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Why Clemson’s an even bigger threat to Alabama this time around

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Let’s look back at Round 1 and see what’s changed since then, ahead of the National Championship rematch on Monday night.

North Carolina State v Clemson
Among the players Clemson was without against Bama last year: ace WR Mike Williams
Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images

As soon as the 2015 national title game was over, there was immediate hope for a rematch in 2016. Deshaun Watson is a difficult puzzle for any defense, and he’d vexed Alabama terribly in that game, putting up 478 total yards and four touchdowns in a five-point loss.

His return in 2016, combined with Alabama’s perpetual greatness under Nick Saban, made this final outcome feel so likely before the season that it’s somehow surprising it actually happened.

Bama dominated its schedule, Clemson survived a few close calls, and Urban Meyer and Dabo Swinney duked it out over who would be the better rematch for Saban’s Alabama. Dabo landed a knockout punch, so here we are.

What we learned from Round 1

The common pro-Clemson narrative in this game — besides the fact that they appear to be a stronger version of the team that almost beat Alabama a year ago — centers around the idea that Saban’s weak spot is the spread offense.

This isn’t true, strictly speaking. Saban knows how to defend it better than most other coaches do, and he has better athletes than anybody else does.

Saban is vulnerable to the spread offense, but that’s because everyone is vulnerable to a well-run spread offense. That’s why the NFL has become a passing league and why Tom Brady is still helping New England compete for Super Bowl rings. There’s no defense for the perfect pass.

As I noted after that game, Clemson challenged Alabama in the middle of the field but not in the trenches. Between Watson’s throws and scrambling and the routes of slot WR Hunter Renfrow and TE Jordan Leggett, Alabama’s LBs had real difficulty navigating all of the threats.

They managed to hold Watson to 73 total rushing yards on 20 carries with two sacks by LB Rashaan Evans, the only LB who could reliably track down Watson. However, they weren’t able to hold up against the passing game while minding that threat.

Here’s an example. ILB Reggie Ragland was concerned with the Watson scramble and didn’t arrive in time to help Reuben Foster cover a quick slant by Renfrow over the middle:

Leggett, who might be the most special talent on the Clemson offense, threw his big body around in the seams:

On this play, Alabama was in a dime package with two deep safeties, rushing three at the QB. Evans was spying on Watson in order to keep him contained in the pocket. There were no LB vs. WR matchup problems for the defense to worry about, there was help deep, and no one had to balance covering a good WR with keeping Watson in check. Clemson still scores on a 24-yard strike, thanks to an accurate toss to a big target.

Saban had that play processed and dominated on the chalkboard and still lost.

The problems for Clemson were that they couldn’t handle Alabama’s offensive balance (158 rushing yards for Derrick Henry, 335 passing yards for Jacob Coker) and they had little of their own to speak of (3.8 yards per carry).

Clemson was bested in the trenches on both sides, but the Watson passing game closed the gap.

What’s changed for these two teams since Round 1?

Quite a bit, particularly for Alabama, whose 2016 offense looks more like a Meyer-coached outfit then the squad that took on Clemson a year ago.

Clemson has changed, as well, but not as much in tactics as in personnel, particularly on defense.

The Tigers’ defense lost much of the line and secondary from 2015, but the young players have proven equally talented and are coming into their own at just the right time. Clemson is probably better equipped up front on defense than it was a year ago, when stars Shaq Lawson and Mackensie Alexander were fighting injury and Tide QB Coker had been rapidly improving as a passer.

New QB Jalen Hurts hasn’t proved as adept at using Alabama’s wickedly athletic receivers and only threw for 57 yards on 14 attempts in the semifinal against Washington. The main strength of the Alabama offense is still the run game, but they support it best with Hurts’ keeper reads, rather than option tosses outside to ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley.

Against Washington, they did a lot of their damage with outside zone, using a backside (the direction opposite the path of the offensive line) keep option for Hurts behind a lead blocker. Washington had to learn the hard way it was best not to give Hurts reason to keep the ball:

But even when the Huskies nailed down their option defense, backup RB Bo Scarbrough still had a coming-out party that called to mind Bama’s long history of big running backs:

Washington was in good position to stop this play (and could have drawn a holding call) but Scarbrough’s jump step and acceleration still took them down.

Clemson’s challenge is to handle big, explosive runners like Scarbrough and Hurts on the perimeter without getting run over up the middle by the big Alabama OL.

The Clemson offense is very similar to what it was in 2015, with one notable exception: Mike Williams. While the Tigers were able to make hay against Bama’s linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field, they didn’t have someone like 6’3, 205-pound deep threat Williams to hit the outside.

Again, the perfect throw to a big target doesn’t have a great defense.

Clemson doesn’t throw to its RBs much, but revealed another threat in the passing game against Ohio State, using young C.J. Fuller to do things like run the dreaded wheel route:

Just one more player Clemson can force the Alabama LBs to worry about, when they’d rather focus on stopping the spread-option run or Watson’s scrambling.

Finally, there’s the Alabama DL, which returns largely intact and features multiple pass-rushers who can beat good OL. This was true in 2015, as well, though, and Clemson negated it with spread sets that created quick reads and with Watson’s mobility.

This game could all come down to Watson, as Bama’s biggest statistical advantages are against basically everything about Clemson’s ground game, while Clemson’s biggest edges are against several facets of Bama’s offense:

So, who has an advantage in Round 2?

Saban has always built around balanced offense, a thundering run game, and elite defense. It’s a consistent formula, provided good recruiting and development. This is one of Bama’s stronger iterations on defense, but as Ohio State has learned over the last two years, a QB run complement to a normal rushing attack isn’t quite as deadly as a passing complement. What’s more, Alabama’s QB is only a freshman.

As brilliant as Hurts has been, his limitations mean opposing defenses don’t have to withstand the full weight of Alabama’s recruiting on offense. Opponents only (“only”) have to really worry about being outflanked along the line of scrimmage, not down the field.

Clemson’s formula is not easily duplicated. The Tigers have a rare, experienced talent at QB who allows them to get after opponents with the best run and pass schemes the spread has to offer. They have experienced and quality targets, whom he’s been throwing to for multiple seasons. At TE they have a true elite in Leggett, a legitimately solid blocker who’s devastating when flexed out and running routes.

It’s harder to get into the Playoff every year when you’re leaning on a timing-based passing attack or building around rare offensive talents, but when everything comes together, your ceiling is consequently higher.

Look for this special Clemson offense to reveal that ceiling can include a national championship, even over Saban.

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