What to Watch For When Alabama Plays Clemson

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.

Tidebits

  • 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.

Tidebits

  • 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.

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W2W4 – SEC Championship Game

On Saturday, Alabama has a chance to become the first team since 1998 (Tennessee) to win back to back SEC titles.  For all of Nick Saban’s success at Alabama, it’s kind of amazing that he hasn’t won back to back SEC championships but he does own back to back National Championships rings.

So, the only thing standing in Saban’s way of winning his fourth SEC championship in nine years is a Florida team that can’t seem to score against tall grass.  Should be an easy win, right?  I mean, Alabama’s defense is the best in the country while Florida’s offense is ranked at or near the bottom of nearly every offensive category imaginable.  Alabama leads the conference in sacks.  Florida leads the conference in getting sacked.  Perhaps you are getting the picture?  Here are a few stats to mull over as you prepare for this game.  To sum it up, Alabama’s defense is very, very good.  Florida’s offense is very, very bad.  So, this game will simply come down to whether or not Alabama’s offense can find a way to score….

Category Alabama SEC Rank NCAA Rank Florida SEC Rank NCAA Rank
Scoring offense 34.5 3 34 25.3 10 92
Total offense 421.3 6 51 351.9 12 104
Rushing offense 206.2 3 28 137 13 103
Passing offense 215.2 5 73 214.9 6 74
Scoring defense 14.3 1 3 15.5 2 5
Total defense 264.6 1 2 283.6 2 5
Rushing defense 78.9 1 1 111.3 2 7
Passing defense 185.7 5 16 172.3 4 9
Turnover margin +7 3 27 +10 1 12

 

Alabama on Offense

After toting the rock 46 times against Auburn, most human beings would be a little leg-weary going into their next game.  Thankfully, Derrick Henry is not most human beings.  And while it’s true that Florida’s defense will be the very best defense that Alabama has faced this season, it certainly bodes well for the Tide that Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook rushed for 180 and 183 yards respectively when facing the Gator defense.  But, you should know that Cook banged out 112 of those yards on the last two drives of the game – evidently the Florida defense was tired of being out there all night long.

For as long as Nick Saban has been the head coach at Alabama, when he’s faced a defense that is stout up front like this one is, his offensive game plan typically begins with an air assault.  I’ve long admired the work of Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins – a former Bama staffer – when he was at Mississippi State.  One of the first hires Jim McElwain made was to pry Collins away from the Bulldogs and that move has paid dividends ever since.  At MSU, Collins’ defenses made Alabama work very hard to move the football and, invariably, Bama had to take to the air to do so.

Against FSU (who runs a very, very similar offense), Collins brought 8 men down into the box with regularity.  They pressed the Seminole receivers and provided very few passing lanes for QB Sean McGuire.  The Gators play a very aggressive defense and they can afford to do so because they have two of the best corners in the country so with them in the secondary, blitzing means never having to say you are sorry.  The final score of the FSU game was 27-2 but that’s pretty misleading.  The Florida D held up well until the fourth quarter and it was 13-0 with 10:00 to go in the game.  Here’s what else we saw…

Eight is Enough:  Collins stacked 8 men in the box repeatedly.  Look for Bama to throw on early downs off of play action – they should take deep shots here, too.

Third Down for What:  Collins will be sending Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Comet and Cupid blitzen on nearly every third down and long.  Bama may have to bring in Brandon Greene at TE in order to max protect on these downs.  The Gators use delayed blitzes extremely well as they identify if the back stays in to protect and, if so, the LB assigned to the back will blitz.  Of course…

Slippin’ Away:   FSU hit the Gators on a pretty nifty play where the back stayed in to block but then slipped out into the secondary for a pass.  Screens could be effective here but the line will have to identify the LB assigned as he will be in man to man and will be in position to blow up the play.  Florida plays man to man underneath on the backs so look for Kiffin to use Stewart out of the backfield on a play or two.

Wide Open Spaces:  Florida misaligned several times against FSU to the point where it seemed like they were coached to do so.  It’s hard to describe but the Gators play a four man front with one of their defensive tackles lined up over the center.  This puts three of the four DL on one side of the ball, leaving the other side of the ball vulnerable.  Dalvin Cook took advantage of this a few times so look for Henry to do so, as well.

