How Clemson could pull off the title win over Alabama
Nick Saban and his Alabama Crimson Tide enter Monday night’s national championship game as seven-point favorites, looking for back-to-back championships and their fifth title in the last 8 years. In order to accomplish that feat, the Tide face arguably the most talented offensive team they’ve faced in any of their national championship game appearances. After last year’s 45-40 battle, these Clemson Tigers are at least familiar with the Crimson Tide. What will it take to turn Clemson’s talent and confidence into victory and give the Tigers their first football national championship in 36 years? And what from last year’s game will travel from the Arizona desert to south Florida?
Any game of this magnitude has obvious talking points and “keys to the game.” Alabama’s vaunted defense, including PFF’s Player of the Year in Jonathan Allen, and the pressure they create versus two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson and the best set of skill players the Tide has faced all season. The Tigers’ defense, coming off a shutout and domination of Ohio State, against Bama’s always strong running game and true freshman QB.
In this rematch, the two biggest “macro” points – turnovers and special teams – that became the difference in last year’s game could show up again. As a team, the Tigers’ average a tick under 2 turnovers per game (26 in 14 games). Watson was actually second nationally in interceptions with 17 and his percentage of turnover-worthy throws is 33rd among 144 FBS qualifiers. He threw two picks early in the Ohio State game that the Buckeyes were unable to turn into points – a problem we know Alabama is not likely to have, given its astounding ability to take those turnovers in for touchdowns. In addition, Clemson was in the bottom half of Power 5 conference teams in special teams grading this season and allowed a kick return touchdown to Alabama’s Kenyan Drake last year.
Putting aside those (obviously rather large) issues, these are the more “micro” keys to Clemson pulling the upset and reaching the top of college football’s mountain:
Alabama defensive line (and front-seven) fatigue
One of the biggest differences between this year’s dominant Alabama defense and last season’s is the amount of depth along the defensive line and front seven. In 2015, Alabama had 14 players in the front-seven play at least 150 plays on the season, including seven defensive linemen and seven linebackers. In the championship game alone, Clemson ran a total of 90 offensive plays. Alabama’s defensive snap breakdown for that game:
- 11 front-seven players played at least 20 snaps, including six defensive linemen and five linebackers
- Five defensive linemen played at least 39 snaps (most snaps by any one D-linemen was Jarran Reed’s 49)
- LBs Reuben Foster (87) and Reggie Ragland (79) were the only two front-seven players to play more than Reed’s 49 snaps.
Now let’s compare that to this season. The Tide has only had nine front-seven players play more than 150 snaps (four defensive linemen and five linebackers). While it is obviously more beneficial to keep your best players on the field the majority of the time, Alabama was much better suited to play an up-tempo, 90-snap defensive game last season as compared to this season. In fact, the most snaps played in a game this season for Bama’s top three defensive lineman was in their victory against Arkansas, when Jonathan Allen played 66 snaps, Dalvin Tomlinson 62 and Da’Ron Payne 59.
In last year’s game, Alabama pressured Watson on 19 of 57 dropbacks but was only able to sack him 3 times (he also had 7 carries for 49 yards on scrambles). Thus, Watson’s ability to avoid the rush (sixth-best in FBS at avoiding sacks when pressured) and create plays with his legs will become more and more of a factor as the play count rises and fatigue likely sets in.
We all know the kind of player Deshaun Watson is, what he is capable of, and the show he put on in the championship game last season. However, sometimes lost when examining last year’s game is just how well then-Alabama quarterback Jake Coker played. He was under pressure often and delivered big plays when under that pressure. In fact, Coker was pressured on 18 of 32 dropbacks (56 percent) – by far the most Alabama allowed in any game last season. When he didn’t get sacked (5 times) or run (twice), Coker under pressure went 7-for-11 for 231 yards and 2 TDs (146.8 QB rating)
Compare that to this season, where, for as good as he’s been as a true freshman starter in the SEC, Jalen Hurts has mightily struggled under pressure. PFF’s Gordon McGuinness and Josh Liskiewitz highlighted these struggles earlier in the week.
Under pressure, Hurts was 63rd of 70 Power 5 quarterbacks in completion percentage, and 60th in quarterback rating.
The most intriguing piece of Hurts’ statistics under pressure is the “how often” component. On the season, Hurts has been pressured on 29 percentage of his dropbacks – putting him in the middle of the pack among eligible Power 5 QBs. Prior to last year’s championship game, Coker had been pressured on 34 percent of his dropbacks. Coker was then pressured on 56 percent of his dropbacks in the championship game. If the Tigers are able to get to Hurts at the same rate they have all season (20 total QB pressure per game on average) and a similar rate as last season’s championship game, the Tide may have a difficult time sustaining offense.
The most simplistic of all keys – tackling – is something Alabama traditionally does better than any team in college football, with this year being no different. The Crimson Tide has only missed 72 tackles all season (5.1 per game), with the most in any one game being 7. The interesting part of this statistic is how it pertains to the rematch. Last season going into the championship game, the Tide defense was even better — only missing 65 tackles (4.6 per game) in the first 14 games. However, in last season’s championship game, Alabama missed 15 tackles – and this was without dynamic WRs Mike Williams and Deon Cain playing. Thus, if Clemson’s ample stable of skill position talent is able to force missed tackles on par with their season average (14 per game), then, like last year, big plays will ensue.
Alabama is the favorite Monday night, but if Clemson can fatigue the Crimson Tide front-seven and pressure Jalen Hurts, and Deshaun Watson wreaks havoc with his arm and legs, the Tigers can win their first national championship since 1981.