In Round 1 of the Playoff, everyone knew what was coming. Michigan State tested Alabama's recent commitment to the spread offense by loading the box and daring quarterback Jake Coker to win. Heisman winner Derrick Henry only managed 75 yards on 20 carries while Coker ended up throwing the ball 30 times.
The question became whether the passing game could execute well enough to beat the Spartan defense. Well, 286 passing yards, two touchdowns, and a 38-0 drubbing later, we have our answer. Until the game was in hand, Coker took the pass options in Bama's attack. Lane Kiffin dialed up plays to get after the Spartans' aggressive coverages and punish MSU's lack of linebacker help for its safeties.
The common question now is whether Clemson's offense can win a championship against a dominant Tide defense. But this Alabama offense has something to prove when it takes the field against Clemson's highly ranked defense.
Namely, can the Tide beat a team that loads the box with a great front like Michigan State's, but then disguises multiple coverages with NFL DBs? The matchups suggest Alabama facing a tougher challenge than expected.
It's going to take better execution to beat the Clemson secondary.
Here's an example of the RPOs (run/pass option plays) Alabama was using to attack the Spartans early:
Alabama basically has two plays in one. The first is a counter-trey run for Henry, and the other is a bubble screen on the perimeter to ArDarius Stewart. Coker has a simple decision after the snap: hand off or throw, based on the alignment of the defense.
If the middle linebacker doesn't leave the box, that leaves the field corner, linebacker, and safety to stop the bubble screen. The safety is pretty deep to track down Stewart if the WR blocks go well.
Coker's ball placement is poor and forces Stewart to execute a sort of spin move to get going. Coker often threw poor balls against the Spartans, yet it didn't matter. State was loading the box to stop Henry and couldn't play in space well enough to stop Bama's burners.
On this play, field linebacker Darien Harris does a poor job of forcing Stewart inside, safety Demetrious Cox is late, and middle linebacker Riley Bullough doesn't arrive.
Contrast this with how Clemson defended a similar play from Oklahoma earlier that day:
In typical fashion for a Brent Venables-coached defense, the Tigers recognize and respond. Baker Mayfield has the same read as Coker; if he throws the quick screen, he's got two blockers and a ball carrier against the corner, field linebacker and deep safety. That safety has to arrive quickly and make an open field tackle against Joe Mixon.
Mayfield throws a solid ball that doesn't exactly lead Mixon, but doesn't force him to slow down. The problem is that Clemson's field linebacker, Travis Blanks, does a good job of playing the WR block and forcing Mixon to turn upfield with less space. The deep safety, All-American Jayron Kearse, arrives with great leverage and makes the tackle at the line. You'll also notice middle linebacker B.J. Goodson arrives in quick pursuit after making sure OU wasn't running.
The level of execution 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 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 Kiffin and Coker to line up kill shots.
Spread QBs often get their primary clues from the rotation of the boundary safety, or the safety closest to the sideline. Clemson does a lot to play around with free safety T.J. Green. He's always shifting. He'll sometimes play in a cover 4 alignment, in which he reads the play flat-footed and can be an extra run defender. Sometimes he'll play in the box in cover 3. Sometimes he'll play man coverage on the receiver to allow a corner blitz. Perhaps he'll drop deep as the middle-of-the-field safety or take a deep half of the field in cover 2.
The Tigers carry a lot of coverages and blitzes, but they execute them all. This puts a lot of stress on a QB who's trying to ID the defense and make good decisions, even a Nick Saban-coached fifth-year senior drilled on the importance of ball security.
The Clemson defense is built around Venables' ability to study and get inside of his opponent's mind. He can coach his players to do the same. They're always moving to position themselves according to opposing tendencies.
They also have multiple nickel package options, including one with space-backer Blanks, another with nickel corner Ryan Carter in which Alexander can cover the most dangerous receiver, and a third down package that brings Kearse into the box. They used this to curtail Mayfield's scrambling. They have a lot of things to try against Alabama.
Whereas Alabama's offensive approach is about simplicity and out-executing opponents with a balanced attack featuring five-star talent, Clemson is much more precise and exacting.
This leads us to another interesting facet. Alabama is fairly predictable on offense.
Kiffin is good about scouting his opponents. He has calls to put his best players in position to go for kill shots. However, you can expect a great deal of inside zone on standard downs. Most third-and-longs will involve the Tide relying on the blocking of athletic left tackle Cam Robinson and the speed of their skill talent on a jailbreak or tunnel screen or perhaps a draw.
What happens when a talented team that doesn't risk outsmarting itself faces another talented team that is all about maneuvering to gain advantages? What happens when a team with a lot of tendencies plays a team that excels at spotting tendencies?
Probably not a great deal of points, but perhaps not another Playoff blowout.