Picket Fence:  In the red zone, Florida plays a bit of a picket fence coverage along the goal line.  Look for a slant or crosser in front of the fence to draw up coverage so that the back of the end zone is open.

At a Loss:  Florida’s defensive line absolutely destroyed FSU’s zone blocking as they slanted and got up field, using the OL’s lateral flow against them.  Jonathan Bullard (90) and Cece Jefferson (96) were regulars in the Nole backfield.  Look for Bama to use more isolation blocking and pullers in this game in an attempt to get a hat on a hat and drive Florida off the ball.  Florida’s line has decent size but not great as they have only one DL over 300 lbs.  Their ends are 280 & 265…

Tidebits

  • Given time, Coker should be able to hit some deep crossing patterns against the Gators.
  • Bryan Cox (94) has a heckuva speed rush so Cam Robinson will need to play well Saturday.
  • Linebacker Antonio Morrison (3) has a knee injury so look for Bama to attack him in any one on one situations.
  • Alabama should challenge Florida with deep balls off of double moves. The Tide line will have to max protect to allow enough time.
  • Rolling Coker out could be useful.
  • The linebackers bite HARD on play action so OJ Howard could actually have a role this week.
  • Florida’s defense capitulated in the 4th quarter, allowing Dalvin Cook to run wild. Look for their defense to wilt in the second half if the Gator offense is sputtering as expected.

Alabama on Defense

Florida’s offense is bad.  Really bad.  And, as you might expect, the offensive line is largely to blame (well, that and a terribly inaccurate QB).  The Gators’ line is a patchwork line and it’s anchored by a kid playing center (63 – Tripp Thurmond) who is barely able to complete his snaps back to the quarterback.  When he is able to fire off a good snap, Thurmond is then typically rag-dolled shortly thereafter by some big behemoth on the defensive line.  I imagine A’Shawn Robinson, Jarren Reed and the rest of the interior linemen are foaming at the mouth to take on these guys.

Coach Jim McElwain and his offensive coordinator (and former Bama OC) Doug Nussmeier were often able to scheme their receivers open only to find that their QB could not deliver the football.  Treon Harris is a running back playing QB and his accuracy leaves you to wonder if he’s throwing with the correct hand.  His footwork is lousy, he can’t read the blitz, he holds the ball too long and he can’t throw an accurate pass – other than that, he’s great!  Here’s what else we saw when we watched the film….

Ready, Throw, Aim:  Treon Harris is strugglin’ folks.  In our one game review we saw him miss seven different open receivers.  SEVEN.  And, he had five other passes batted down at the line of scrimmage.  Harris apparently is a member of the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight so look for Bama to rush four and play coverage or rush three and have a spy.

Right Round:  When Harris is flushed from the pocket, he immediately scrambles to his right.  If Alabama blitzes, look for them to attack from Harris’ right side.  But, Bama’s front four should own the line of scrimmage so blitzing really shouldn’t be called upon too often.

O-No-Line:  As we mentioned, the center is really bad.  His snaps are bad, he struggles at the point of contact and he can’t pick up interior blitzes.  Our notes show the right guard and right tackle struggled as well so it’s no wonder this offense struggles.  All the plays and playmakers in the world aren’t worth a nickel if the OL can’t get their jobs done.

Tight-end Up:  Jake McGee (83) was Harris’ go to receiver, catching three passes in the flats.  Look for quick passes to the backs and tight ends as McElwain tries to isolate the Achilles heel of the Alabama pass defense (LBs).

Not Pretty Fly:  90% of Florida’s runs were between the tackles with Taylor and Harris.  They very rarely threatened the perimeter even though they showed a fly sweep on nearly every run.

Tidebits

  • Look for several funky formations and multiple tight ends to be employed as Coach McElwain tries to scheme himself a few first downs and big plays.
  • Florida State stuffed the Gators running attack using only six defenders. This is good news for Bama fans.
  • QB runs will be the order of the day and will be the one facet of the Florida offense that presents any issues.
  • Antonio Calloway (81) and Demarcus Robinson (11) will threaten the Bama DBs on deep balls. Honestly, this will be the best opportunity for Florida to score.  Long drives simply will not work.
  • If Alabama does blitz, look for Florida’s backs to completely blow their assignments. They aren’t into blocking at all.
  • We saw the center and right tackle get tossed away like an old dirty sock several times – once by a Seminole safety!

