This is the W2W4 that I hoped I’d never have to write. I’ve been going to Alabama games since I was three years old. I applied to one single, solitary college coming out of high school because there was no doubt where I was going to school. Alabama has been in my blood since birth. I’m a proud graduate of the University of Alabama and, of course, I’m a huge fan of the football program.
Before I went to college at Alabama, I grew up in Pelham, Alabama. We moved there when I was four and the majority of the kids that I went to first grade with ended up graduating with me from Pelham High School in 1988. One of those kids was Dabo Swinney.
Dabo lived in my neighborhood and, for a short time, visited the girl across the street whom I had a bit of a crush on (we were 10 years old or so). Naturally, she didn’t talk to me but she sure talked to Dabo! Several afternoons I’d see Dabo, peddling his way down our hill headed back to his house.
I felt like I was a bit of an awkward kid growing up and from an early age I pretty much idolized Dabo Swinney. He had the looks, the charm, the charisma, the athleticism and smarts – he had it all. I never knew of any family issues that have been widely reported. All I knew was that he was everything I wanted to be. My haircut? Dabo’s. My clothes? Dabo-esque. I was a Dabo wannabe.
Back then and to this day, Dabo has had every reason in the world to ignore me but he absolutely never has. He’s just a good dude. When we were teammates on the Pelham High basketball team, he was the consummate teammate. He was always upbeat and outgoing and he never big leagued anyone – he was just a great guy, all day every day. He was a three sport athlete and our SGA president. Dabo was absolutely the nicest guy you’d ever meet and he still is to this day, even with all the success and fame that he has earned.
In 2008 when Dabo took over the job at Clemson, a group of us from Pelham High School travelled up there to see visit him for a game. Again, he had every reason in the world to not make time for us but, as usual, he was warm, welcoming and humbled that we came up to see him. We got a great tour of the facility and we had the opportunity to see him film his coach’s show after the game. Later, he told us about his vision of having an indoor practice facility just off the back of the football offices that we were standing in. On November 9th of 2015 Clemson broke ground on the vision he had in 2008.
To this day, eight years later, he’s still the same great guy we knew in high school and he’s still just as excited to see us as he was in his first year on the job. He and his wife, Kathleen (a Pelham High cheerleader), are as good as it gets and they are so perfectly matched. Like Dabo, Kathleen is always an incredibly gracious host each and every time we come up to visit with them. As you might expect, they are pulled in 100 different directions on game day but they always made time for the Pelham Posse and always seemed truly humbled that we had come up to visit. That’s just the people they are…
Dabo is everything that is right about sports. He’s everything that is good in a person. He’s everything a parent or a university could ever hope for in a coach. He keeps God first, his family a close second and he has earned everything that he has been given. Along the way, he’s never forgotten the family, friends and relationships that he’s had throughout his life…
Tuscaloosa is a place that I will forever hold dearly in my heart. My degree is something that I’m intensely proud to have, especially since I was the first person in my family to earn one. But, places and things are not as important as people. Friendships and our interactions with others are the legacies that we will leave behind long after we are gone from this earth and are to be valued much more than places or things. So, as we begin this W2W4, know that I’m a Dabo fan first and a Bama fan second because I grew up idolizing him, became friends with him and admire him as a person, a husband, a father and a coach. How can I not root for him?
Alabama on Offense
Here at the Lighthouse, we watch tape, analyze stats and listen to the various voices of reason that populate the airwaves. But, primarily, we watch tape. Our mission statement here is to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of Alabama football (and their opponents) so everything stated from this point on is my unbiased take on these two teams. The analysis is the analysis and, as they say, “the eye in the sky don’t lie.” The film is what it is, so let’s get to it…
In looking at Clemson’s defense, it’s mighty fun to watch. Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables loves to blitz the bejeezus out of teams on any given down. He has supreme confidence in his secondary and leaves them isolated in man to man with a single high safety much of the time. This allows Venables to mix and match his blitzes at will and he makes things very, very difficult for the opposing offensive line. Clemson will show a six man rush and then rush three. They’ll then show a six man rush and bring five. You just never know who is blitzing until the ball is snapped so finding a way to read out what’s coming will be very important for Jake Coker Monday night.
