National Championship Preview: Alabama and Clemson Meet Again
There’s a chance the game this will be akin to The Empire Strikes Back, a followup that’s just as good, or even better than the original. Second-ranked Clemson is coming off a 31-0 demolition of third-ranked Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl and boasts a strong unit on both sides of the ball. Deshaun Watson also might be the best quarterback the vaunted Crimson Tide defense has seen all year.
Then again, the sheer strength of Alabama means the game could just as easily be the series’ equivalent of Jaws: The Revenge. The top-seeded Tide, which defeated fourth-ranked Washington 24-7 in the Peach Bowl, have posted the nation’s largest average margin of victory (27.9) against the country’s second-toughest schedule (per the Sagarin Ratings).
The Crimson Tide also came into the playoff at top of our power ratings, where we rated them as 38.62 points better than an average team. Clemson was fifth, at +28.78. The Tigers are sixth in the nation in average margin of victory (19.6) and have played a top-10 schedule themselves.
The folks in Vegas have Alabama as a 6.5-point favorite, and the moneylines imply the reigning champs have about 68% chance to repeat.
Can Clemson pull off the upset, or will Alabama keep the script unchanged and win a fifth national championship in eight years?
When Clemson Has the Ball
Watson is one of the nation's best quarterbacks and has a solid supporting cast, and the odds may still be against him. That’s how strong Alabama’s defense has been this season.
The Crimson Tide own the nation’s top defense in terms of both yards per play and points per game, rank first in our opponent-adjusted yards per rush metric, and are fifth against the pass.
Clemson will almost certainly need Watson to be at his best because yards are almost impossible to come by on the ground against Alabama. The Tide defense has allowed a paltry 2.0 yards per carry and only three defenses this century have yielded fewer.
Wayne Gallman (1,087 yards, 16 touchdowns, 5.1 yards per carry) does lead a solid Tigers rushing attack, and Watson has chipped in with 654 yards and 8 touchdowns on 131 rushes (excluding sacks). Clemson’s running game is efficient at getting the yards it needs but barely gets more than that; they rank 17th in success rate but 126th in explosiveness, as measured by IsoPPP at Football Study Hall (essentially, IsoPPPP gauges “how good” a team’s “good plays” are).
Still, it hardly seems like the ground game will be able to stack up against the Alabama defensive front, which is number one nationally in success rate and 18th in IsoPPP against the run.
This front is loaded with talent and is led by defensive end Jonathan Allen (15 tackles for a loss) and linebackers Ryan Anderson (17 tackles for a loss), Tim Williams (15) and Reuben Foster (12). Allen, Williams, and Foster could all be early first-round picks, while Anderson also went in the first round in Matt Miller’s latest mock draft.
This would seem to put things on Watson’s shoulders, and the senior quarterback should be up to the task. In last season’s title game, he threw for 405 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while completing 30-of-47 passes (good for a 63.8% completion percentage and 8.6 yards per pass).
Watson had another stellar season, throwing for 4,173 yards and 38 touchdowns, while posting a 67.3% completion percentage which was tied for eighth in the country. He did throw 17 interceptions (for a 3.3% interception rate) but still led a passing attack that ranked sixth in opponent-adjusted efficiency, according to Football Outsiders.
Like the Clemson running game, their passing game is more centered around getting the necessary yardage than picking up gains in large chunks. As mentioned, Watson was the nation’s leaders in completion percentage, and Clemson’s passing offense is fourth in success rate.
In terms of yards per completion, though, Clemson is just 79th and is below the national average of 12.4; their passing offense ranks 78th in IsoPPP.
Watson still has playmakers around him, with Mike Williams headlining the group. The redshirt junior was one of top receivers in the nation this year, catching 90 passes for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He missed virtually all of last season, including the national title game but will now get his chance to face the Alabama pass defense. The unit has no shortage of playmakers of their own and has excelled at preventing completions of any kind (13th in completion percentage allowed, 3rd in success rate) and containing big plays (8th in yards per completion but 35th in IsoPPP).
Williams himself will likely go toe-to-toe with corner Marlon Humphrey, in a battle of potential first-round picks. Opponents seem to avoid throwing at Humphrey, as while he has only 2 interceptions, he has allowed just 28 receptions in 13 games this season, according to Pro Football Focus (though he has allowed 16.3 yards per catch, so on the rare occasions he does get beat, it is usually for a big gain).
The battle between Clemson’s offensive line and Alabama’s pass rush should also be a good one.
Alabama ranks third in sacks per game, and after adjusting for volume of dropbacks, situation and quality of opponent, the Crimson Tide ranks eighth in adjusted sack rate, according to Football Study Hall.
