The national title game is here. Pitting Clemson (a dynamic, exciting team) against Alabama (about as exciting to watch as continents drifting) is as blunt a juxtaposition of styles as you’ll see. Clemson, led by its Gospel preacher of a head coach in Dabo Swinney and possibly the nation’s best quarterback in sophomore Deshaun Watson, moves fast and creates mismatches. Alabama, led by corporate compliance official Nick Saban and possibly the nation’s most painful running back to tackle in junior Derrick Henry, beats you by running Henry a LOT and breaking opponents’ wills.
CAN CLEMSON PRODUCE ENOUGH BIG PLAYS?
We’ve heard it a thousand times: the Tide defense struggles against mobile quarterbacks. If you look back at the handful of teams that have beaten Alabama, a theme appears. Chad Kelly. Cardale Jones*. Nick Marshall. Johnny Manziel.
*I mean, Jones is mobile the same way an aircraft carrier is mobile, but bear with me, they used him in a lot of designed runs.
While it’s certainly true that a mobile quarterback keeps a defense off-balance by adding an extra man to run the ball and straining a team’s secondary by extending plays, two things to keep in mind. First: struggling to defend mobile quarterbacks is hardly an exclusively Alabamian issue. Everyone struggles with mobile quarterbacks. There isn’t something inherently flawed in the design of the Tide defense that mobile quarterbacks are exploiting. Second: if we’re going to talk about all the times the Tide have been beaten by a mobile quarterback, we also have to talk about the times the Tide have utterly shut one down (for example, Dak Prescott, one of the most prolific quarterbacks in SEC history, last November).
We have to look instead at what those mobile quarterbacks provide to their offenses: a consistent big play threat. Teams that beat Alabama do so because they can stretch a defense with deep passes. Clemson’s signal caller Deshaun Watson has not exactly been a consistent deep ball passer, although when the Tigers direct him downfield, he throws beautifully. No, what the nation’s most accurate passer brings to the table is a ruthless efficiency: on first and second down he completes 76% of his passes and averages 5.8 yards per carry. Passing on first and second downs when the defense is usually loaded up against the run, even if they’re just short passes (essentially extended runs) gets the offense in considerably better shape for third down. But can it beat Alabama?
Ohio State figured out that by having Jones occasionally sling the ball 40+ yards to Devin Smith created room for Ezekiel Elliott to pound the Tide’s defensive line. The Tigers don’t have a back with Elliott’s physicality, but they might have something more useful: the tandem of Watson and running back Wayne Gallman (5.5 yards per carry, twelve touchdowns). In another era Watson and Gallman would have been the stars of a Tom Osborne-style option offense, finding the edge with their speed, making defenses choose which to defend, and gashing them for their choice. Instead in 2016, Watson and Gallman work out of the backfield and have pass options built in, and Watson runs them like a champ.
The risk Clemson runs here is getting Watson banged up. They need him healthy to throw deep when called upon. While Watson doesn’t get sacked very often and is generally pretty good at avoiding contact, Alabama is pretty good at inflicting pain. Gallman needs to be ready to carry the burden. Clemson hasn’t been shy about using him heavily against the best defenses on its schedule and can’t let the daunting premise of trying to run on the Tide get them off their game.
But if Clemson wants to beat Alabama, Watson is going to have to make some throws. If I’m Clemson’s two-headed OC Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, I’m looking for second and short situations, dialing up run/pass options that include college football’s most sure-handed receiver Artavis Scott going long, and letting Watson figure out the best play to make.
BAMA AND THE BELL COWS
One of my favorite aspects of the movement towards spread offenses in college football is the slow transition of the game back to playground- and backyard-style tactics. On the playground, you took the fastest kid in your class and gave him the ball over and over and over. Slow kids like me might get lucky to see a pass thrown their way if they were ridiculously wide open, but for the most part, you knew Drew or Mark was just gonna run circles around the kids from Mrs. Meeker’s class and who cares if they couldn’t do anything to stop him.
That’s more or less the Lane Kiffin approach to calling a game. Kiffin’s shortcomings as a head coach have belied his excellent playcalling abilities, taking the best player or players at his disposal and feeding the opponent a steady diet. When Kiffin had Marquise Lee and Robert Woods at USC, his offense leaned heavily towards the pro-style spread, utilizing their excellent hands and quickness. When Kiffin had Amari Cooper at Alabama, he brought in elements of hurry-up and spread-style offenses that, while a ghastly diversion from traditional Bama Manball, modernized the idling Tide offense and allowed Cooper to get one-on-one matchups, even when everyone in the stadium knew where Blake Sims was going to throw the ball. Nobody could do a blessed thing to stop it, and Cooper caught 124 passes for over 1,700 yards.
Fast forward to 2015 and Kiffin has a shiny new toy: junior running back Derrick Henry, whom Kiffin rode to 2,061 yards, 25 touchdowns, and something called a Heisman Trophy. When the passing game broke down, Henry carried the ball 32 times against Texas A&M, 38 times against LSU, 44 times against Florida, at 46 (!) times against Auburn.
While seldom flashy, it’s Henry’s durability that makes him hardest to stop: he just doesn’t wear down. And in the playoff semifinal against Michigan State, Kiffin essentially used Henry as a decoy: the Spartans focused all their efforts on containing him, and senior quarterback Jake Coker had the best game of his career.
Which poses a difficult situation for Clemson and DC Brent Venables. The Tigers are prone to load the box to stuff the run on early downs (and it won’t just be lip service: they’re big and tough and are capable of containing Henry), then slanting the secondary towards the open side of the field and blitzing their stripes off in passing situations.
Loading up the box will allow Kiffin to pull one of his favorite tricks: throwing to the sideline. Fortunately, Clemson’s corners are phenomenal and can hold their own on the edge, freeing up one of the nation’s best defensive fronts to go after Coker and Henry. But if Henry and the offensive line can grab a few yards at a time, things will open up for Coker to find Calvin Ridley downfield, where he’s excelled.
CLEMSON WILL NEED TO GET LUCKY
Sorry that’s a bummer header, but it’s true: more so than any mobile quarterback, the contributing factor has usually been that when the Crimson Tide has lost, they’ve also been very unlucky. Johnny Manziel and the Aggies beat the Tide because he made throws and extended plays the way only Johnny Manziel can. Against Auburn in 2013, the Tide missed all three field goal attempts and let the navy-blue-and-burnt-orange Tigers hang around (also, there was this). As great as Kelly was against the Tide, Bama was also minus-five in turnover margin and watched helplessly as this happened.
Clemson has been very good this season at making its own luck by slanting the field for the offense and playing very aggressively on defense. Alabama has just done what it’s always done, letting its bulldozing offensive line pave the way for Henry to carry the ball approximately 1,000 times per game, and taking the potential for mistakes away from Coker.
The stalemate potential for this game is strong, as it features the nation’s two best defenses, and each defense is strong in the areas where each offense most needs to establish itself. Therefore, which team can improvise the best? I think I would nod to Clemson, but Kiffin’s acumen as a playcaller shouldn’t be overlooked. And lord knows Nick Saban is just really dang hard to beat.