Across the front line, Clemson boasts four guys who are certainly SEC caliber. Defensive end Kevin Dodd (98) showed up time and time again in the Oklahoma backfield and at 6’5, 275, he’s pretty stout against the run as well. Freshman DT Christian Wilkins (42) has shown up throughout the season and at 6’4, 315 he’s hard to miss. His athleticism is crazy good at that size and, again, he’s just a freshman. The other DT is #94 Carlos Watkins and he brings 6’3, 300 lbs to bear on the defensive line. A key question is whether or not their best defender, #90 Shaq Lawson, will be able to overcome an MCL sprain he suffered against Oklahoma. My guess is that he will give it a go but he will be less than 100% on game day. Anyway, the point here is that their front four is big, physical and athletic. Sound familiar? Any misgivings you have about the talent in the ACC should be tossed aside…
At linebacker, Ben Boulware (5’11, 240) and BJ Goodson (6’1, 250) are oftentimes lined up at the line of scrimmage forming a five or six man front and are used in run blitzes on early downs. They bite hard on play action and, with the corners and safeties locked up in man to man, these ‘backers are used in blitzes repeatedly. They seem much better against the run but both Boulware and Goodson made sweet interceptions against Oklahoma while dropping into zone coverage. Venables will mix coverages so, again, identifying this pre-snap will be a goal for the Tide.
Even with all the accolades of the Tigers’ defensive line and linebackers, perhaps the strength of the Clemson defense is their secondary. These guys honestly look like guys you’d see in the Seattle Seahawks’ secondary. Their corners are fast and at 5’11, 195 and 6’1 198 they are physical as well. Oklahoma had them beaten deep a few times so there will be opportunities for Calvin Ridley and Ardarius Stewart down the field Monday night. At safety, Clemson has one of the more physically dominant players we’ve seen at this position – Jayron Kearse (related to Jevon) is 6’1, 224 and is used all over the field. At that size, he’s not quite as nimble as the others in the secondary so look for Lane Kiffin to try and match up Calvin Ridley against Kearse whenever possible.
Make no mistake about it. Clemson’s defense is big, physical, fast and aggressive. They want to establish a physical dominance at the line of scrimmage and they are not afraid to bring the house in order to make that happen. Let’s get physical, baby!
W2W4 Alabama’s Offensive Plan
- Oh Henry: Look for Derrick Henry to play a very large role in this game. Unlike Michigan State’s secondary, Clemson’s defensive backfield is outstanding and is not the weak link by any stretch of the imagination. Therefore, Alabama will likely be a run first team in this game.
- Tight Ends: Look for Alabama to use a lot of heavy sets in an effort to eliminate the impact of the Clemson run blitzes. Clemson tries to outnumber the OL at the line of scrimmage so Alabama will probably use two tight end sets more than usual. This should even out the numbers and force Clemson to play more “straight up” on D.
- Interior runs: Clemson rallies to the ball very well so we think Alabama will try to attack between the tackles Monday night. Again, this should be a classic Derrick Henry centric attack.
- Deep shots: Look for a number of deep shots designed to challenge Kearse and #25 Tankersley. Alabama will favor those matchups and will look to take advantage any time they can (and Clemson will be in man to man coverage a LOT).
- Max protection: With Clemson blitzing everyone except Dabo’s sons, Alabama will likely counter with max protection looks. Brandon Greene may actually play a large role in this game as the second tight end both as a blocker and as a pass protector.
- Slots of fun: Clemson plays tight bump & run on the corners but they play off coverage in the slots. Oklahoma found a lot of room when they motioned their slot receivers from one side to the other, getting free releases from the slots. Look for Kiffin to utilize Ridley in the slot in an effort to get him some easy, free releases and to get him isolated on the aforementioned safety.
- Motion: Clemson mixes their coverages beautifully and turned in two picks against Baker Mayfield last week by switching to zone. It was puzzling to me why the Sooners didn’t have a man in motion to identify whether Clemson was in man or zone. Look for Kiffin to move his receivers and tight ends around with shifts in order to get Clemson to declare their coverages. Speaking of declaring…
- Hard Counts: Clemson jumped offsides a couple of times against the Sooners so look for Coker to employ some hard counts. Also, look for Bama to get to the line very early and bark out some signals in an effort to get the Tigers to show their blitzes. This will be a fascinating chess match as Alabama will see the blitz and audible to another play…but then so will Clemson.
- Edge rush: Dominick Jackson and Cam Robinson are both going to be tested repeatedly. The key matchup will be whoever is asked to block (#98) Kevin Dodd – dude is a baller. On the interior, #94 and #42 both made several plays so they will have to be rooted out of the middle in order to create some seams for the running game.
