenses could be shut down by the highest-performing defenses. That has yet to be the case with these new offenses. Of course, we're also talking about the most blessed offenses in the country in terms of raw talent, so this trend isn't just scheme-driven. But it's a night-and-day comparison between those three teams a year ago and today (including Ohio State with Dwayne Haskins), and I'm not sure opposing defenses have caught up, or will catch up in the immediate future.
Even Clemson's defense last night, which held Alabama to 16 points, was still lit up on a per-play basis by Tagovailoa and company. That was seemingly inevitable. But the Tigers defense limited the Crimson Tide offense in the red zone and created turnovers.
Yes, this strategy is how you'd beat a lot of teams. But the point is that, until this season, the most talented teams were largely not playing that way, because they didn't think they needed to. High efficiency spread-to-run offenses were enough to beat all but the very, very best defenses. Ohio State rolled through its 2016 schedule with Barrett and the 64th-ranked passing S&P+ offense until getting slowed by Michigan State and Michigan, then getting shut out by Clemson in the Playoff. Last year, Clemson's offense was efficient enough until Alabama held them to six points in the Sugar Bowl. And Georgia shut down Hurts in the championship game, requiring Tagovailoa to save the day on a 40-plus-yard pass in overtime. This is not an indictment of these quarterbacks. It's an illustration of how that style of offense can be successful against 95 percent of defenses, but to beat the best of the best, downfield passing is seemingly necessary.
- By the way, I definitely, definitely don't think this is "the beginning of the end" for Saban's Alabama dynasty. The Crimson Tide just signed the top-rated recruiting class (again), so they'll still have otherworldly talent and the highest floor of anyone. If Alabama and Clemson played each other a hundred times, I think we'd see each team win 50 games -- this just happened to be one of the more lopsided possible results, and most games they would play would end much closer.
- Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson. We've already gone in-depth on Lawrence's insane night, especially on third downs, against Alabama. But in the Playoff as a whole, he completed 66 percent of his passes for 674 yards (9.5 yards per attempt). Lawrence only had two games this season without a pass of 30 yards or more. He had 11 games with at least one pass of 41 yards or more. As a true freshman.
- Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson. Ross was insane in the Playoff as well. Sure, he finished as Clemson's leading receiver against Alabama with six catches for 153 yards (25.5 yards per catch), but he also six catches for 148 yards against Notre Dame. He had been a deep threat all year, but he snagged six catches in the last two games despite averaging just 2.6 catches per game before.
- Offensive line, Clemson. Clemson's offensive line didn't allow a single sack from Alabama's defense, despite the Tide's Quinnen Williams and Isaiah Buggs. That's a big reason why Lawrence had time for receivers running deep routes to get open -- his line protected him even better than Alabama's protected Tagavailoa.