As Alabama and Clemson prepare for a rematch of last year’s national championship game, here’s a tale of the tape regarding which team has the edge on offense, defense, special teams and on the sidelines?
And so we meet again. It’s Alabama-Clemson: The Sequel. Some of the faces have changed, and the setting will be sunny Tampa instead of sunny Glendale, but these are largely the same programs as last January. They’re still both littered with NFL-caliber talent and are still led by elite coaching staffs.
But who has the better personnel ensemble at each unit heading into Monday’s title game to decide the national champ? And which areas are most likely to be exploited by the Tide and the Tigers? Here’s a tale of the tape for the national championship game.
It’s the seminal position on the field. And it happens to be where Clemson holds its biggest edge heading into Monday night. True, Deshaun Watson has had an imperfect junior season, as evidenced by his 17 interceptions. But he’s a third-year starter, with the experience of having almost knocked off Alabama by accounting for 478 yards and four touchdowns in last year’s title game. That is huge for a quarterback.
Meanwhile, Jalen Hurts, for all of his exploits, is still a rookie. And he looked like one against Washington in the Peach Bowl. Hurts threw for just 57 yards Saturday, and has largely struggled in the passing game versus the better defenses on Alabama’s schedule. His arm doesn’t figure to be a factor in Tampa either, which has the dual effect of neutralizing the Tide’s talented collection of receivers and tight ends.
Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough had a Justin Vincent—or Roland Sales for more seasoned fans—moment, saving his best game of the year for the postseason. Scarbrough tapped into his inner Derrick Henry against a stout Washington defense, carrying the Tide offense with 180 yards and two scores on 19 carries. Bama also has leading rusher Damien Harris and precocious freshman Josh Jacobs to complement the quick feet of Hurts at quarterback.
Clemson lacks the depth and the pop of Alabama in the running game. Wayne Gallman has had a workmanlike year, rushing for 1,087 yards, but he has rarely shredded defenses and none of his backups have been factors. It’s also doubtful anyone will see much daylight against a Bama D allowing just 62 rushing yards per game.
Receivers and Tight Ends
The Clemson passing game is far superior to Alabama, and not just because of Watson. Oh, the Tide have viable targets, from the soft hands of Calvin Ridley and physicality of ArDarius Stewart to next-level TE O.J. Howard. But Hurts hasn’t always been able to maximize their skill set. Moreover, the Tiger hands team is among the most dangerous in the country.
Watson is surrounded by an almost endless array of options, headlined by imposing Mike Williams, but also including Deon Cain, Artavis Scott, TE Jordan Leggett and Hunter Renfrow stealthily working out of the slot. Watson will not be staring down one or even two receivers when dropping back to throw, which is crucial when facing the Bama pass defense.
There are common threads binding the Tiger and Tide O-lines.
Both features stars at left tackle, Mitch Hyatt and Cam Robinson, and true freshmen right tackles, Sean Pollard and Jonah Williams, respectively. Both have underrated cogs at the pivot, Clemson’s Jay Guillermo and Bama’s Bradley Bozeman. And both will be aiming for a higher level of point-of-attack dominance in Monday’s finale.
The Tide’s guard play has been just ordinary this season, with Ross Pierschbacher on the left side and former D-lineman Korren Kirven to the right of center. Clemson, on the other hand, needs to be better in run blocking. The Tigers’ strength has been pass protection, encouraging considering the opponent. They’ve surrendered just 16 sacks to rank No. 17 nationally.
Bama is home to the single most dominant player in college football, DE Jonathan Allen. And the Tide’s oppressive run defense and pass rush begin in the trenches, a three-man line that includes Dalvin Tomlinson and Da’Ron Payne. But as heretical as it may sound, Clemson has actually caught up to Bama at the all-important D-line.
The Tigers may not have an Allen. No one does. But they are loaded up front with big bodies that move uncommonly well. Defensive end Christian Wilkins, and tackles Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence are 300-plus pounders, with the quickness to wreak havoc on the other side of the line. Plus, the rotation is deep and redshirt freshman DE Clelin Ferrell is coming into his own, making three tackles for loss and a sack in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Tigers are solid on the second level, led by senior Ben Boulware and sophomore Kendall Joseph, who wrap up well in space, play with hot motors and will contribute in pass coverage. The Tide, though, operate at an entirely different level, thanks to the senior trio of Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson.
Foster is one of the nation’s elite run defenders, diagnosing and filling running lanes in a flash. Williams and Anderson are hybrids, most dangerous as stand-up defensive ends who pin their ears back and hunt down opposing passers. Rashaan Evans was impactful in his first game since replacing injured Shaun Dion Hamilton, chipping in seven tackles and a sack against Washington.
The numbers don’t lie—Clemson and Alabama, respectively ranked No. 4 and No. 5 nationally in pass efficiency D, have been almost identical this season. The Tigers have been sloppy only once, Nov. 12 against Pitt. The Tide? Just the Week 3 Ole Miss game. Otherwise, both have been largely airtight, sticking to receivers and making quarterbacks pay for weak throws.
Bama has six pick-sixes, spearheaded by the playmaking of SS Minkah Fitzpatrick and CB Marlon Humphrey. Not to be forgotten, CB Anthony Averett and FS Ronnie Harrison also played well in Atlanta, helping stifle Washington receivers John Ross and Dante Pettis. Cornerback Cordrea Tankersley is the Tiger Hurts will most want to avoid. Safeties Jadar Johnson and Van Smith are also athletic and active, the latter returning an interception 86 yards last weekend.
Tide punter JK Scott is the special teamer most likely to leave a mark on this game. He’s a strong-legged, experienced specialist who provides an added boost to the Alabama D, as if it’s needed. Scott is also markedly better than Clemson P Andy Teasdall, who is averaging only 38 yards an attempt.
Neither team is doing much in the return game, at least since Tide star Eddie Jackson was lost for the year in October. In what figures to be a close, low scoring game, the placekickers will be crucial. Bama’s Adam Griffith and Clemson’s Greg Huegel have both suffered through bouts of inconsistency this season. Griffith is just 3-of-7 beyond 40 yards, while Huegel has missed four times inside 40.
Nick Saban is the best in the business, and even better when a title hangs in the balance. While at LSU and Alabama, he’s a remarkable 13-2 in playoff or championship games, with the only losses coming to Urban Meyer-led teams. But it’s worth keeping a couple of things in mind. First, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has moved into the upper echelon of coaches, building an enduring model for long-term success around a winning culture and a terrific staff of assistants. Second, Saban’s dismissal of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin a week before the title game can’t help but be a distraction as the team begins preparation for a Tiger defense that just handed Meyer the first shutout of his coaching career.