- Screens: When you blitz, there’s a risk. A well designed screen can exploit this risk.
- Hot routes: OJ Howard better have his damn head on a swivel and recognize when he’s the hot receiver. He will have opportunities but he will have to recognize them this week.
- Coker runs: Again, when you blitz, you have risks. Look for Coker to break containment and possibly have a couple of significant runs.
- 98 degrees of heat: Watch out for #98 in orange. Kevin Dodd. Yes, I already mentioned this. Yes, it’s worth mentioning twice.
- Running lanes: Lastly, Henry’s biggest runs will likely happen when Bama exploits Clemson’s penchant for getting their DE’s up the field. Their hell-bent upfield rush creates a lovely running lane for a back and should get Henry running free into the secondary.
Alabama will have numerous opportunities with one-on-one matchups down the field in the passing game so look for Ridley and Stewart to have several opportunities to make big plays. These will likely come off of play action passes in early downs. Meanwhile, the best way to attack Clemson’s blitzes is to run right at them. If they begin stuffing Henry at the line of scrimmage, then Bama will have some severe problems as Coker will be throwing into the teeth of a very athletic secondary.
As we said, blitzing creates opportunities for big, big plays. It’s interesting to note that Clemson gave up numerous big plays for touchdowns during the season:
- NC State – 40 yard and 28 yard touchdown passes
- Syracuse – 28 yard run
- South Carolina – 57 yard TD pass
- North Carolina – 46 yard TD pass
- Florida State – 75 yard TD run
- Notre Dame – 56 yard TD pass
That’s a lot of big plays to give up during the season so look for Kiffin to dial-up several deep shots during this game. Monday, we expect to see some classic old school Alabama offense with Henry pounding away between the tackles and then Kiffin calling for some play action deep shots whenever the time is right. But, this will be a very, very physical matchup and the fact that Shaq Lawson will either not play or not be 100% is a huge advantage for the Tide.
Alabama on Defense
This is by far the most diverse offensive attack Alabama has faced all season and is certainly more difficult than anything they saw in Pasadena, New Orleans or Miami in previous championship games. Clemson’s offense of course begins and ends with Deshaun Watson. Watson is an outstanding runner and is surprisingly a lot more physical than you’d imagine. But, where he really excels is in throwing the deep ball. He’s mighty good at that. His ability to evade the rush and extend plays is what gives defensive coordinators the “night sweats” going into games.
On the ground, the kid that doesn’t get nearly enough credit is Wayne Gallman. Gallman reminds me a little bit of Ezekiel Elliott as he has size, balance, power and speed and shows the ability to make defenders miss in a phone booth. Clemson’s favored offensive play is the zone read and it is reminiscent of Auburn or Tennessee’s zone read offenses that Bama has faced in the past. Make no mistake, Clemson wants to pound the rock as evidenced by ranking 18th in running the football this season (which ranks eleven spots better than Alabama, by the way).
One very effective variation that Clemson has of the zone read is to allow Gallman to lead Watson into the hole as a lead blocker. This allows Clemson to essentially run a wildcat, outnumbering their opponents at the line of scrimmage. Oklahoma’s small-ish linebackers struggled mightily with stacking and shedding blockers and, when they found themselves with a chance to make a tackle, they typically missed or got trucked. Alabama usually stops this kind of attack with just their front four but with Clemson employing their tight end and running back as blockers, this creates a seven on four numerical advantage. What this means is that Alabama’s safeties will likely be called upon for some serious run support. Now, if you see #4 Eddie Jackson or #24 Geno Matias-Smith making a lot of tackles then you should know two things. First, Bama’s front six is getting beaten. Second, a deep shot is forthcoming.
Clemson has playmakers at every skill position on offense but the Lighthouse staff thinks their most dynamic player may be #16, tight end Jordan Leggett. At 6’5, 255, Leggett is an adequate blocker but he does some real damage down the field as a receiver and is a favored target in the red zone. Bama’s secondary historically struggles with defending backs out of the backfield and tight ends down the seams so we think Leggett will be a critical component of the Clemson attack.