Alabama on Special Teams

Adam Griffith and JK Scott have clearly (and quite literally) hit their stride over the second half of the season.  Conversely, Florida’s kicker is 5 of 13 on the season and the staff would rather listen to a Verne and Gary broadcast than send him out onto the field.  He’s really bad.

Florida is sixth in the conference in kick returns and sixth in punt returns so kick coverage will be critical this week.  Florida averages 44.16 yards per punt while Alabama is one spot behind them (5th) with an average of 43.35 so both punters should fare well in the Georgia Dome.

Final Thoughts and Prediction

There should absolutely be no way for Florida to win this game unless Alabama does the unthinkable and commits 5 turnovers again and I don’t think any of us believe that will happen.  This game should be a street fight for three-quarters simply because Florida’s defense and defensive coordinator are outstanding.  But, in the end Alabama’s depth and talent should win out and move on to Dallas for the final four of the College Football Playoffs.

Final Score:  Alabama 23               Florida 6

Alabama versus Tennessee Game Review

Wanna get away?  After eight straight grueling weeks of smash mouth football, the Alabama Crimson Tide has finally reached their much needed bye week and it couldn’t come at a more opportune time.  Unlike teams in the other Big 5 conferences, in the SEC there are scant few opportunities to rest key players when needed.  Everyone on the team has been manning their battle stations for weeks on end.

For Alabama, there is no Wake Forest, no Kansas, no Colorado and no (insert woeful Big 10 team here) where the coaches and players can take their foot off the gas pedal even for a weekend.  Instead, Alabama’s schedule features much anticipated and featured games at Georgia and at Texas A&M.  Then the Tide has to return home to play a physical Arkansas team and an ever improving Tennessee team.  Take one week off, or even one play off, and it can bring about disastrous results.

Saturday’s game against Tennessee wasn’t disastrous but it was certainly more than just a near miss.  With the Crimson Tide playing with one foot out the door and headed for a much needed vacation, Tennessee reminded them that each and every team deserves the Tide’s full attention in order to secure a Bama win.  Poor blocking, penalties and turnovers continue to plague the Alabama offense meaning this version of the Crimson Tide must be focused each and every week to come out with the “W”.  Meanwhile, Tennessee’s now 3-4 record belies just how talented this Vols team truly is.  Thankfully, the reemergence of Adam Griffith, JK Scott and Ardarius Stewart made sure that Bama’s much needed vacation started with a big win and NOW, finally, all eyes can turn towards yet another marquee prime time match-up with the LSU Tigers.  Let’s get it on!!!!  But, before we do, here’s what we saw during the Tennessee game…

Alabama on Offense

This third Saturday, well actually it was the fourth Saturday, in October featured a dead legged Alabama squad squaring off against a well-rested Tennessee defense.  The much maligned Vol defense looked and played much differently Saturday throughout the ballgame and was everything we hadn’t seen on film.  They were faster off the snap, much more physical at the point of attack and much more aggressive with their linebackers.

Meanwhile, the Alabama line was so bad that they had to abandon all of the pulling action from the interior guards as Tennessee’s linebackers kept shooting the gaps and making plays in the backfield.  And, we understand that poor Cam Robinson needs a break worse than an employee in a Chinese sweatshop but…wow.  Whether he was getting beaten for a sack, getting called for a penalty or just getting lost in space, Cam Robinson was just downright deplorable on Saturday.  With white jerseys pouring into the backfield throughout the first half, Kiffin changed the running scheme to feature more zone blocking.  After the adjustment, instead of getting tackled for a loss in the backfield, the second half then featured numerous sacks and penalties.  And, unfortunately right now instead of a “failure”, we call this “progress”.

In the end, Ardarius Stewart, OJ Howard, Calvin Ridley and Jake Coker saved the day and overcame all the negatives on offense to create one big positive win for the Tide.  Here’s what we saw in the review…

W2W4 Gold:  If you read the W2W4 then you were pretty well-informed that this would finally be OJ Howard’s breakout game.  It was nice to see the staff take advantage of Howard’s skills and it was even better to see him take advantage of the opportunity to be a vital play maker in the Tide’s attack.

