1. First things first. This game will decide who's the country's best team in the trenches.
Alabama is a seven-point favorite because Alabama justifiably gets the benefit of the doubt. If you pick the Tide in every game, you are almost never wrong. But Clemson's offensive line and defensive front might both be the best the Tide have faced this year.
Line play is one of the most useful aspects to watch early in a game. It allows you to see the future. Your playmakers can only do so much damage if you are losing the battles up front. Don't be surprised if Clemson's lines hold up.
2. The marquee matchup: Clemson has both the country's best QB and the kind of QB who can actually gain yards against Bama.
(It's the same QB: Deshaun Watson. The Tide have been preparing for him in part by having a 2016 freshman new to campus impersonate him in practice.)
The "Nick Saban struggles with the spread" trope is about to be vindicated or destroyed. Alabama faces Clemson's smashmouth spread and dual-threat, Heisman finalist Watson with a title on the line.
The Tide have slimmed down up front while still fielding the No. 1 rushing defense. Between Jonathan Allen and consensus All-American A'Shawn Robinson on the inside and Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson on the outside, they now get a pass rush vastly superior to that of any previous Saban-Tide defense.
The top two passer ratings by Bama opponents this year were by Ole Miss' Chad Kelly (171.35) and Tennessee's Josh Dobbs (139.38), each of whom stayed mobile enough to make a few plays on the run. Otherwise, the Tide shut down the mobile quarterbacks of Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State and LSU and demolished drop-back passers.
Watson's better, to say the least. He ranks both No. 5 in passer rating against Power 5 opponents (among QBs who've faced three or more) and No. 1 in QB rushing yards per game against the same.
3. Efficiency alone is rarely enough to beat Bama. Can Clemson adjust?
In Bama's last six losses, opponents have averaged 1.3 rushes and four passes of at least 20 yards. Take out the oddity that was the 2014 Ole Miss game (zero rushes, two passes), and the average rises to 1.6 rushes and 4.4 passes. You need about six explosive plays, plus a good game everywhere else, to have a chance to beat Bama.
Clemson's got the efficiency part down pat. The Tigers are wonderfully effective on standard downs, mixing steady running with mostly short passing. On first downs, quarterback Deshaun Watson is completing a staggering 76 percent, and running back Wayne Gallman is averaging a steady 5.8 yards per carry.
But only six percent of Gallman's first-down carries are 20-yarders. Only 12 percent of Watson's first-down completions are 25-yarders.
4. Having said that ... who exactly is breaking big pass plays for Clemson?
Clemson is lacking a true deep threat for this game. Both Jordan Leggett and Charone Peake have shown the ability to play the role at times, but losing both Mike Williams and Deon Cain hurts.
The Tide secondary doesn't have a starting member above 6'; either Leggett or Peake will have to beat someone deep. Both have the height advantage to do so. Trevion Thompson is the only other player on the roster tall enough to be a threat like that. Artavis Scott is fast enough to catch the deep ball, but the question is if he can get open quickly enough.
However, there is a good chance he will be able to exploit Alabama's weakness in covering slot WRs. Screen passes, slants, stick routes and the like are all of major importance. We know the ball is going into Scott's hands early and often. The weakness of the Alabama defense this year has been their inability to cover WRs in the slot.
5. On the other side, how's Clemson gonna corral the Heisman Trophy winner?
Derrick Henry is the engine that drives the Alabama tractor, but Clemson is better suited to stop him than most. Clemson's defensive line excels in havoc and tackles for loss; Henry is elite with any sort of momentum but pedestrian when forced to change direction or when hit without adequate momentum. Clemson has the personnel and aggressive scheme to get into the backfield and prevent Henry from gaining steam. It goes without saying that any sort of busted run fit would be nothing short of catastrophic.
Clemson also frequently sends Ben Boulware or BJ Goodson on bullet and fire blitzes to both clog running lanes and wreak havoc in the backfield. It stands to reason that Clemson will penetrate the Bama OL, nullifying Henry's greatest strength, on a fair percentage of runs.
6. Oh, the Tide have to pass, too. They're gonna have a much harder time at that than in their last game.
The level of execution QB Jake Coker exhibited against Michigan State will not be sufficient to punish Clemson for keeping LBs in the box to control Henry. Henry might have a better day, but he won't light up the board unless Coker can make some plays. Clemson will present some challenges with future pro DBs like Jayson Kearse and Mackensie Alexander.
It might be more difficult for Coker to even know where the ball needs to go. Clemson is going to bring a great deal more complexity than did the Spartans. In addition to daring Coker to show more accuracy, Clemson is going to attack with variety that will make it harder for Lane Kiffin to line up kill shots.
7. Overall, the Tigers have to mash the gas at every opportunity, because Bama's biggest edge could really emerge late.
It's safe to say that if any team Bama has played can match the Tide's own defense in talent, it's the unit sported by Clemson. They have elite players, excellent coaching, a proven scheme, fantastic size and speed, and veteran leadership. Statistically, they are in the top-10 in most major categories, and their record against premiere offenses indicates Alabama will have quite a hill to climb to execute against this defense.
There is one caveat, for Bama fans looking for a ray of sunshine. If there's one roster weakness for the Tigers, it would be the lack of experienced, veteran depth. While there is plenty of seniority peppered into the starting line-up, among second-string defenders there are six true or redshirt freshmen and four true or redshirt sophomores.
As the game wears on and the Clemson defense tires, the Alabama offense may find more and more creases to exploit.
Bonus! The giant stats dump for this game covers everything else!
Five biggest advantages for each team
- Offensive Field Position (No. 5 offense vs. No. 96 defense)
- Defensive Field Position (No. 26 defense vs. No. 100 offense)
- Offensive Passing Downs Explosiveness (IsoPPP) (No. 34 offense vs. No. 78 defense)
- Q4 S&P+ (No. 8 vs. No. 42)
- Defensive Rushing Explosiveness (IsoPPP) (No. 1 defense vs. No. 28 offense)
- Defensive Passing Downs Sack Rate (No. 17 defense vs. No. 78 offense)
- Third Down Defense S&P+ (No. 10 defense vs. No. 64 offense)
- Redzone Defense S&P+ (No. 8 defense vs. No. 46 offense)
- Defensive Run Stuffs (No. 2 defense vs. No. 34 offense)
- Defensive Passing Explosiveness (IsoPPP) (No. 3 defense vs. No. 30 offense)