For the second year in a row my own personal nightmare in writing this blog has come to fruition. I grew up with Dabo Swinney and graduated with him from Pelham High School in 1988. He’s a friend and he’s a person whom I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for. To pick against Dabo is to pick against my childhood, my teammate, my classmate and my friend.
And then there’s the University of Alabama. My father went to school there and, when I was just three years old, he indoctrinated me into the mystique, tradition and aura that is Alabama football. When I graduated from Pelham there was no question where I was going to school and no other schools were even considered (although I did whimsically send my ACT score & transcripts to Hawaii – sadly, I was not accepted). Being an Alabama fan is all I have ever known and Alabama football has given me some of the best moments of my life. Going to games with my dad and being with him in New Orleans for the 1992 National Championship are memories I’ll cherish forever. To pick against Alabama is to pick against my father, my degree, my classmates and my team.
And yet, once again, I have to chose between these two outstanding teams.
Last year the Bama Lighthouse scouted, analyzed and scrutinized the Tigers and what we found was a ridiculously talented team that appeared to be every bit as talented as Alabama. At the end of the day, our analysis pointed to the difference between these two teams being Deshawn Watson’s penchant for throwing interceptions and Alabama’s strength and superiority on special teams. As it turned out, Watson threw a pick that Alabama turned into a touchdown and Saban’s onsides kick and Kenyan Drake’s kickoff return for a touchdown created a dramatic victory for the Crimson Tide. In short, our analysis was spot on.
Neither friendships nor diplomas factored into picking the winner last year and they will not factor into our pick this year, either. Once again, we’ve broken down tape, analyzed matchups and used our film studies to come to our conclusions. And, once again, we should all be in store for an epic game that we’ll be talking about long after it’s played…
So, let’s get to it. This week we reviewed Clemson versus Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Florida State and NC State. It was an exhausting research project and, as a result, we have more notes than we know what to do with. That said, here’s the What to Watch For (W2W4) in the Tide v Tigers national championship tilt, Version 2.0…
Alabama on Offense
For all of the talk about the irresistible force that is Deshawn Watson and the dynamic Clemson offense versus the immovable object that is Reuben Foster, Jonathan Allen and the steel curtain of the Alabama defense, Alabama’s success or failure when their offense has the ball will determine the final result of this game. Like last year, rest assured that Clemson’s offense will most certainly put up some points. So, the question then becomes whether or not the Tide’s offense can keep pace.
The distractions of the Lane Kiffin circus have been removed, only to be replaced by the distractions of “Sark Week.” Steve Sarkisian hasn’t called plays as an OC since 2008 (he did call plays as the USC head coach in 2014) so the change in coordinators isn’t a change to take lightly. Changing coordinators one week before a critical playoff game would be upsetting to a 14-year NFL veteran quarterback so the fact that it’s happening to an 18 year -old true freshman should not be discounted, either. Changing the OC is a big, big deal.
Across the field, defensive coordinator Brent Venables employs an uber aggressive defense that ranks third in the country in generating tackles for loss. When you turn on the tape of the Clemson defense you see Venables dialing up virtually everything under the sun to generate pressure in the backfield. We saw 3 man rushes and 7 man rushes and everything in between. Against Virginia Tech he even rushed zero and sat 11 men in coverage! In the back end you’ll see man to man coverages, zone coverages , zone blitzes and pretty much everything else you can think of. It’s very confusing for a QB to decipher – in fact, Clemson’s defense picked off 20 passes this season which is actually four more picks than Alabama’s vaunted defense had this season. Honestly, Clemson’s schemes are pretty cool to watch…unless you are trying to call plays against it.
Up front, Clemson uses three thick, athletic defensive linemen who all play at over 305 pounds. And, unlike Washington’s small linebackers, Clemson’s linebackers are no runts either, each playing at 235 pounds. This is a defense that looks every bit like the Tide defense that played in last year’s national championship game. Remove A’shawn Robinson, Jarren Reed and DJ Pettway and insert Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence and you wouldn’t tell a lot of difference other than the fact that Clemson’s front is even bigger. Yikes.
