How Alabama can win a second straight national title
The college season is coming to a close, and a new national champion is about to be crowned. For the first time since the NCAA finally decided to settle the title on the field with an actual championship game in 1998, Monday night’s showdown is a rematch between the previous year’s combatants, Alabama and Clemson. The Crimson Tide had a relatively smooth path to the big game, as their Week 3 48-43 victory over Ole Miss was not only the only game they failed to win by double digits, it was also the only halftime deficit they faced. Clemson had a much tougher road, as the Tigers suffered a loss to Pitt, and had six one-possession wins, one of them an overtime victory over North Carolina State, aided by a missed game-winning 33-yard field-goal attempt by the Wolfpack at the end of regulation.
While both teams had impressive semifinal wins to get to the finale, it shouldn’t be surprising to see Alabama is the betting favorite by 6.5 points. This being said, Clemson has plenty of talent and big-game experience on both sides of the ball, which should make for another exciting matchup between these two powerhouses.
What to watch for when Clemson has the ball
While QB Deshaun Watson is an effective cog in Clemson’s run offense (466 yards, 4.7 yards per rush on designed runs), RB Wayne Gallman is the main catalyst. 60.6 percent of his 1,089 yards on the ground this season he’s earned after contact, and he has scored 16 times while forcing 51 missed tackles. His elusive rating ranks 11th this season among all Power Five RBs.
The efficiency of the Tiger pass offense will largely be predicated on Watson’s success on intermediate and deep throws – throws that travel at least 10 yards through the air from the line of scrimmage – which made up 42 percent of his aimed attempts on the season (our “aimed” classification eliminates spikes, throwaways, passes batted down at the line of scrimmage and throws altered by a hit the QB absorbs while throwing). Watson completed 50.5 percent of his attempts in this range this season while throwing 29 of his 38 total touchdowns and 12 of his 16 interceptions. His frequency of attempts in this range is comparable to that of Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly and Washington QB Jake Browning, the two highest-rated QBs Alabama has faced this season. In Mississippi’s near-upset of the Crimson Tide, Kelly completed six of nine throws that traveled at least 20 yards downfield for 242 yards and two scores, while Browning connected on just three of nine attempts of at least 10 yards for 43 yards, one touchdown and an interception against Alabama on New Year’s eve.
Watson has plenty of weapons at his disposal, but Alabama will be most-concerned with WR Mike Williams, who could be the first wideout taken in April’s draft. He has been targeted at least eight times and caught at least five balls in each of Clemson’s last eight games, and in those games has accumulated 831 yards and seven of his 10 touchdowns. He is a dangerous vertical threat with the size to out-fight any CB in the country for the ball in the air. One area of for the Clemson offense is drops, as the Tigers have dropped 30 of Watson’s attempts this season, seventh-most among power five schools.
To say the Alabama defense has been dominant this season would be a gross understatement, as the Crimson Tide have the top cumulative grades in the country in all three defensive phases (run defense, pass rush and coverage), and by significant margins. Six front-seven defenders have run defense grades of at least 80.0, led by LB Reuben Foster’s 91.7, which is the top mark in all of FBS. Alabama’s overall missed-tackle rate (through the conference championship games) of 7.55 percent is also best in the country.
As outstanding as the Alabama run defense has been, it’s the pass rush that is the true hallmark of the unit. Collectively, the Crimson Tide have accumulated 331 total QB pressures on the season, which averages out to a ridiculous 23.6 per game. DT Jonathan Allen leads the way with 11 sacks, 12 hits and 41 hurries, and earlier this week was named PFF’s best player of 2016. Edge players Tim Williams and Ryand Anderson were almost as productive as Allen, as they combined for 19 sacks and 109 total pressures. They’ll be facing one of their most worthy opponents of the season, as C Jay Guillermo is the only Clemson starting offensive lineman to give up more than one sack this season (he’s yielded three).
The Alabama secondary is anchored by two excellent CBs, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey. Fitzpatrick plays primarily in the slot and has six interceptions and seven pass breakups while opposing QBs have a rating of just 34.2 when throwing into his coverage. Humphrey is allowing a completion percentage into his coverage of just 49.1 percent and has and has two picks and five breakups on the year. It’s worth noting in terms of the matchup against Clemson’s Williams that Humphrey plays the majority of his snaps on the left side of the defense, while Williams splits his reps almost exactly even between the right and left.