Along the offensive line is where this game will be won or lost. Clemson comes into the game ranked 14th in the country in giving up the fewest sacks (one per game). But, when you turn on the tape, Watson is often seen being flushed from the pocket and being forced to scramble. Now, it’s not like this is an issue for Watson but it is interesting to note that the few amount of sacks appears to be more about Watson’s incredible ability to escape than it is about Clemson’s protection. During the Oklahoma game, we saw three different Clemson offensive linemen get thrown to the ground by Sooner linemen so it appears they have some trouble anchoring. In particular, sophomore guard Tyrone Crowder (55) and freshman tackle Mitch Hyatt (75) appeared to have issues in pass protection against stunts and games and that bodes well for a front four (or front ten) that gobbles offensive linemen up for lunch. Here’s what we think we’ll see from the Bama defense…
W2W4 Alabama’s Defensive Game Plan
- Bama’s front four: Against other dynamic running QBs this year, Alabama’s front four has completely dominated to the point that they were able to shut down running games all by themselves. The job Bama’s front four did against Dak Prescott and MSU was simply amazing. However, I don’t see how that is going to be possible against Clemson given the numerical blocking advantage we mentioned above. If Bama’s front four can somehow stifle the zone read running game then this game will be essentially over. But with Clemson throwing seven blockers at the line of scrimmage, Bama’s front will need some help…
- Run support: With Clemson’s ability to throw seven blockers in front of Watson, it’s imperative that Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Shon Dion Hamilton be able to make plays from the linebacker position. Oklahoma’s ‘backers had several opportunities to make tackles against Gallman and Watson but they failed miserably. Bama’s backers will have to come up huge in this game and they cannot afford to miss many tackles.
- Stacking and shedding: Bama’s line and linebackers do a great job of posting up on a blocker and then shedding them in order to make tackles. They will need to be at their best on Monday – but this is the best group I’ve ever seen at this. Again, if Alabama stops the zone read with just their front four or even the front six, this game should be over. Clemson’s bread and butter is their running game. And it is not a soft running game…
- Safety help: If you seen Geno Matias-Smith and Eddie Jackson making tackles, it’s a bad, bad day for Alabama’s defense. They’ll be called upon for run support throughout the game. Look for them to run blitz on early downs in an effort to stack the line of scrimmage whenever they read run.
- Stay in your lane: Oklahoma’s defensive ends took themselves out of the play several times by arcing wide around the tackle. Alabama will stunt and run games on the interior but their ends will likely not come wide unless it’s Tim Williams or Ryan Anderson playing “sic em” on a passing down.
- Trick plays: Dabo is fearless and enjoys a gimmick play once or twice a game. Look for Clemson to play a little trick or treat on some kind of reverse pass or double pass kinda thing.
- Coverage: Watson has thrown 12 interceptions and he threw a few ill-advised passes against the Sooners. Also, he missed high several times on some pretty easy throws. On passing downs, look for Alabama to rush three and drop Evans or Ragland into a spy role. Playing coverage could pay dividends, especially if Bama generates pressure from their front four (as they should). I don’t think Alabama will blitz much at all on passing downs as they will be playing with fire.
- Empty sets: If Watson is in an empty set, he’s either throwing a quick bubble screen or, more likely, he’s keeping on a QB draw.
- Third and Watson: If it’s third and short, Watson will be called upon to run for a first down.
- Read and replace: Alabama’s corners will be called upon for run support on the perimeter so look for the safeties to replace them in coverage. Basically, you’ll see Humphrey or Jones come up from their corner position for run support, leaving their WR open. Therefore, the safety will have to come over the top to replace the corner who is containing the edge.
- Deep shots: Alabama isn’t the type of defense that allows 10 play drives. Therefore, if I were Dabo I’d take a deep shot every other series (particularly looking for the TE down the seam).
- Colt McCoy: If Watson runs the football a lot, he’s likely to encounter a hit that is remembered for centuries to come. “If only we’d had Watson…”
Clemson’s offense threatens you in every way possible. They take vertical deep shots. They throw bubble screens and throw “now” passes on the perimeter. They run the option. They run the zone read. They run the fly sweep. And trick plays? You bet. The key to all of this is having an offensive line that can protect and provide running lanes so the battle for the Natty will be won right here along Clemson’s offensive line. My notes show that there were several points of failure against OU along Clemson’s offensive line so that bodes well if you are an Alabama fan.
Alabama on Special Teams
Neither Alabama nor Clemson really excels in net punting average so this should be more or less a draw. Of note, JK Scott had a sub-par game in Dallas so his first couple of punts will bear watching.
In the return game, it’s all Alabama. Cyrus Jones has returned four punts for touchdowns this season and is ranked 20th in the country in return yardage (12.72 yards per return). Meanwhile, Clemson is 126th in the country with a 1.64 yards per return average. Huge advantage to the Crimson Tide.