So, it’s going to be a very tall order for Sark to dial up plays that Jalen Hurts can execute confidently on Monday night. And, all night long in the back of his head Sark will have to be wondering “am I reaching this kid and giving him plays he feels comfortable with?” And, if the offense starts slowly, will Jalen Hurts be wondering, “Does this guy know what he’s doing?” A fast start will be very, very important for the Tide this week – they must have success early.
Here’s what to watch for when Alabama has the ball…
Perimeter Plays are Back: Last week against Washington we told you that Alabama’s biggest success would come between the tackles. This week, bubble screens, fly sweeps and running back sweeps should be back with a vengeance. On tape, when Clemson gave up a big play in the running game it was typically outside the hash marks.
Point, Counter Point: Time and time again teams picked up big yardage against Clemson with counter plays. Plays that would start in one direction would cause Clemson’s hyper-aggressive defense to fire into the running lanes at the snap. Opposing offenses took advantage of this by starting in one direction and then countering to the opposite direction. Pittsburgh, in particular, was very good at this. And, nearly all of Dalvin Cook’s 169 yards rushing came off of counter plays.
Bootlegs: Many teams used play action bootlegs to get their QB outside of the blitzing Tigers and this was very effective. Last season, Jake Coker converted a huge 3&3 on a naked bootleg inside the Clemson 10 yard line. Jalen Hurts is perfectly suited for bootlegs and rollouts so look for Sark to move the pocket Monday night.
QB Runs: Virginia Tech QB Jerod Evans rushed for two touchdowns between the tackles off of zone read keepers. It was tough sledding for him as he rushed 17 times for only 62 yards but he was one of the few runners who found room between the tackles. And, when Clemson rushes just three or four, while they are able to push the pocket they often do not apply much pressure. Opposing QBs have easily broken containment and pick up yards when Clemson only rushes their big guys so Hurts’ scrambling should be a weapon.
Misdirection: Two of OJ Howard’s huge catches last year came on a play action run fakes in one direction while OJ slipped out undetected in the opposite direction. Pittsburgh also used their tight ends in a similar fashion against Clemson this season. Look for Bama to generate the flow one way and then sneak OJ out in against the flow.
Up Field Rush: Clemson’s defensive ends are hell bent on getting up the field and, at times, offenses were able to take advantage of this. The ends would take themselves out of the play by coming up the field hard and running lanes would open up behind them.
Zone Defense: Clemson played waaaay more zone defense than normal last week against Ohio State, presumably because they were playing a mobile QB. Look for Venables to call for a heavy dose of zone coverage and zone blitzes this week. If he does, 5 yard hitches and quick crossing throws underneath should be the order of the day.
Bama’s Best Matchups: OJ Howard on any of the Clemson linebackers should be a big win for the Tide but perhaps Alabama’s biggest mismatch could be Ardarius Stewart on Clemson’s 5’9 corner, #31 Ryan Carter. If Hurts spies Carter in a one on one situation with Stewart, he should just throw the ball up and let Stewart go get it. At 6’1, 210 lbs, the former runner up in the state long jump should be able to elevate over Carter and come down with the football.
Running Backs Become Passing Backs: I really like Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris this week more than big Bo Scarborough. Their speed and quickness may be more useful than Bo’s power, particularly if they are used (as they should be) in the passing game. Yards are available if anyone gets matched up on #10 Ben Boulware in coverage. Boulware is better suited as a blitzer and a plugger than he is for playing against athletes in space. FYI – James Conner and Dalvin Cook each got wide open on wheel routes so I’d like to see Sark dial up a couple Monday night.
Protect From Inside Out: Venables brings a ton of A gap pressure so Bama’s line will have to protect from the middle out to the flanks. This is where Boulware excels and is another reason to use Harris more than Scarborough since he’s the better pass protector.
