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National Championship Preview: Clemson Can Keep It Close

Clemson already proved the oddsmakers wrong in the College Football Playoffs. Here's why they can do it again against Alabama.

The 13-0 Clemson Tigers found themselves in an unfamiliar role heading into their College Football Playoff matchup versus the Oklahoma Sooners on New Year’s Eve: underdog. 

The Sooners closed as 4.5-point favorites over the Tigers, despite Clemson rolling through the regular season undefeated, winning their conference championship game, and being the darling of the advanced metrics crowd all season.

“As far as Clemson is concerned, they are getting no respect, no respect at all,” said Art Manteris, vice president of race and sports at Station's Casinos. “So much for being undefeated and No. 1."

Manteris wasn’t the only one who took issue with the slight.

After his team’s 37-17 drubbing of the Sooners, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney admitted to motivating his team with the Vegas line. “I told them, ‘You ain't favored to win the damn game, but we ain't no underdog,’” he said in a postgame interview.

Swinney -- one of college football’s master motivators and soundbite savants -- will need to dust off that speech for tonight’s National College Football Playoff Championship Game versus Alabama. The Tigers, numberFire’s second ranked team (24.86) according our nERD rating, opened a 7-point underdog, and the consensus line now sits at Clemson plus-6.5.

Given what Alabama (third ranked with a nERD of 24.39) did in their playoff semifinal game -- a 38-0 annihilation of Michigan State -- and during their 10-game winning streak prior to the Cotton Bowl, it’s hard to argue with the Tide laying points against Clemson.

While Swinney may have a tough case to make for his Tigers to be favorites against Alabama, a line just short of or at a full touchdown is quite a haul for a squad that now has four wins over teams ranked in numberFire’s top eight.

What do the metrics have to say?

Clemson Offense vs. Alabama Defense

If there is an elixir to turn this Nick Saban-led defense into mere mortals, it will probably be found in the arms and legs of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Watson enters tonight’s College Football Playoff National Championship with a chance to rush an elite fraternity that includes Ohio State’s Cardale Jones, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Auburn’s Cam Newton. Beyond the group’s impressive set of hardware that includes Heisman and national championship trophies, this unique set of signal callers baffled and ultimately dominated Nick Saban defenses.

The common thread, of course, is that they are dual threat quarterbacks in up-tempo, spread offenses. This year, Clemson featured FBS’ 12th fastest offense, according to numberFire, and the 5th most explosive unit using Bill Connelly’s IsoPPP+ statistic. And Watson has now thrown 16 touchdowns of 20 yards or more, best among Power 5 schools. 

While Clemson has racked up more than 500 yards of total offense in 10 consecutive games, Ed Feng of the Power Rank, rightly noted that the Tigers’ rushing offense, in particular, is barely mediocre, averaging 5.2 yards per carry (excluding sacks), which was good for just 51st in the nation.

But Watson was far more of an impact runner over the second half of the season now that he is fully recovered from an injured knee suffered late last year. In fact, Watson has topped 100 yards rushing in six of his last seven games and has done so at nearly a 6 yards per carry pace.

However, if there is a defense built to stop even the most dynamic quarterback or skill players, it is this Tide unit. According to the numbers -- really any set of credible numbers -- this Alabama defense is unique in their utter supremacy in every phase of the game.

Consider that Bill Connelly’s advanced statistics rank the Alabama defense first or second in yards per play, points per possession, defense S&P+, rushing S&P+, passing S&P+, and success rate.

It will no doubt be Watson’s toughest test to date.

Alabama Offense vs. Clemson Defense

Conversely, Clemson’s defense has also imposed their will on opponents throughout the season, thanks primarily to a disruptive defensive line. The unit ranks in the top five in “havoc” -- tackles for loss, creating turnovers, and passes broken up -- and is first in the nation in sack rate on passing downs.

But as good as Clemson’s defense was this year, especially in the Orange Bowl where they allowed only 3.9 yards per rush, don’t expect similar results against Alabama’s seasoned and talented offensive line. The fact remains that Clemson’s defensive coordinator, Brent Venables, feasted on the Sooners’ two freshmen tackles and two nicked up running backs. And Clemson may be taking on a Tide offensive line with their stud defensive end, Shaq Lawson, at less than 100 percent.

Venables may have to get more creative against the Tide, perhaps bringing additional players into the box to stifle Derrick Henry. Like Michigan State, the Tigers will want to force Tide quarterback Jake Coker, who averages 7.5 yards per pass (56th in the nation), to beat them.

But that may not be as daunting as it seems for Coker and his Alabama teammates. The Tide have been more explosive on passing downs than the casual observer might expect (34th in the country). Couple that with Clemson’s Achilles’ heel -- giving up big plays, especially on passing downs (78th in the nation) -- and suddenly Clemson’s defense doesn’t feel like a juggernaut.

So even if the Tigers can limit Henry, they will have to cut down on mistakes in the secondary and get a consistent pass rush on Coker.

The reality is that Alabama can wear down this thin -- and getting thinner -- Clemson front seven, as good as it might be. Henry will likely be the workhorse, especially in the fourth quarter when he is the most efficient (6.1 yards per carry) and Clemson’s defense is merely average at 68th in efficiency.

In sum, the numbers suggest these are two closely matched teams, and glaring statistical advantages are hard to find outside of the field position game. That makes the 6.5- or 7-point spread all the more curious.

What Handicappers Say

Chris Andrews, a longtime Nevada oddsmaker and handicapper currently with Against the Number, was surprised to see the game open with Alabama favored by 7 points. “I thought it should be about 3.5 or 4,” Andrews told me.

“Alabama has been a bet-on team for about the last three or four years, and I’ve been on them quite a bit. Now, I haven’t tried bucking that, but I bucked them here. I took the 7 (points). I just think it’s too high,” Andrews said.

Not surprisingly, Andrews cited Watson as the reason for his Clemson support. “Watson is a terrific player and that is where the game lies, right there. Alabama is going to have some trouble stopping him.”

Andrews, at least initially, was in the minority with a Clemson ticket in hand.

Bob Scucci, the Director of Race and Sports for Boyd Gaming, told ESPN midweek that the early money has been on the Tide. “It’s been nothing but Alabama so far both from the sharp guys and the public,” Scucci said on Chad Millman’s Behind the Bet$ podcast.

For those in the know, it wasn’t a big surprise. “Everyone runs to Alabama right away,” Andrews said. “In a sense, I don’t blame them. I don’t think you get rich betting on Nick Saban, but you are probably not going to get rich betting against him either. He’s been good to handicappers for a long time.”

Scucci and other bookmakers expected more money to come in on Clemson closer to game day, which may drive the line down below a touchdown to stay. “I’m sure we’ll get a lot of Clemson money late,” Scucci said.

Andrews agreed, predicting that the line may bounce between an occasional 6 and 7 but would ultimately settle in at Clemson getting 6.5 points, with the books getting two-way action from the professional bettors. In fact, Andrews is aware of one group of sharp players who came in heavy on Clemson plus-7 and moved the number down to 6.5 at books onshore and off.  

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