What to watch for when Alabama has the ball
Despite a plethora of future first-round picks at the skill positions, Alabama has not had a consistently dynamic passing offense. The key to stymieing the Crimson Tide’s aerial attack is getting pressure on true freshman QB Jalen Hurts. When he’s had a clean pocket he’s completed 73.8 percent of his passes for 18 touchdowns, five interceptions and a QB rating of 113.7, but when the rush affects him his completion percentage plummets to 31.2 percent, his rating to 38.2. Top WR Calvin Ridley was a dynamic home-run hitter last year, racking up 89 catches, 1,089 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015, but this season he’s seen a significant dip in production with Hurts at the helm. He’s matched last year’s touchdown total, but has just two receptions this year of over 50 yards compared to five in 2015, and his total catches and yards have dropped to 67 and 73,2 respectively.
Knowing he’d be starting an athletic freshman this season, Alabama head coach Nick Saban switched from a pro-style set to a read-option offense, and this has helped the Crimson Tide largely avoid costly turnovers and grind down teams in the second half. Hurts has 681 yards on 107 designed runs (and another 320 on scrambles), and has scored 16 total touchdowns on the ground while forcing an impressive 60 missed tackles combined between runs and scrambles. RB Damien Harris cracked 1,000 yards for the season in Alabama’s victory over Washington, but it’s “backup” Bo Scarbrough who has been the closer down the stretch. In Alabama’s last three games he’s tallied 261 yards on 47 touches, scored four times and forced 21 missed tackles. 523 of his 720 yards this season have come after contact. Not surprisingly, his 35 total forced-missed tackles on just 109 carries gives him the second-best elusive rating in the nation.
While not quite on par with Alabama, Clemson’s defense is loaded with talent at every level, starting with the defensive line. We named DT Dexter Lawrence the PFF Rookie of the Year this week, as he has racked up 46 total pressures and 30 defensive stops in his freshman season. Next to him is Carlos Watkins, who has 11 sacks and 32 total stops, and is likely to be one of the first defensive tackles taken in this year’s NFL draft. Edge defender Christian Wilkins has been another breakout performer this year, as he has 39 pressures, 27 stops and seven passes batted at the line of scrimmage. All three have run-defense grades over 80.0 for the season. The second level has gotten solid, albeit unspectacular play from Kendall Joseph and Ben Boulware, who have combined for 92 run stops but also have missed 24 tackles between them.
The back end is led by CB Cordrea Tankersley, who has been one of the best players in the country at his position throughout the year. He has posted four picks and eight pass break-ups while giving up just one touchdown, and opposing QBs have completed just 45.8 percent of their throws into his coverage this season and have a rating of 37.7 when testing him. He’s split his reps fairly evenly between the right and left sides this season, so there’s a fair chance he could be matched up exclusively against Ridley, who is generally found on the left side of Alabama’s offense.
If there’s a weak link to exploit in Clemson’s secondary, it’s free safety Van Smith. He’s given up three touchdowns into his coverage this year and a number of other long pass plays. Moreover, he’s had significant struggles tackling this season, as he has missed 14 since Week 5.
PFF stat to know
Watson’s elusiveness in the pocket is critical to his ability to work the ball downfield, and to his credit he’s done an excellent job of avoiding sacks this season. He has been sacked on just 9.7 percent of his pressured dropbacks this season, the second-best figure among Power Five schools, sixth-best in the entire FBS. He also does a solid job of not trying to extend plays too long and thereby creating pressure himself. On the season, he has created his own pressures just 10 times, and four of them came in the Week 9 matchup against Florida State. This being said, in last season’s national championship game he struggled with this, as he was charged with two sacks, a hit and a hurry against the 2015 version of Alabama.
Prediction: Alabama 23, Clemson, 20
Alabama has feasted off of opposing offenses’ mistakes all season, as Ryan Anderson’s pick six against Washington last Saturday was the 11th defensive score of the season for the Crimson Tide. While a 12th score against the Tigers is by no means an inevitability, a critical mistake or two by Watson is highly probable. His 16 interceptions are the third-most in the country this season, and he has also put the ball on the ground twice on runs. Alabama’s offense can be neutralized, but because of the defense’s ability to consistently impose its will every single week, the margin of error is zero; a margin Watson is unlikely to meet Monday night.