Throw it Deep: If all else fails, Alabama should just drop back and throw the ball deep wherever they can find one-on-one coverage. Clemson was among the leaders in the FBS in committing pass interference and defensive holding penalties. Pittsburgh’s QB took advantage of this by standing in the pocket until the last minute and then firing it down the field towards one on one matchups. Typically they either got a completion or a penalty. FSU attacked Clemson’s man-to-man coverage as well – this is a MUST for the Tide offense. And, it’s not like Kiffin didn’t call for deep shots last week. On five separate occasions off of play action, Hurts appeared to have down field options but, instead, he tucked the ball and tried to run.
- At 6’5, 6’4 and 6’3, Clemson’s front line bats down a lot of passes.
- Only one true freshman QB has ever won a national championship.
- Clemson’s defense has given up the same number of touchdowns (12) as the Alabama defense has this season. The Tigers sacked the QB 49 times this season, just one fewer than the Crimson Tide defense. And, Clemson’s defense has 20 interceptions – four more than the Tide. Clemson’s defense is outstanding.
- What you see is not what you get with Clemson’s defense. If they show a three-man front, it’s likely that three more pass rushers will come at the snap. When they show a seven-man blitz, typically two or more will drop into coverage – you just never know which two.
- Clemson likes to time their blitzes to the snap count so hopefully Hurts will be able to have some dummy counts that will either get the Tigers to jump offsides or will declare the Clemson blitzers.
- The Clemson corners and safeties are wired to stop the run so when they see run, their instinct is to come up fast. Look for Sark to dial up some play action passes and fake bubble screens where the Tide receivers appear to be blockers but then quickly release down the field for a pass.
- FSU killed Clemson with crossers and tunnel screens against the blitz so look for Ridley on shallow crossing patterns.
- I think Venables will play a ton of coverage in an attempt to limit Hurts’ running abilities. Look for him to rush just three or four and then drop defenders into zones so that they can keep their eyes on Hurts.
Final Thoughts on the Offense
There will be plays available this week for the Tide offense but Jalen Hurts will have be the one to make them. While perimeter runs and counter play runs may be available, the majority of the damage inflicted against Clemson has been thru the air. Unlike last week, Jalen Hurts will have to win this game with his running and throwing…and Steve Sarkisian will have to find a way to help him do it.
Alabama on Defense
The nation’s number one defense will face its biggest challenge of the year this week when they take on Deshawn Watson and the Clemson offense. The Tigers have so many terrific weapons available to them that it must be incredibly difficult for them to call plays. Should the two-time Heisman runner up Watson run it? Or, should he throw it to the best wide receiver in college football in 6’3, 220 lb Mike Williams (#7). Last season against Alabama, Watson found little known Hunter Renfroe (#13) for two touchdowns but this year they’ll have speedy Deon Cain (#8) as an even better option in the passing game (he sat out the game last year due to a suspension). Oh, and then there’s Artavis Scott (#3) who is just Clemson’s all-time leading receiver with 242 career catches – more than Sammy Watkins or Dendre Hopkins – and Jordan Leggett who at 6’5, 260 lbs is a matchup problem at tight end.
And that’s just the passing game. Honestly, any of those guys (and #34 Ray-Ray McCloud) above could be a very real problem for the Tide secondary but Clemson compounds the passing game problems by presenting a challenge in the running game, as well. Wayne Gallman (#9) is very, very solid and he gives the Clemson offense the perfect run/pass balance.
So how do you stop this Clemson attack? Well, last year Alabama didn’t. Clemson gained 550 yards, 405 of which came thru the air. They generated 31 first downs and 40 points. Yikes.
But this year is different. Gone is Kirby Smart and his “picket fence” approach of pushing the pocket and containing Watson. This time it’s Jeremy Pruitt who will be calling the shots and his FSU and Georgia teams were extremely effective in shutting down the Tigers attack. In 2013, Pruitt & the Noles limited Clemson to just 14 points. In 2014, Pruitt’s Georgia defense held the Tigers to 21 points. But, Watson didn’t start either one of those ballgames.