On kickoff return defense, Bama excels again as they come in ranked 19th in the country by giving up only 18.71 yards per return. Meanwhile, Clemson struggles here, as well – they are ranked 107th in the country and give up 23.76 yards per kick return, including two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season.
Clemson trotted out a fake punt (one on purpose and one disastrous ad-lib) in each of their last two games so “punt safe” may be something the Tide invests in a few times during the game.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
There are a few things that lead me to believe that Alabama will win this game and, again, I say this not because I’m an Alabama fan or a Dabo fan but because this is what the tape and what the evidence of the season leads me to conclude. I know there are probably several upset Clemson fans (and friends of mine) who are reading the Lighthouse W2W4 for the first time and are thinking this Alabama football blog is simply pandering to its target audience. That’s simply not the case. I’ve picked Alabama to lose before (and was wrong) and I’m sure that I will again. Clemson is the best team (by far) that Alabama has faced this season – both offensively and defensively. So, here’s our reasoning for an Alabama win…
On film, Clemson’s offensive line is seen giving up penetration and, at times, getting tossed to the side (and that was against a small-ish Oklahoma team). Alabama’s defensive line has full grown men with a very nasty attitude and I’ve seen them play “lineman toss” all season long. The film doesn’t suggest that Alabama’s defensive line will be stalemated. Alabama’s line has the ability to grab an offensive lineman by the jersey and cast him aside. At times, this is stunning to see. If Alabama’s line dominates this matchup, which the film says they will, then the game tilts heavily in Alabama’s favor.
And, the turnover margin is a big, big deal. In this kind of game that features two extremely talented teams you simply can’t be careless with the football. Clemson’s players are every bit as good as any SEC team you want to envision so this whole “ACC is soft stigma” is completely inaccurate when you look at their roster. Clemson will be able to go toe to toe with Alabama and we envision this being a very close game. So, ball security will matter. Alabama is 20th in the nation in turnover margin and would be 8th in the country were it not for the five turnovers committed during the Ole Miss game. Stunningly, Clemson has a negative turnover margin and is ranked 107th in the country in this category. It’s nearly impossible to be undefeated while losing the turnover battle time and time again but that speaks to the talent and the coaching that Clemson has on their sidelines. Clemson will likely not be able to get away with careless turnovers Monday evening.
Offensively, Alabama will have to run the football into the belly of the Tigers in order to succeed. The strength of the Tigers’ defense appears to be in their defensive backfield and in their athleticism so it seems that running between the tackles would be the best recipe to success. Oklahoma had early success with Perine running between the tackles but went away from him for whatever reason after their first drive of the game. But, Clemson will attack the line of scrimmage with an overwhelming number of bodies so running lanes will be difficult to find (and those pesky Bama negative plays will be back with a vengeance) for Henry. Blitzing, however, creates opportunities and Alabama has shown the ability to attack man to man coverage deep. Calvin Ridley is a friggin stud and usually wins his 1-on-1 matchups so it’s risky to leave a DB isolated in man to man.
Aside from the tape, the stats and results from the 2015 season lean heavily towards Alabama. Clemson’s biggest wins during the season were against Notre Dame and Florida State – two teams that got taken to the woodshed during bowl season. Clemson gave up 32 points to South Carolina who is ranked 110th in total offense. They gave up 27 to a Syracuse team that ranks 77th in total offense. They gave up 42 points to NC State and another 37 to North Carolina. That’s a lot of points!
When Alabama doesn’t turn the ball over 5 times, the Crimson Tide defense gave up more than 17 points only one other time this season (23 to Texas A&M). So, the odds and the stats say it’s far more likely for Clemson to give up over 20 points than Alabama and I think the winner will need to score more than 20.
I think Alabama fans will be shocked at the athletes that Clemson will be throwing at them. They will be shocked by the physicality of the Tiger defense. They’ll be stunned at the strength of Gallman and Watson. And, they’ll be biting their nails well into the fourth quarter.
But, in the end, Bama’s depth, strength and track record should mean they win this game. But Clemson will have a helluva lot to say about it before it’s done. And, if Clemson beats this Alabama team, they have every right to claim their 2015 Tigers are the greatest team in college football history. 15-0 has never been done in the history of college football and to attain that they’ll have to defeat one of the greatest defenses in the modern era. Yeah. Claiming the title of greatest team ever – that’s a Yabba Dabo-doo if they win this game.
Final Score: Alabama 24 Clemson 20
*Note: This should be one helluva game.