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Numbers show Trevor Lawrence’s Clemson might be about as good as Bama

Since the Tigers got their QB situation figured out, they’ve been tearing apart teams like the Tide have. How can they close the remaining gap?

NCAA Football: Clemson at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

I know you’re paying attention to Alabama and the way it’s scorching all comers this season. But I’d like a moment to look at how Clemson is also walloping its opponents ... after getting some things figured out.

The Tigers have had an odd season, but they’re starting to look like a team that could pose an actual challenge to the Tide.

The root of their September issues is pretty clear: Clemson didn’t have its quarterback situation settled. It seems like a lifetime ago, but both the Tigers and Tide had quarterback controversies at the end of August.

The Tide settled theirs in camp, while Clemson had a four-week audition for Trevor Lawrence and Kelly Bryant. The Tigers didn’t look demonstrative throughout and probably should have lost to Texas A&M, though I’d argue the Week 4 win should have been an even bigger blowout, given the fact that Georgia Tech somehow recovered seven of its eight fumbles. Then in Week 5, new starter Lawrence got hurt as Clemson clunked to a win over Syracuse.

Clemson was winning, but wasn’t destroying teams like a squad with this talent level should’ve been.

But that’s exactly what Clemson’s done since.

Below, S&P+’s adjusted scoring margin tells us how much a team would’ve won by against a perfectly average team with an average number of breaks. Percentile performances tell us how well a team or unit performed on a bell curve. (I’ve bolded the higher relative number in each comparison.)

First, here’s a control group game: Alabama vs. A&M as compared to a two-QB Clemson vs. Texas A&M, something of a control group game. The Tigers got them on the road with their QB situation still unsettled and struggled mightily in Week 2, but the Tide got them at home two weeks later and won handily.

Clemson at Texas A&M: -1.7 adjusted scoring margin/57th percentile overall/69th percentile offense/25th percentile defense
Alabama vs. Texas A&M: +28/94th/88th/60th

Even beyond the final score and accounting for location, Bama clearly played better against A&M.

Next, let’s do their common opponent that came after Lawrence took over: Louisville.

Clemson vs. Louisville: +53.5 adjusted scoring margin/87th percentile overall/86th percentile offense/91st percentile defense
Alabama vs. Louisville: +40.8/83rd/71st/89th

It should be noted that Bama could’ve beaten U of L worse if it wanted to and didn’t have Week 1 “rust,” but the numbers think Clemson looked better against Louisville.

Next, let’s take a blind sample of three Alabama and Clemson blowouts over similar conference opponents ranked by S&P+, with each game in the month since Lawrence started playing full games.

Clemson at S&P+ No. 87: +48.2 adjusted scoring margin/86th percentile overall/83rd percentile offense/94th percentile defense
Alabama at No. 82: +33/81st/79th/66th

Clemson at No. 75: +41.9 adjusted scoring margin/92nd percentile overall/98th percentile offense/94th percentile defense
Alabama at No. 79: +27.3/89th/92nd/28th

Clemson vs. No. 40: +39.4 adjusted scoring margin/92nd percentile overall/80th percentile offense/94th percentile defense
Alabama vs. No. 20: +40.9/96th/82nd/92nd

A pretty even split, arguably tilted toward Clemson.

Of course, then the Tide have the trump card of beating the hell out of LSU on the road in a hostile environment. (Clemson’s fourth game in this list was the Louisville game.)

Alabama at LSU (No. 22): +42.5/97th/94th/94th

They played an excellent game against a team that was ranked in the Playoff committee’s top three. But keep in mind S&P+ was never impressed with LSU to begin with, meaning the numbers aren’t exactly gonna view that the same as the human polls did.

So where does this leave us?

According to S&P+, Alabama would be a 2.2-point favorite over Clemson on a neutral field. That number comes from Alabama being a 31.4-point favorite against a perfectly average college football team and Clemson being a 29.2-point favorite.

And if S&P+ filters out pre-Lawrence games, it becomes a pick ‘em:

Vegas gives the Tide a bigger advantage, but when a top-four LSU is a two-touchdown underdog at home, only 8.5 on a neutral field is a testament to Clemson.

It’s also down from the 11.5-point spread Clemson was getting two months earlier as Vegas monitors continued improvement.

Since 2005, only 2016’s Alabama team was rated higher than 31 versus an average team in S&P+. Clemson has a chance to get there if they keep beating teams by five touchdowns the rest of the way.

They’re closer together at Nos. 1 & 2 in S&P+ than Clemson is to No. 3 Michigan (25.4 points better than an average team). Clemson is as far ahead of unbeaten Notre Dame (No. 7 in S&P+) as Notre Dame is ahead of Purdue (No. 26).

Alabama’s strength is its offense, and its passing offense in particular. On offense, Clemson’s better running than it is passing. When you stack the defenses up against each other, the Tigers have the best D with a loaded front-seven.

It’s why if they do play each other in an eventual Playoff, the game might just be the best version of the matchup we’ve seen and the matchup of Tua Tagovailoa vs. Clemson’s defense will likely be what that game hinges on.

Tagovailoa might run away with the Heisman, and he has four amazing receivers. Clemson’s defensive line is a four-headed monster. The Tigers defense is No. 2 in Sack Rate. What happens when the best quarterback in the country is under pressure and has to throw against a unit that’s No. 3 in Havoc Rate (chaos-creating plays like pass breakups, picks, and tackles for loss)? I don’t know, but I’m interested to find out.

Clemson still has some work to do get to Alabama’s level, but they’ve already taken steps.