This season, Alabama’s defensive personnel is different, too. The 255 pound LB Reggie Ragland was a complete non-factor in last year’s game. A 240 lb Reuben Foster really didn’t show up on tape, either. They were just too big and too slow to make a difference in the open field. This year, in place of Ragland is Alabama’s fastest linebacker Rashaan Evans – he had Bama’s only two sacks of Watson last year. And, Foster is a totally different player when he’s playing at a svelte 225 pounds instead of his 240-pound frame from last season. Evans and Foster will be the keys to stopping the Tigers from gashing the Tide as they did last season.
So, here’s what to watch for when Clemson has the ball….
Empty Sets: When Watson is alone in the backfield, look for either a quick throw or a QB draw. FSU batted down four passes when they anticipated the short throws (usually intended for slot receivers) so Bama’s front line should get their hands up when Watson stands alone in the pocket. And, when Watson runs, he’s gift-wrapping opportunities for the Tide to knock him out of the game. We think Watson will run the ball 20 times this week so that will be 20 times that Tiger fans should hold their breath.
Off Script: Last season, Watson burned the Tide defense with a number of “off script” plays when he escaped the pocket. Look for Alabama to blitz their fastest players in an effort to trap Watson in the pocket. Opponents had a lot of success when blitzing up the middle so look for double A gap pressure from Evans and Foster. However, this is where he’s most dangerous – if he evades the rush then we got problems.
Pace & Depth: Clemson used pace to tire out the Tide defense last year, forcing Saban to try an onsides kick just to keep the ball and give his defense a chance to rest. Look for Clemson to go very, very fast as they’ll attempt to prey on the lack of depth in the defensive backfield, linebacker and defensive line positions. Eddie Jackson’s injury and the multiple defections from the secondary have left he Tide woefully thin in the back. At linebacker, the loss of Shaun Dion-Hamilton will be felt. What was once thought to be a thin red line across the front may actually be the deepest position on the defense – Williams, Hand, Frazier, Jennings and Miller all may have to play a role this week up front.
Attack the Left Tackle: #75 Mitch Hyatt is Clemson’s left tackle and we think he’s in for a very long day. He struggled mightily against Ohio State and Florida State and he would be the guy I would try to isolate Tim Williams on as much as possible. Look for Alabama to blitz off the left side of the Clemson line in an effort to force Hyatt to take on Williams all by his lonesome.
Predeterminations: Watson’s Achilles heel is his penchant for throwing the ball to the wrong team. In fact, his 17 interceptions are more than all but four teams! Watson determines where the ball is going pre-snap and this is what gets him in trouble. He eyeballs one receiver and often doesn’t see underneath defenders who are in the passing lane. Alabama typically disguises their blitzes until a fraction before the snap but this week I think you’ll see Alabama “tip” their blitzers in an effort to encourage Watson to pre-determine his throw. Of course, Pruitt’s secondary will be expecting the route and the throw and should be able to create a couple of interception opportunities.
Slants: Mike Williams is a huge, huge target for Watson and Alabama will likely have to devote two defenders to him throughout the game. But, Williams is damn near unstoppable on slants – it’s their “go to” route.
Blitzes: It will be fascinating to see how much Pruitt utilizes the blitz because Watson typically can recognize it and deliver the football before anyone gets home – he beat Ohio State’s blitzes frequently. Alabama will likely have to play Allen and Anderson at DE as they attempt to play the run but this will not generate much of a pass rush. If Anderson and Allen are at defensive end then we think Evans will come as a fifth pass rusher quite a bit. Bud Foster used his linebackers to blitz the bejeepers out of Watson and this was very effective in forcing Watson to get the ball out. Va Tech blitzed on nearly every play and his guys got a lot of clean hits on Watson.
Fly (Sweep) Guys: Unlike most college offenses, Clemson does not typically use fly sweep motion as window dressing. In the games we watched, the fly sweep guy (typically Scott, #3) either got the ball on the sweep or received the ball in the flat about 90% of the time.
Wheel Routes: In many of the games I watched, backup running back CJ Fuller (#27) was utilized as a receiver – particularly on a wheel route. If they can isolate him on Evans then the Clemson band is likely going to be playing their fight song.