Allen has 9.5 sacks (after recording 12 last year), while Williams has added 9 and Anderson has 8.
They might have a difficult time getting to Watson, as he has only been sacked 13 times on 536 drop backs, and Clemson is second in the nation in adjusted sack rate allowed.
Overall, Alabama’s defense has been one of the better units in recent memory, but with Watson leading the way, Clemson may have enough firepower to keep things interesting.
When Alabama Has the Ball
The other side of the ball features a pair of outstanding units that have been overshadowed this year. Watson is Clemson’s most prominent player while defense is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Nick Saban’s Alabama teams.
That doesn’t change the fact that the Tigers have fielded an elite defense and Alabama has one of the country’s most efficient offenses.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts has been a pleasant surprise for the Crimson Tide, as the freshman has thrown for 2,620 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while averaging 7.5 yards per pass and completing 64.6% of his throws. He has also added 1,005 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground on 162 non-sack rush attempts (good for 6.2 yards per carry).
He had a rough game in the semifinal against Washington (completing just 7-of-14 passes for 57 yards without a touchdown or interception) but some struggles were probably to be expected against a Huskies defense that was tied for third nationally in yards per pass.
Hurts won’t get a reprieve on Monday, as Clemson is one of the teams Washington is tied with. The Tigers are third in completion percentage allowed and ninth in yards allowed per completion, with Cordrea Tankersley leading the way.
The senior corner has 4 interceptions and 10 pass breakups, and according to Pro Football Focus, he has allowed just 27 catches and 285 yards on 59 targets (a 45.8% completion percentage, 4.8 yards per pass, and 10.6 yards per reception). Fellow Corner Ryan Carter (7 pass breakups) and safety Jadar Johnson (5 interceptions, 7 pass breakups) are other standouts in the Clemson secondary.
Johnson will be tested up the middle by tight end O.J. Howard (41 catches, 489 yards), while the corners will contend with ArDarius Stewart (816 yards, 52 catches) and Calvin Ridley (769 yards, 67 catches).
Clemson, like Alabama, will bring a strong pass rush, with defensive linemen Carlos Watkins (10.5 sacks), Dexter Lawrence (6.5), and Clelin Ferrell (6) featured on a group that is fourth in adjusted sack rate. They may also actually have a fortuitous matchup, as despite the presence of Outland Trophy winner Cam Robinson on the Alabama offensive line, the Crimson Tide are just 43rd in adjusted sack rate.
For all the success Hurt has had in his freshman year, the passing game is one area of the game Clemson seems to have a clear advantage.
This suggests we’ll see the Crimson Tide leaning on their running game, which is the stronger part of their offense anyway. They rank eighth in yards per carry and ninth in rushing success rate.
Hurts has played a role here, while a deep corps of running backs join him in the backfield. Damien Harris is the team’s leading rusher (1,013 yards, 7.1 yards per carry), while Bo Scarbrough led the way against Washington. Scarborough, who has 719 yards with a 6.6 yards per carry average for the season, ran for 180 yards and 2 scores on 19 carries in the Peach Bowl. Joshua Jacobs (551 yards, 6.6 yards per carry) is in the mix as well.
The backs also have the benefit of playing behind the Alabama offensive line, as 45.7% of their rushes have gained at least five yards (the sixth-best rate in the country, per Football Study Hall), a testament to the blockers’ ability to win upfront.
The Tigers are not weak against the run by any stretch and are only allowing 3.5 yards per carry, while ranking 24th in success rate. The Clemson run defense performed well against Ohio State’s potent ground attack as, outside of a 64-yard rush by Curtis Samuel, the Buckeyes running backs only gained 27 yards on 10 carries.
Long rushes have been a problem for Clemson’s defense, as the Tigers are 93rd in rushing IsoPPP. Alabama’s running game 26th in IsoPPP, so when they do get in the open field, big plays should be available for Hurts, Harris, and Scarbrough.
Special teams are notoriously prone to random variation, but if both teams’ units stay true to form, Alabama should have an edge; neither teams’ return games are anything to write home about, but the Crimson Tide have punt and kickoff units that rank 12th and 28th in success rate, per Football Study Hall.
Both teams will field great offenses and defenses, with the matchups on both sides appearing more even than your typical game with a 6.5-point spread. The Crimson Tide may have an edge throughout thanks to their strength of the ground, given their run defenses’ utter dominance and what could be an advantageous matchup their rushing offense.
The extent to which Alabama can exploit these matchups, as well as whether or not Watson can produce more heroics will determine whether this game is more Godfather II or Grease 2. In any case, enjoy the show.