Losing My Religion:  Ugh.  We’ve been harping on the blocking schemes that have resulted in tackles for loss but this issue has now reached a Swine Flu like over reactive epidemic status.  When the Tide’s guards would pull, Tennessee’s linebackers continually shot thru the vacated position to make play after play in the Bama backfield.  This lead to a 102,000 person chorus singing WTF!!!!!  With the exception of one play, the Tide switched schemes entirely in the second half because they had no answer for the tackles for loss.

Flip it Good:  Credit the Tide for continually working in the little flip passes to wide receivers going on the fly sweeps.  No, it hasn’t worked since the Louisiana Monroe game (and yes, we’ve been screaming at the TV about it to no avail) but this week there seemed to be much more space for the receivers to run thru.  In particular, Calvin Ridley looks like he’s really getting comfortable with the play as he actually darted up inside for a nice gainer when he read how the blocking was working out.

Free Cams:  Oy.  These were my observations of Cam on the day:  1) 74 just whiffed.  Awful.  2) 74 beaten badly.  Wow.  Wow.  3) 74 beaten wide.  4) 74/71 both missed blocks on a twist.  5) 74 & 88 both blocked the end – neither blocked 21 who makes tackle for loss.  6) 74 called for chop block (questionable call).  7) 74 beaten badly again.  Folks, that’s seven plays that went backwards for the Tide that Cam Robinson was involved in.  SEVEN.  Here’s to you, Mr Robinson:  (insert truck backing up sound) Beep…beep….beep.

Northern Aggression:  There were three plays where Kenyan Drake was asked to just get North and run between the tackles.  All three plays resulted in probably his best runs in recent memory.  I think adding the interior element to his game makes him more effective as teams can’t focus their undivided attention on the flanks.  One man’s opinion, of course….

Fade to Black:  Alabama used and abused the Tennessee corners with a number of back shoulder fades.  Credit Calvin Ridley and Ardarius Stewart for coming up with HUGE catches on the final game winning drive but this play was used effectively throughout the game.  The fade is darn near unstoppable when run with the right timing so we are seeing Ridley (remember, he’s a true freshman) and Coker getting their timing down now that they are getting all of the first team reps together.

Our Darius:  Ardarius Stewart had the game of his life on Saturday. Coming into the season, it was opined in this blog that Stewart and the dearly departed Robert Foster would be the bell cow receivers for 2015.  Foster, of course, is out with a season ending injury and Stewart has had a number of opportunities to go up and aggressively make a play on a ball but has failed to do so throughout the season.  However, on Saturday we saw Stewart go up high down the middle to snag a ridiculous reception and then, of course, he made a HUGE play on the last drive.  Stella may be getting her groove on and that would be a welcomed compliment to the play of Ridley.

Anatomy of a Game Winning TD:  The design and execution of the game winning touchdown was just a thing of beauty.  We’ll post a Vine soon to show you just how awesome this was but here’s our best description.  Bama overloaded the right side of their line with two tight ends and then motioned Mullaney right, making the right side the obvious side to run to.  Naturally, the flow started to the right but Taylor and Howard actually pulled left and led Derrick Henry in that direction.  With Cam Robinson caving in the defensive end on the left side of the Bama line (and the entirety of the line), Bama had a huge numbers advantage on the left which allowed Henry to walk in with the game winner.  Credit Taylor and Howard for the kickout block on the one Vol on that side of the field and credit Stewart for staying engaged with his block on the corner – all three made it easy sailing into the end zone for Henry.  But, the design and flow was the key as UT had no one on the left to defend the play.

Tidebits

  • Early in the game, Coker completed a nice pass off of a play action bootleg. After that play, Tennessee kept a backside player at home and this ruined three other bootleg plays.
  • As described by Gary Danielson, Tennessee baited Coker into his interception. The throw was there had it been thrown earlier but a slow decision and delivery gave the safety time to poach the pick.
  • There were a ton of audibles at the line of scrimmage and several times it appeared the offense was completely lost at the snap. Once, Coker was even surprised by the snap and had to just throw the ball away as the rest of the line seemed surprised, as well.
  • I’d like to see Derrick Henry get the ball all day, every day when Bama has the ball at the opponent’s two yard line. Someone please make this happen b/c Kiffin doesn’t seem to understand that a 240 lb battering ram can be useful down there near the goal line.
  • As pretty as the game winning TD was, the subsequent two point conversion attempt was extremely ill conceived. Bama left the defensive end unblocked on the right side of the Tide line and then sent one single solitary player into the pass pattern on that side.  The result was a QB under duress throwing to a receiver who was double covered.  No beuno.
  • Alabama had eight first down plays that either lost yardage or resulted in a penalty.