Follow the Pulling Guards: Alabama held Clemson’s rushing attack in check last season primarily because they focused on attacking wherever the pulling guards went. Clemson uses a ton of “window dressing” with motion going in virtually every direction. However, if the Tide linebackers key on the pulling guards and tight ends, then they’ll be taken right to the ball. Of course, Clemson likely has some counters to this, as well, as they showed against Ohio State.
Watch the Inside Slot Receiver: A large percentage of Watson’s throws to a three wide receiver side of the field will be to the inside slot. Basically, if there are three receivers to a side, look for the receiver closest to Watson to get the ball. Additionally, slot blitzers were not effective against Watson as it just gave him a clean line of sight to his favored targets.
Mike Williams: #7 for Clemson is just a beast. He runs all the routes, too. Slants, back shoulder fades, go routes – everything. And, at 6’3, 220 lbs, he’s always open. Look for Watson to find Williams any time Alabama blitzes and he’s in a one on one situation
Redemption: Minkah Fitzpatrick will be playing with a mad on after last year. He gave up two touchdowns and a pass interference and was targeted in the end zone on five separate occasions.
Spies Like Us: I personally hate the whole idea of a spy as most of the time they are just standing around doing nothing. But, last year Evans played the spy role and was actually effective. Pruitt will be mixing things up but I’d bet you anything that he shows blitz (intentionally) and then just rushes three with Evans as a spy.
Jordan Leggett – The X Factor: When times have gotten tough for Watson, the tough has looked for #16, Jordan Leggett. Leggett is a 6’6, 260 pound TE that moves like a wide receiver and is a matchup problem for anyone. When things get tight, the ball goes to Leggett. The like to split him out wide and run him on a slant against the safety so look for them to target Minkah once again. In Clemson’s close games, Leggett has performed:
- Louisville – 3 catches for 71 yards and one touchdown.
- Pittsburgh – 9 catches for 95 yards and zero touchdowns.
- Florida State – 5 catches for 122 yards and one touchdown.
- Virginia Tech – 4 catches for 42 yards and two touchdowns.
- Alabama (2016) – 5 catches for 78 yards and one touchdown.
- How much will Tim Williams play? If he’s in the game then Clemson’s ability to run the football will increase. However, he’s the defender who is best suited to disrupt the pocket and chase down Watson. So, what’s the balance between playing Allen and Anderson at defensive end versus moving Allen to tackle and playing Anderson and Williams at DE? Look for Allen and Anderson to start the game and then Williams will come in any time Clemson substitutes.
- If it’s first and goal inside the five yard line, Clemson will run the zone read repeatedly. Look for Watson to keep the ball more times than not.
- As good of a receiver as Leggett (#16) is, he’s an awful blocker. Bama will dominate him at the point of attack any time he’s asked to block.
- If it’s 4&1, Dabo is going for it. Book it.
- Gallman likes to extend the ball at the goal line so look for Bama defenders to rip it out if he does.
- The Jeremy Pruitt factor is not to be ignored here. In our opinion, he’s better suited to defend the Clemson attack and he has better weapons to do so this year.
- When Clemson has struggled in games, it’s been solely due to turnovers. With Watson throwing 17 picks this season, Bama could get a NOT (Non-Offensive Touchdown) that turns the game around.
- While there were occasional breakdowns along the Clemson offensive line, other than Hyatt there were no repeatedly blatant issues. And, aside from Hyatt (295), Clemson’s line is over 305 pounds across and seem to form a relatively solid front. But, Alabama’s front four is the trump card. When LSU and Washington held Alabama’s offense in check, it was the defense and the front line that dominated the game and allowed the Tide offense to score just enough to win.
Final Thoughts on Defense
I thought, for the most part, Ohio State and Florida State both held up pretty well at the line of scrimmage. Even Pittsburgh limited the Tigers to just 50 yards rushing, so I sincerely doubt the Tide will be challenged by Clemson’s running game. The difference in those games and likely in this matchup will come down to Watson’s ability to read coverage and deliver the ball. Even when the plays are perfectly defended, Watson’s ability to extend plays absolutely sucks the life out of a defense.
