The Alabama vs Clemson game is upon us and Dave from the Alabama Football Podcast shares some thoughts before kickoff.
Oh sweet 16, those were the days. But is this really the season Alabama earns its 16th National Title? Well, we’ll find out Monday night, but in the meantime, here are the primary thoughts and concerns running through my head as I think about Alabama vs Clemson.
Jake Coker is who we thought he was – Now this isn’t some gimmicky tag line, it’s the real deal. We came within one 11 yard completion of exactly predicting his stat line for the Michigan State game. The evidence had been accumulating all season that, in the right setting, Coker could take over a game – the game-winning drive against Tennessee in which two critical 3rd downs were converted or the 75% completion percentage over the last weeks of the season. The signs were there and fortunately Michigan State, among others, didn’t see them.
However, don’t count on a similarly unleashed Air Coker assault against Clemson. Their corners are too good, which allows them to show more man than zone looks. Watch for more of a 17 of 24 for 200 and 1 TD kind of day from him. He’ll stick some good throws, but he won’t be asked to outright win this one.
Alabama’s Defense will dictate Alabama’s Offense – This one is a little counter intuitive but it plays to my expectations regarding the Tide’s offensive game plan. From the start, Alabama will want to shorten the game and this mostly translates into a short passing attack with large doses of Derrick Henry. However, to pull this off the Tide’s defense has to play its part in limiting the Clemson scoring machine. If the Tide can carry a scoreless game into the second quarter, then things are rolling the Tide’s way.
Alabama’s Defense will dictate the Tiger’s Offense – This one is more obvious and is critical to the outcome of the game. Clemson may well be the most talented offense the Tide has faced all season. It’s balanced and has the weapons necessary to wage serious warfare with the Alabama stop squad.
However, the Tide has two secret defensive weapons of their own, hidden in plain sight.
First is gap control. When the Alabama defensive front attacks as one coordinated unit, it simply can’t be run against. There’s the design which accounts for nearly every imaginable running lane, ball carrier, and blocking scheme, then there’s the personnel which boasts a bevy of NFL-caliber talent.
Ask Fournette or Dak about the availability of running lanes when the design is clicking.
In some regards, the Clemson game reminds me of the 2010 Auburn game with Cam Newton. When Alabama’s starters were able to set the defensive edge, those Tigers were limited. However, when the reserves were called into action, the edge faltered and the Tigers made hay. But this is a different Alabama team with a deeper and more talented roster.
The second secret weapon is the ability for the Tide secondary to field 4, or 5, or even 6 cornerbacks at any given time. I’ve been bullish on this development all season and its paid fantastic dividends – ask TAMU and UGA, and the colorful Conner Cook.
The Tide secondary may play on more of an island against Clemson, than they did against the Spartans, but the talent is there to make the passing game more of a slog than to what DeShaun Watson has grown accustomed.
Stats Are Awesome, and they Lie – Against Michigan State Derrick Henry mustered only 75 yards, or about half what I had projected. So, I guess that can only mean the gig is up and the Spartans have decoded the Tide rushing attack, right?
Far from it. In fact, it’s a false narrative from the jump. We’ve already established that the Tide’s focus of the offense was Coker, not Henry. Plus, how many times have Tide fans observed modest totals from Henry early only to find all-star numbers late? Just ask Shilique Calhoun if Henry wasn’t ready to bust open the rushing stats in the 4th quarter had the game somehow been close.
Watch for Henry to prove me right as I double down on my 150 yard prediction.
Stats still be lying – On the season Clemson’s defense holds opponents to a respectable 124.4 yards per game. That’s comparable to the 122.9 that LSU allows. Comparable stats if you overlook the idea that LSU plays in the SEC West or that they never played the McNeese State stat padding game due to weather.
That’s also the same LSU defense that Henry paved for 210 yards. In fact, Henry averages 167 yards rushing against the 8 ranked teams the Tide has faced this season.
I won’t argue Clemson’s stats nor the ability that those stats represent, but I’ll merely suggest that all those truths may not add up to much in the wake of a 4 quarter rush centric Alabama game plan.
Possess the Ball – This one is obvious, right? But it’s also a slow truth that reveals itself more as you consider it. I won’t unpack it here, but generally, the longer you can hold the ball, the longer you’ll get to. Possession frustrates the opponent’s offense while tiring their defense. A frustrated offense will make mistakes and a tired defense will yield points. Ball possession is the gift that keeps giving.
Consider then that Clemson is a high wire act ranking 113th nationally in offensive turnovers with 26. That’s a contra stat (think golf scores), in which a low number wins. So, in other words, Clemson can be reckless with the ball. Couple this trend with the Tide’s plan of a sustained power running game, any extra possessions or even points the Tide’s defense can muster may have an outsized impact.
Bottom line and predictions – Yeah, lots of stuff let’s cut to the chase.
Alabama Offense – Henry is the focal point and has 35 carries for 150 yards and 2 TDs for his efforts. Meanwhile, both Drake and Stewart have 75+ all-purpose days. Mullaney will keep a scoring drive alive with a 3rd down grab and OJ Howard will have another explosive play. All of that is a fancy way of saying that the Tide, after a slow start, will do what they do, and by the time it’s over they’ll have gotten all that they need.
Alabama Defense – Sacks will come but I don’t expect them to be early. The Tide’s front will focus first on minding the gaps and taking away the Clemson running game. This will be attempted from a nickel formation which is imperfect but they crippled Auburn’s offense with fewer box defenders. Focus on how zone read is working as proper gap control would account for both runners. Also watch how the young DBs are holding up in coverage.
Clemson Offense – DeShaun Watson may be one of the more talented run/pass quarterbacks that the Tide has faced, and RB Wayne Gallman is a talented cohort in the backfield. Watch for the kitchen sink in their first 20 scripted plays – down field, play action, zone read, power runs, screens, and draws. They will attempt everything to see how they can stress the Tide’s defense early. If they are shut down in the first quarter, it may be a long day for the Tigers. If something works, watch for sub packages built around those plays.
Clemson Defense – The Tigers will sell out on the run, they have to. Besides, they have the corners to pull it off early. The key to watch here is if Shaq Lawson can go and what he looks like when he does. He’s replaced by a freshman who performed well against Oklahoma, but the Sooners had a depleted group of running backs and were never able to fully wage war up front. That fight is coming Monday night and every available rep will be required to stave off Alabama’s relentless power game.
Prediction – Alabama 27 – Clemson 16