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How Alabama exploited a tiny Clemson error into the Championship's deciding play

Alabama's onside kick changed the national title game. Although it looked spontaneous, a ton of work went into ensuring the perfect play.

The best two teams in college football met for the national title. They were pretty much equal. But Alabama got the ball 16 times, and Clemson only got the ball 15 times.

Football is based around the idea that the two teams trade possessions, but in the fourth quarter of a tied title game, Alabama decided it didn't want to give Clemson the ball back.

Alabama won by one possession. This surprise onside kick is how it got that possession.

On Alabama's sideline, Nick Saban let loose a wry grin, the first time any of us have ever seen Saban express happiness during a game. On Clemson's, Dabo Swinney flipped out on the referees.

Three days later, it's still clear Dabo didn't have a case. Nothing Alabama did was close to illegal. Swinney was frustrated, grasping at straws and hoping the play would be somehow overturned.

If there were a Wikipedia page for Outcoached, this would make a nice header:

It looked like a spur-of-the-moment, gutsy risk by Saban, a man not known for spur-of-the-moment, gutsy risks. Of course, it wasn't. There was as much Process in Alabama's onside kick as anything else Alabama did all season.

To understand why Alabama's onside kick was successful, you have to understand that teams line up for kickoffs in different ways.

The team returning the kickoff lines up to match the opponent's formation.

Some teams line up conventionally. Here's Oklahoma kicking off to Clemson to start the Orange Bowl:

Pretty standard-looking, right? Oklahoma kicks from the middle of field and spreads its kickoff unit across the length of the entire field.

Hypothetically, the best way to block for a return would be to have 10 guys directly in front of the return man. But if a team did that, the kicking team would do onside kicks every time. So the front line deters onside kicks.

But most of the time, the ball is kicked deep. So the front line runs back about 20 yards, turns around and blocks somebody. When a team's coverage unit is spread across the field like Oklahoma's, the return unit does, too. The kick could go left or right, so Clemson needed to be able to set up a return to either side.

The field is so wide that spreading your coverage unit across it leaves a lot of open space.

On kickoff returns, open space is the last thing you want. So some teams choose the side of the field they'll kick to.

Clemson is actually one of these teams. The Tigers like to kick off from the left hashmark, and kick deep towards the kicker's left.

When the kicking team has all its guys clumped like this, it doesn't make sense for the return team to keep the same alignment as if the kicking team is spread. You know the ball is going to the left, so why not move all your blockers that way? If you kept your farthest player all the way to the right, he'd be blocking air.

The Tide also like to kick off from the left.

As you can see, their coverage men really scrunch up against each other. In the image above, Michigan State cheats over.

So to prepare for the Championship, Alabama's special teams staff watched footage of how the Tigers lined up to return the ball when they faced other teams that kicked off from the left. The Tide saw something they liked.

Compare the locations of the rightmost player on Alabama's return unit, Michigan State's return unit, and Clemson's return unit from an earlier game against Notre Dame:

Alabama and MSU have their players about five yards to the right of the hashmark. Clemson's lined up right on top of the hashmark. To most viewers, this is virtually unnoticeable. To a special teams coach, this is a giant red flag.

Clemson's bunched formation isn't an accident. It sets up nicely for return man Artavis Scott. On the first kickoff of the National Championship, Clemson's blocking opens up a 43-yard return. On the second returnable kickoff, the Tigers use a fake reverse that Clemson used out of the same formation against Notre Dame.

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The Crimson Tide are ready for whatever the opponent gives them.

"We have some sort of onside kick for every game, based on how the team lines up," says special teams coach Bobby Williams. "Teams are either gonna give us that kick or they're going to give us something different."

Against Clemson, the Tide were prepared to use an onside kick that takes advantage of the 20 yards of unguarded field between the last man on the Tigers' front line and the sideline. By design, it starts out looking the same as a regular kickoff in every way.

But look closely, and you'd notice kicker Adam Griffith's run-up is a tad slower than normal. And instead of planting his left foot with the last step and letting out a huge boot, he swivels his body and pops the ball into those 20 unguarded yards. That gives the last coverage man, Marlon Humphrey, time to get 10 yards downfield.

Most onside kicks require the ball to take a lucky bounce. This one eliminates that risk. It just requires a kick Griffith knew he could make and a clean catch.

Before Monday, Griffith's career was defined by his role in one of the most famous plays in college football history. As a freshman, he was asked to kick a 57-yarder in the Iron Bowl. He missed, as most kickers would, and the rest was history.

That's a disservice to Griffith. Born Andrzej Debowski, Griffith spent most of his first 13 years in Western Polish orphanages. In 2006, the Griffith family adopted him. You might not recognize his accent at first, but if you listen closely, you realize it's Polish with a Southern twang.

The Griffiths weren't trying to adopt a football player, but Adam was a natural. The first time he tried to kick a football, he drilled a 35-yarder with no prior instruction. As a sophomore in high school, he boomed kicks at Alabama's camp and a man who he was told was important gave him a scholarship offer. As a senior, some services ranked him the best kicker in the country.

Alabama trusts him. In practice, Griffith nailed the onside kick over and over. The question was whether Humphrey could catch it.

Humphrey was a five-star cornerback, son of Alabama RB legend Bobby Humphrey and a track star mom. He quickly became Alabama's starting corner, but at Alabama, starters still have to play special teams. In practice, he just wasn't catching the dang ball.

"The last time we practiced it, he didn't do a very good job," Williams said. "Adam kicked it perfectly, but he didn't flip his hands over."

Here is my best attempt to summarize Alabama football.

The riskiest thing the Tide will ever attempt was one of the nation's most highly recruited kickers pooching the ball to one of the nation's most highly recruited cornerbacks, and it worked so well in practice that the primary problem was the elite superstar cornerback was not doing a perfect job of making the uncontested catch. That's their biggest risk.

Before the game, Saban told Griffith he planned on calling the onside kick. All Alabama needed was to make sure Clemson did its part. Spotters watched each kickoff to make sure the Tigers were aligned the way Bama wanted.

On Alabama's first kickoff, Clemson lined up the way Alabama wanted:

On Alabama's second kickoff, Clemson lined up the way Alabama wanted:

On Alabama's third kickoff, Clemson lined up the way Alabama wanted:

Alabama waited.

"We had the discussion every time we kicked off," Williams said. "It was there."

The first four times Williams went over, Saban wasn't ready.

"I set it up, I coach them, get it done," Williams said. "He makes the call."

The play doesn't have a cool code name. The fifth time Alabama had to kick off, Saban decided it was time.

"He just said, 'Let's do it.'" Griffith said.

The execution was perfect.

The kick looked like a regular kickoff.

Humphrey, the man up top, hasn't even begun to veer toward the open space to catch the ball.

Since Griffith's run-up to the ball is slower than normal, his teammates have to be careful not to go offside. Nobody was even close. (Although Twitter sleuths hollered that Griffith's left foot was offside, by rule, a kicker cannot be offside on his own kickoff.)

The closest Clemson players never had a shot.

This time, Humphrey caught it.

Players were so hyped that, after O.J. Howard's touchdown two plays later, they wanted to try the trick again.

"We scored a touchdown, and the guys were saying, 'Let's do it again,'" Williams said. "But they lined up a little wider the next time."

The fix was made, but the damage was done.

This is football. It looks like dudes running into each other, but one minuscule difference the untrained eye might never catch can decide an entire season. Alabama found a tiny crack in Clemson's armor, and the Tide rolled right through it.