Alabama on Defense

The first two drives of the game saw Tennessee making the kind of hay in the running game that we Bama fans are not used to.  The Vols exploited the edges where Minkah Fitzpatrick was lined up in the slot and they hammered him with the run throughout the first two possessions.  Tennessee also has seen the speed rush of Tim Williams on tape so they used his upfield aggression against him as QB Josh Dobbs ran for a first down thru the vacated area left by the speed rush.

In the end, Alabama adjusted to the sweeps, draws and all of the other motion from the Tennessee Vols.  And, in the end, Tennessee was forced to pass the ball in order to move the football and right now Dobbs is just too erratic to consistently deliver the mail thru the air.  When the Alabama line was able to pin their ears back and rush the passer, the results were overthrows, near interceptions, sacks and fumbles.  Once Alabama regained the lead, the game was simply over.  Here’s what we saw when Alabama was defending…

Tractor Pull:  Tennessee did something with their line that I haven’t seen before.  At the snap, several times they pulled one guard to the right and then another to the left.  Bama’s linebackers were confused by seeing two different keys and this allowed Dobbs and Hurd just enough time to get outside of the linebacker’s pursuit.  Pretty interesting little wrinkle there…

Give a Hoot(ie):  I thought it was interesting that when Eddie Jackson was forced to leave the game, true freshman Ronnie Harrison was moved to the very important safety position instead of Hootie Jones.  Jones has been on the roster longer and was a highly recruited player.  Interesting…

Love Locked Down:  As we mentioned above, the fade is a very difficult play to defend when it’s perfectly executed and Alabama’s corners have had a devil of a time defending the play up until this season.  Enter Mel Tucker as the defensive back coach and suddenly every player in the secondary can defend the fade.  In particular, Marlon Humphrey is defending this play better than they do on Sundays.

Foster, Australian for Beast:  Reuben Foster is playing exceptional football right now and Saturday was his best effort to date.  Against the Vols, Foster recorded 11 tackles, two of them for a loss, a sack and he broke up a pass for good measure.  The sack actually pushed a Tennessee field goal back to a difficult 43 yard miss.  This season, Foster is in complete command of the defense and his speed is a huge upgrade from Trey Depriest last year.

Double Trouble:  Once Eddie Jackson left the game, true freshman Ronnie Harrison was asked to line up at the deep safety position where he promptly took a bad angle on a huge Vol run.  Later, in the same drive, Harrison committed a pass interference penalty that set Tennessee up deep in Bama’s red zone.  Then, on 3&7 Alabama shifted to their dime package which smartly moved Harrison back to his usual position next to Reuben Foster.  Unfortunately, this meant that Jabriel Washington was moved into the deep safety position and there he had a wonderful seat to watch Tennessee score a touchdown between him and Cyrus Jones.  Moral to the story:  Eddie Jackson is very important to this defense.

Swing for the Fences:  I have to say I was a little shocked to see Alvin Kamara have so much space to run on his swing passes. Coming into the game, we talked about his usage out of the backfield in the W2W4 and mentioned he was the second leading receiver on the team.  Disappointing, to say the least.

Dictators:  Alabama continually blitzed from the slot position and this forced Dobbs’ reads each and every time.  Alabama has been doing this to the zone read teams throughout this season and it’s been very, very effective.

Paper or Plastic:  Nick Saban and Kirby Smart have historically asked their defensive line to simply post up the offensive line and form an impenetrable picket fence at the line of scrimmage.  This season, things have changed as Bama is leading the league in sacks!  Saban and Smart have unleashed Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans off the edges and they’ve used the astounding athleticism of guys like Johnathan Allen, Ryan Anderson, Denzell Devall and others with stunts and twists that have confounded opposing offensive lines.  After years of lamenting the pass rush, Bama leads the SEC in sacks and is 15th nationally in adjusted sack rate – now teams cannot run or pass against the Tide D!

