by Chad Peltier
That was about as good of a national championship game as you could have hoped for. With five lead changes, Alabama and Clemson were clearly well matched as the two best teams in the country this season. The game wasn't decided until the final failed Clemson onside kick, which ended its comeback attempt.
It was a one-score game until Kenyan Drake's 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which moved the score to 38-27 with 7:31 left in the fourth quarter. Otherwise, it was a back-and-forth explosive slugfest throughout the night. Special teams ended up as the critical difference between two otherwise equal opponents. Both team had explosive plays -- eight for the Tide and five for the Tigers. The Tigers were more effective picking up first downs (31 to 18 total), though Alabama was better on third downs, at 50 percent to 43 percent for the Tigers. Alabama won the turnover battle at plus-1, but Alabama had two huge special teams plays that swung the game in their favor. The Tide had the aforementioned kickoff return for a touchdown as well as a surprise onside kick from Adam Griffith with ten minutes left in the fourth quarter. Alabama ranked sixth in kickoff efficiency according to the FEI special teams efficiency rankings, but the kickoff return for a touchdown was surprising, since Alabama is 125th in kickoff return efficiency. Clemson, at 119th in kickoff efficiency, clearly had coverage issues that were the difference for Kenyan Drake.
The onside kick recovery was critical because it allowed Alabama to reclaim the lead once and for all. Alabama had just tied the game at 24 with a field goal, which began a series of back-and-forth scores in seven straight possessions that added forty points to both teams' totals. The Tide then followed that field goal by trying an uncharacteristic gamble with an onside kick that they then quickly turned in to another touchdown on a 51-yard O.J. Howard reception.
Speaking of the tight end, O.J. Howard was the unexpected star of the game, totaling 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns for the Tide.
- The Alabama offensive output consisted almost entirely of explosive plays. Alabama had not been that explosive all season, but Clemson's defense, which ranked 109th in defensive IsoPPP, had certainly allowed enough explosive plays that this was not much of a surprise. Jake Coker averaged 13.4 yards per pass with seven explosive passes (Derrick Henry had the lone 50-yard explosive touchdown run in the first quarter). Two of those explosive passes were long touchdowns to O.J. Howard -- his first touchdowns of the season -- as Howard did his best imitation of the Washington Redskins' Jordan Reed, a total mismatch even when the Clemson coverage wasn't broken. Coker's statline is interesting. While he threw for a total of 335 yards with seven explosive plays, even including the explosive plays he had a 48 percent passing success rate. On non-explosive passes, he had a 28 percent success rate -- so if it wasn't a big play, it often wasn't successful for the Crimson Tide. But once Lane Kiffin and Coker saw what they had in Howard (and eventually ArDarius Stewart), they could repeatedly go back for assured big plays. Three Crimson Tide receivers -- Howard, Stewart, and Richard Mullaney -- averaged more than 29 yards per catch, while star freshman Calvin Ridley was held to six catches for 14 yards as his routes barely moved beyond the line of scrimmage.
- The Clemson defensive line harassed Jacob Coker -- especially in the first half, when Coker had 17 dropbacks for a net total of 58 yards (that includes four sacks for -24 yards). The second half was a totally different story, as Coker had the bulk of his 335 yards and five of his seven explosive plays after halftime. And those first-half totals are all because of the Clemson defensive line and the Alabama protection. Of Clemson's five sacks, all were on first or second down, not in obvious passing situations. Clemson's defense was the best in the country in standard downs sack rate heading in to the game, and Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson proved why with their first-half performance. The Clemson defensive line also made things difficult for the run game on standard downs. Derrick Henry averaged just 2.6 yards per run on 16 first-down carries. He had only four carries go for more than 3 yards, and none more than 7. Finally, the Clemson defensive front managed six sacks or tackles for loss on first downs alone.
- Not to be overshadowed, the Alabama defensive line lived up to its billing as the top-ranked run defense in the country by S&P+. Clemson averaged 3.8 yards per carry as a team, and Wayne Gallman had a 36 percent rushing success rate, while Deshaun Watson had a 39 percent success rate. Outside of a 39-yard run on the second-to-last Clemson drive, Gallman had thirteen carries for 6 yards on the night. Alabama totaled seven tackles for loss on a total of 38 carries, meaning that the Clemson offense had an 18 percent negative play rate on runs. The Crimson Tide were first overall in overall havoc rate.
- The Clemson defensive front did its job, stopping Derrick Henry apart from the one 50-yard explosive touchdown run in the first quarter. While you certainly can't brush that run away -- Henry completely ran away from the secondary and displayed incredible straight-line speed -- the Tigers defense otherwise lived up to its billing as the seventh-ranked rushing S&P+ defense for the rest of the game. Henry had a 43 percent success rate overall, but his offensive line had a rough time, giving him just a 26 percent opportunity rate. Including his 50-yard run, Henry averaged 4.4 yards per carry; without it, that average fell to just 3.1. Both Heisman finalists had their moments, and Henry weathered 36 carries, but Clemson certainly needed Deshaun Watson more than Alabama needed Henry.
- O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama. The unquestioned star of the game, O.J. Howard was the surprise big-play threat for the Crimson Tide passing offense. Calvin Ridley received all of the attention from the media and Clemson secondary, but Howard had five catches for 208 yards -- an average of 41.6 yards per catch. His receiving yards in the championship were a little more than 50 percent of his season total entering the game.
- Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. No one was more responsible for his team's success than Watson. All of the pregame analysts were correct -- Watson would need a near-perfect effort to take down the Crimson Tide defense. He amassed 405 passing yards and 73 rushing yards, with one interception and a 64 percent completion rate.
- Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson. The other surprise star was (as we heard numerous times in the broadcast) Clemson freshman walk-on receiver Hunter Renfrow. Renfrow wasn't exactly unknown to Clemson fans, but he was fifth on the team in receiving yards entering the game. But Renfrow was Watson's go-to receiver with Deon Cain suspended, hauling in a team-leading seven receptions and two touchdowns.
- Kevin Dodd, DE, Clemson. Kevin Dodd wasn't nearly as well-known before the Orange Bowl, when he filled in for the injured Shaq Lawson. But the Clemson defensive lineman took advantage a seemingly slower Alabama offensive line for an insane five tackles for loss and three sacks on the night. You can guarantee that Dodd's name won't be overshadowed next season if he decides to return.
- Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson. Shaq Lawson was a game-time decision, but he fought through his injured knee for two tackles for loss and two sacks as part of a near-unstoppable duo with Kevin Dodd.