Alabama MUST get off the field on third down. Clemson will once again be using pace and this year’s defense, while better, isn’t as deep as last year’s defense was. The longer Clemson can keep the Tide defense on the field, the worse the results are going to be later in the game. Lastly, in each game I watched the Clemson offensive coaches adapted to what they were seeing defensively and were able to counter with plays that took advantage of what the defense was trying to do to them.
Alabama on Special Teams
The two return games are pretty similar so, aside from Trevon Diggs looking like a complete train wreck last week, unlike last season all should be relatively even here.
However, Alabama has a significant advantage in the punting game as the nation’s third ranked punter, JK Scott, owns a 47.4 to 38.0 punting advantage over Clemson’s Andy Teasdall. Once again, the Crimson Tide should own the field position game and that was no small part of their victory over Washington.
But, this year there is no Cyrus Jones and no Kenyan Drake to save the day in the return game and with Diggs’ problems last week we’d guess if something catastrophic happens in the kicking game it will happen to Alabama.
In the place-kicking game, the two teams are pretty similar. Greg Huegel hit 73.7% of his attempts, missing three times inside the 40 and twice outside the 40. Meanwhile, Adam Griffith hit 74.1% of his kicks, missing three times inside the 40. From outside the 40, Griffith hit just 3 of 7 while Huegel made 5 of 7 kicks so the Tigers may hold a slight advantage when dialing up kicks from long distance.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
The Alabama offense limps into this contest with a new offensive coordinator and a passing game that forces you to hold your breath and pray each time Hurts drops back to pass. Last year, Bama was very creative in utilizing misdirection against the aggressive Clemson defense and they once again have the athletes who can take advantage of this attacking style of defense. Unlike last week, the Tide will not be able to just run between the tackles and play conservatively this week so Jalen Hurts is going to have to play more like the SEC offensive player of the year than the 18-year-old true freshman he was against the Huskies.
Defensively, this is the ultimate nightmare for Alabama. Clemson has multiple game breakers at wide receiver, a fleet footed tight end, an outstanding running back and the game’s best player at the quarterback position. Saban loves to take away what you do best but when you put on the tape of Clemson they have playmakers everywhere and do so many things well. There were a few signs of weakness across the offensive line but Watson’s fleet foot and surprising strength usually negated the pass rush when it arrived.
Clemson will score – probably in the high 20s. Early on, the Tide’s defense will more than hold their own but, as the game wears on, if they don’t get some help from the offense then things will get mighty dicey. There is little to no depth in the back seven and, over time, Clemson’s pace of play and vast array of athletes will take a toll on the Alabama defense. With special teams being negated, it will be up to the offense to win a sixth national championship for Nick Saban and lately I haven’t seen any indication that they can get it done.
Clemson does not fear Alabama – they are the one and only team that truly wants Alabama. They aren’t scared and they want revenge for last year. They believe they should have won the game last season and they will be the more motivated team. They are also the most cohesive team and they are playing much, much better offensively than Alabama is right now. I just think it’s Clemson’s year…
Final Score: Clemson 34 Alabama 27
Note: IF Clemson does win this football game, Alabama fans should take a ton of pride in what Dabo is doing at Clemson. Since 2011, Alabama has the highest winning percentage in the country, winning 91.6% of their games. Guess which team has the second highest winning percentage during that span. Ohio State? No. Oklahoma? No. Oregon or FSU? No. Clemson actually has the second highest winning percentage at 84.1%. Since 2012, Dabo has beaten Urban Meyer twice, Bob Stoops twice and Les Miles once. Each one of these coaches has been somewhat of a nemesis for Saban and yet Dabo has each of their pelts on his wall. When you look at the Clemson program, you can’t help but see a lot of Alabama in it and I, for one, think that’s pretty damn cool. No matter what the result is on Monday night, Alabama rules college football.