For a time, the National Championship had all the trappings of a typical Alabama boa constrictor job. The Tide got the lead, the Tigers couldn’t really do much of anything on offense, and it was assumed by many that the Tide would soon snuff them out. They didn’t.
But it cannot be ignored that while Clemson broke the door down, the Tide left it cracked open, and one crucial moment came on special teams.
Bama’s offense was floundering for most of the game, but that wasn’t a glaring problem, because they were dominating the field position battle. They do that a lot with their punter, JK Scott, who is absolutely elite. He appeared on some All-America Second Teams this season and was First Team All-SEC. As a freshman in 2013 he was a Ray Guy Award finalist. He’s also a Rubik’s cube expert, who can solve one in just over one minute.
He had a good game against Clemson overall, including one punt of 57 yards.
But he was mortal when he hit this punt, as Bama was up by two scores in the second half.
ESPN’s Chris Fowler noticed something was amiss: “That’s an ugly kick by the standards of Scott. That’s a really ugly kick. ... Scott usually does much better than that.”
So, what went wrong?
SB Nation spoke to a punter at a Power 5 school who said the devil is in one detail: the snap.
“Initially the snap was low, which often messes up the rhythm and timing for a punter,” he said. “The difference between punting a big ball and shanking one is a matter of one to three inches. From this video, it appears JK dropped the ball inside his kick point, which caused the ball to go left and short.”
This is a larger part of the hidden yards battle.
Officially, the punt went 30 yards and went out of bounds at the Alabama 42, Clemson’s best starting field position of the game by 21 yards, except for the game-ending onside kick.
Besides Clemson’s touchdown drive during the second quarter, the Tigers had advanced a grand total of 16 yards into Crimson Tide territory on two combined drives to that point. One of those was a fourth-down try the Tide stymied.
Clemson had an average starting field position of its own 24-yard line, 11 yards worse than Bama’s, despite partially blocking a punt in the first half.
Clemson had 17 non-onside drives. The post-Scott punt drive was the only one to start in Bama territory and one of only three past the Clemson 30.
You could say this punt is just a small part of the process, but that’s not how Nick Saban’s process works.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, he described the process like this.
The approach was to challenge the players to play every play in the game like it had a history and a life of its own and tried to take the other team out of the game and make it all about us in terms of what we did.
And here you see what can happen when Alabama loses this play.
Scott’s punt gave the Tigers a window, and they deserve full credit for taking advantage. The Tigers would score on the ensuing drive to make the game 17-14. The Tigers began to wear the Tide out by getting their play total up to 99 by the game’s end.
You know the rest.