Alabama loses so infrequently that trend-spotting becomes almost impossible. Attempting to generalize leads to things like "Alabama struggles with mobile quarterbacks!" and "Alabama struggles with tempo!" These theories are decent, but they require us to ignore all the times the Crimson Tide didn't struggle with mobile QBs or higher pace.
Since whipping LSU in 2011's BCS Championship, Alabama has lost six times: to Texas A&M in 2012, to Auburn and Oklahoma in 2013, to Ole Miss and Ohio State in 2014, and to Ole Miss in 2015.
Those losses were indeed dealt by teams with quarterbacks who could run, some (Johnny Manziel, Nick Marshall) more than others (Bo Wallace, Cardale Jones). The losses also involved some level of offensive failure from the Tide -- turnovers (2014 Ohio State, 2015 Ole Miss), blown scoring opportunities (2012 A&M, 2013 Auburn), etc.
Five of six involved Bama's defense giving up too many big plays.
In September, Ole Miss completed seven passes of at least 20 yards. Last January, Ohio State gained 20-plus yards on four rushes and four passes. In the 2014 Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma had five such passes.
In these 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.
This makes sense. As important as efficiency is to beating the Tide, this defense is still too good to beat with constant 10-play drives. The dam needs to leak a few times.
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.
Clemson is really good at dinking and dunking, but this isn't the most explosive offense.
Let's look at the four most important players in Clemson's quest for a requisite number of big plays.
1. Deshaun Watson, quarterback
Watson might have been the best quarterback in the country. A quarterback this mobile isn't supposed to throw this accurately and avoid sacks this well.
Watson does not have Chad Kelly's or Jones' arm strength. While Ezekiel Elliott was the star of Ohio State's 2014 semifinal win over the Crimson Tide, Jones completed passes of 26 yards on third-and-9, 40 on third-and-9, 47 on third-and-8, and 26 on third-and-10. He torched the Tide in a way that almost no one can. Kelly was able to take important shots downfield in Ole Miss' September win over Alabama.
Watson isn't that guy. But he has a level of efficiency that Kelly and Jones can only dream of. With Watson in control, Clemson has, in effect, a devastating triple option: Gallman between the tackles, Watson off the edge and receiver Artavis Scott on the perimeter. Clemson is as good as anybody at generating about six yards at a time, staying on schedule and wearing defenses down.
Against Alabama, though, Watson will have to make some throws. Alabama doesn't wear down, and Alabama is the best in the country at knocking you off schedule. In September, Ole Miss was able to stay on schedule and win run-or-pass situations (Kelly had passes of 24 and 73 yards on second-and-short and 66 yards on third-and-short). The Rebels were hopeless on third-and-long, but they had gotten some licks in elsewhere.
You have to pull off a balance between staying on schedule and taking chances. If Watson makes a few big throws when he gets the chance, Clemson's got a shot at a ring. Watson might give Alabama its ultimate dual-threat test, but Alabama will give Watson his toughest challenge as well.
2. Artavis Scott, wide receiver
Scott might be the other linchpin. He has been an absurdly reliable pair of hands; among the 62 FBS players targeted by at least 100 passes this fall, his 79 percent catch rate was the best. He fields a ton of short passes that make him an extension of the run game.
Scott occasionally busts loose. When he does, Clemson's offense is just about unstoppable. But when he doesn't, the Tigers have far less upside.
Clemson was held under 34 points four times this season; in those four, Scott caught 30 passes for only 176 yards, 5.9 yards per catch. In the other 10, he caught 59 passes for 692 yards, a more palatable 11.7 yards per catch. In two postseason games, he's averaged 13.3.
If you're fighting off blocks and wrapping Scott up before he can find space, you're forcing Watson to look downfield to other targets. If you're not, Watson doesn't even have to go to Plan B to wreck you.
3. Whoever Plan B is
With Scott so sturdy -- his 89 catches are more than double that of No. 2 target Charone Peake -- Clemson has been able to use its other receivers to stretch the field. And quite a few have had big games.
Over a four-game span in October and November, Peake caught 18 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Jordan Leggett was key in tight wins over Florida State (six catches, 101 yards) and South Carolina (four for 73). Freshman Hunter Renfrow was big against NC State (four for 93 and a touchdown) and Oklahoma (four for 59 and a touchdown). Germone Hopper had three catches for 120 yards against Wake Forest and three for 139 against UNC in 2014. He is not a heavily used option, but he's got speed.
Blue-chip freshman Deon Cain became a terrifying big-play threat -- over six games in October and November, he caught 17 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns. Cain was suspended before the Oklahoma game, and will not play on Monday. That's a shame for Clemson. He is the most natural deep threat on the team; he's got good size (6'2, 200) and speed, and he was a top-20 overall recruit. If it takes elite athleticism to beat Alabama, he was Clemson's best Plan B.
Still, Watson has options in different shapes and sizes. But who might be ready to damage an increasingly impenetrable Alabama secondary?
4. Jake Coker, Alabama quarterback
This isn't all about Clemson's offense. Coker and the Alabama offense will define how many big plays Clemson has to make, after all.
If the Tigers are able to keep the Crimson Tide score in the teens, as Tennessee was able to do (and Florida, Auburn and others were able to do for a while), Watson won't have to complete seven bombs for Clemson to win.
Coker's progress in 2015 has been undeniable.
- Jake Coker (first 10 games): 64% completion rate, 11.1 yards per completion, 4% TD rate, 3% INT rate, 133.1 passer rating
- Jake Coker (last 4 games): 75% completion rate, 11.6 yards per completion, 7% TD rate, 0% INT rate, 171.9 passer rating
Yes, one of those last four was against Charleston Southern. But two were also against Florida and Michigan State. Coker and his wideouts -- primarily Calvin Ridley (26 catches, 379 yards in the last four games) and ArDarius Stewart (23 catches, 227 yards) -- have been incredible, maturing on the fly during a title run.
We know how coordinator Lane Kiffin operates. He nibbles along the perimeter of the defense with sideline passes as much as any playcaller. He wants to spread you from sideline to sideline, send running back Derrick Henry barreling between the tackles, and, once you're stretched and stressed, beat you deep.
Michigan State did an awesome job of against Heisman winner Henry (20 carries, 75 yards), but short passes to Stewart and Ridley were effective enough early to open the deep ball to Ridley later. By the end of Alabama's 38-0 thumping of the Spartans, Coker had gone 10 for 13 for 182 yards on first down.
It's not hard to see how Clemson shuts this down. The Tigers have better run stats than Michigan State did, and if they can slow Henry down and tackle well on the perimeter, those deep shots might not be as open, especially not with such an awesome pair of safeties (T.J. Green, Jayron Kearse) roaming deep. The pressure is on cornerbacks Cordrea Tankersley, and Mackensie Alexander (combined: 4.5 tackles for loss, five interceptions, 14 breakups) to cover and tackle, and they have for a good portion of the season.
The pressure's also on Coker. Alabama will face quite a few passing downs, and if he's standing tall and firing accurate passes to Ridley, Stewart, Richard Mullaney and tight end O.J. Howard, the Tide will be almost impossible to beat.
But if he's misfiring, or if he's succumbing to one of the nation's best pass rushes, Alabama might be grounded.