Three factors that will decide the Alabama-Clemson title game

Jake Coker's play, Clemson's running game and the Tigers' defense are all key factors in this season's national championship game.

| 10 months ago
(AP Photo/LM Otero)

(AP Photo/LM Otero)

Three factors that will decide the Alabama-Clemson title game

Both Clemson and Alabama made strong statements in their semifinal wins Thursday, and are set to face off in the national championship game of the College Football Playoff.

What will decide this one? We’ve identified the three biggest questions using our PFF grades and data.

1. Can Clemson run against Alabama?

If the Tigers’ run game was a straight-forward downhill attack, there is little chance they could compete with Alabama’s defensive front (the Tide have the No. 1 run-defense grade in the country, and absolutely dominated Michigan State), but their ability to create deception from misdirection, and also use quarterback Deshaun Watson as a runner, should give them a chance to move the ball.

Running back Wayne Gallman was fantastic against Oklahoma (+4.2 run grade), and one of the best backs in the country all season (+18.9 run grade, 15th in nation), so that’s a good start. But Watson is going to be the key in this one. He is used a variety of ways in the Clemson run game, having rushed for 774 yards on designed runs this season. Whether keeping the ball on the option, or running a designed quarterback counter/power run, Watson negates some of Alabama’s advantage in the trenches, as another defender must be assigned to him at all times. Throw in Clemson’s general use of misdirection and jet-sweep action, and they have a chance to move the ball on the ground against a ferocious Alabama defensive front.

But it isn’t a great chance, because of how excellent Bama’s run defense is. Nose tackle Jarran Reed (+40.2 grade versus run, No. 2 in nation among interior defensive linemen) and defensive end A’Shawn Robinson (+24.6, No. 16 in nation) are legit stars, but the Tide’s depth might be even more impressive. Alabama shuffles strong run defenders in and out all game as part of its seven-man defensive line rotation, and have a similar group at linebacker, where seven positively-graded players all see action.

2. Which Jake Coker will show up?

All season, the X factor for Alabama’s title run has seemingly been quarterback Jake Coker. To this point, the Tide have won games without his best effort, relying heavily on that stout defense and Heisman Trophy running back Derrick Henry. While the defense and run game made Alabama a playoff contender, strong play from Coker makes them a true title contender, and he played one of his best games against Oklahoma in the semifinal (earning a +4.0 grade).

For Coker, it’s less about playing great, and more about avoiding the disasters — of which he’s had four this season (four games grading at -2.3 or worse). If he can get the ball to his playmakers, namely freshman wide receiver Calvin Ridley, the Alabama offense should have enough answers to score points against Clemson. They work well when it’s a Henry-centric offense and a few big plays complement his pounding running style. If Coker holds up his end in the formula, Alabama will be tough to beat, but bad Coker opens the door for a Clemson defense that has playmakers at every level.

3. How good is Clemson’s defense?

Clemson’s defense has been outstanding this season despite a number of key losses: first-round defensive end Vic Beasley (+32.8 grade last year), fifth-round DT Grady Jarrett (+53.4 grade, and pegged by PFF as a first-round talent), first-round LB Stephone Anthony (+27.2), and CB Garry Peters (+26.3). DE Shaq Lawson has emerged as a first-round prospect in his own right this season (+37.7 overall, 14th among edge defenders), but his health situation is unknown for the championship game after playing only seven snaps in the semifinal due to a knee injury. Clemson’s depth shined through, however, as fellow DE Kevin Dodd stepped up with 12 pressures against Oklahoma, and he leads Clemson with 60 pressures on the season.

The linebacker level is well-equipped with B.J. Goodson who always seems to find the football and his +25.1 overall grade backs that up. He’s Clemson’s best second-level run defender and likely to get a few shots at Henry head up. As for the secondary, SS Jayron Kearse still has to show he can cover in man situations, but his +10.5 run grade will be key as an extra defender against Henry. CB Mackensie Alexander will likely draw the assignment against Alabama’s top playmaker, Ridley, and while he hasn’t been as clean as some of his draft prospects indicate (many pegged him as first round lock), he’s given up only 258 yards on 56 targets this season.

Even with Lawson banged up, Clemson is strong all across the defense and they’ll provide plenty of resistance to Alabama’s power run game and Coker’s downfield shots.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

  • Backinmd

    Like both teams but think Bama’s defense will start to wear them down in the 3rd quarter … Alabama wins with Henry having a big game . Last night’s game took a little wind out of the Big Ten’s sails ..Alabama’s defensive line is one of the best I’ve ever seen and i said seven, eight weeks ago Ala. is the best College team in the Country even though Coker isn’t rated in the top ten college QB’s …

  • Tim Edell

    No team in college football can line up and try to beat Alabama with smash mouth football. The way to beat them is to spread them out and have a Mobil QB. The thing that worries m in this game is Clemson does not have a very good OL and Bama should absolutely dominatevthe line of scrimmage.

  • crosseyedlemon

    It’s only been 110 years since the Tigers last beat Alabama so I guess you could say they are due.