Third Down for Naught:  With the exception of the third down throw for a touchdown, the Vols failed miserably on third and long.  Pressures, sacks, batted balls – all ruled the day on third downs for UT.

Bunches of Coverage:  Tennessee used a clever bit of motion to create the bunch formation that Alabama has annually struggled with.  But, Bama adjusted on the fly and never, ever busted an assignment from the bunch formation.  Huge improvement here – especially since they had to adjust their formation and coverages on the fly.

Tidebits

  • The defense allowed seven plays of 10 yards or more during the first two drives of the game. They allowed only six of these during the rest of the game.
  • Alabama should have picked off at least three passes during the game. Ronnie Harrison, Reuben Foster and Minkah Fitzpatrick are getting razzed pretty badly in the film room right about now…
  • Alabama’s biggest improvement this season on defense may be their ability to substitute players on the fly. Bama has become very adept at getting their sub packages on and off the field.
  • In 14 games last season, Alabama broke up 72 passes. In eight games this season, Alabama has broken up 62. Bama is #1 in the country with 7.8 passes defensed per game.
  • When Tennessee was called for illegal touching late in the first half, I still do not understand why they were not assessed with a five yard penalty AND the loss of down.
  • The defense on the last Vols’ series was awesome but nothing was as awesome as watching Allen blow up the UT guard on 1&15. I’ll post a Vine on this but he dumptrucked the Vols’ guard and then launched himself over the fallen white shirted speed bump into Dobbs for a sack.

Alabama on Special Teams

Hallelujah for JK Scott’s triumphant return!  We began seeing signs of the Scott, Version 1.0 against Georgia but he’s officially exploded into a weapon of mass destruction now.  Time after time, Scott flipped the field on the Vols, making them drive lengthy distances for a score.  One of the reasons they had to settle for long field goals was the fact that they had such a long way to go in the first place.  Four punts for a nearly 50 yard average.  Wow.

Speaking of field goals, take some time to marinate on this:  Alabama won because they had a decided edge in the field goal kicking game.  Disagree?  Well, much maligned Adam Griffith was 2 for 2 while poor Aaron Medley had a medley of bad kicks, going OH-for 3 on the day.  He actually missed four consecutive kicks as he also hit the upright on a kick that was nullified due to a time out.  Bama was plus six with the kicks and only won by five so….

Tennessee came into the game leading the nation in kick return yardage and in his one attempt, Evan Berry showed us why as he ran through four tacklers and nearly took a kickoff to the house.  Thankfully, Berry just got the one lone attempt as Griffith’s other kicks made it deep into the end zone, thereby neutralizing a significant Vol weapon.  This was significant.

Final Thoughts

We at the Bama Lighthouse are not the sort of folks that spend a lot of time patting ourselves on the back.  Frankly, it’s hard enough to find the time necessary to review the latest Bama game, post Vines and then review at least two games to provide a W2W4 for the upcoming opponent – we just don’t have a lot of time to pat ourselves on the backs!  But, this week we are particularly proud of the W2W4 that we released prior to the Tennessee game as it was pretty outstanding.  If you weren’t prepared for a tight game contested by a better-than-you-thought-they-were opponent, then you simply didn’t read this week’s UT novella.

Tennessee is a much better team than their 3-4 record suggests and that makes it pretty easy to begin looking ahead to a bye week and then to the LSU game.  Pundits were doing it.  Fans were doing it.  And, you guessed it, the players were doing it.

Alabama’s goal was to just “get thru” the Tennessee game and get to the bye week.  Thankfully, the Tide’s passion and intensity was greater than a college kid’s on the Friday before their spring break begins but that was only part of the challenge this week.  Tennessee came in well rested and with an excellent game plan that forced Alabama’s offensive and defensive coaches to adjust on the fly.

But, Bama did adjust.  They came.  They saw.  They conquered and climbed Rocky Top.  Now it’s time to pause, rest, relax and reflect on the climb and the gains they have made this season.  It’s never pretty.  It’s never perfect.  But everything the Alabama Crimson Tide wants still lies directly ahead of them…and who would have thought that would be the case six weeks ago?