SAN JOSE, Calif. – A victory on Monday night would give Alabama its sixth national championship in the past 10 years, a mind-bending run of dominance that makes Crimson Tide championship runs loom as inevitabilities. Alabama has reached all five College Football Playoffs, played for the national title in each of the past four years and is again favored to complete the season hoisting the championship trophy.
No. 1 Alabama’s matchup with No. 2 Clemson is a compelling one on the field, with their past two title games remembered as two of this century’s best high-stakes college football games. Alabama needed an onside kick to keep the ball away from Deshaun Watson to win in 2015 and Clemson won on a Watson touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with six seconds remaining in 2016.
The 2017 semifinal matchup between the schools may be the most instructive as to why Clemson can beat Alabama on Monday night. Alabama blasted Clemson, 24-6, and the game taught Dabo Swinney that he needed a more dynamic thrower at quarterback to beat the best team in college football. Four games into the 2018 season, Swinney replaced Kelly Bryant with 19-year-old true freshman Trevor Lawrence, who projects as a generationally elite passer at the position.
The result is a Clemson team in much better position than a year ago to topple the Tide. Yahoo Sports polled coaches familiar with both teams, and a clear narrative emerged as to how Clemson can win the game. (They were compelling enough that they convinced a certain sportswriter to pick Clemson to pull the upset.) Here’s how the Tigers can topple the Tide and win their second national title in the past three seasons.
1. Learn from Oklahoma
The Sooners had 24 yards on their first three drives in the CFP semifinal. Not surprisingly, they found themselves down 28-0. That Alabama lead proved insurmountable, as the Tide won 45-34. But in the final three quarters, the Sooners gained nearly 450 yards, exposed vulnerabilities in the Crimson Tide defense and perhaps left a blueprint to beat Alabama.
“If Clemson studies the Oklahoma game, the No. 1 takeaway they’ll have is to move fast and use shifts and trades and motion,” said a defensive coach who has studied Alabama this season. “Alabama has significant problems with it, as it dissects their defensive structure. The tempo is a piece that they’re really uncomfortable with, and if Clemson can move quickly, I think they’ll have success.”
Clemson’s offensive coaches are underrated. They have schemes that rely on repetition of familiar plays from different formations more than a vast playbook, but they run those plays from myriad formations to disguise them. Look for Clemson to use a lot of pre-snap “smoke” to confuse and rattle Alabama. Success from that will allow the Tigers to accelerate the tempo.
2. Exploit the offensive line
With the brilliance of Tua Tagvailoa and preponderance of skill at tailback and wide receiver, Alabama’s offensive line has gone largely unnoticed this season. The Tide certainly has a solid offensive line, but few teams who played Alabama view the unit as flush with high-end talent. Tight end Irv Smith, who is a dazzling playmaker, is viewed as a weak blocker.
“I’m not so sure there’s an exceptional player on that offensive line,” said an opposing coach. “This is not an elite, elite Alabama offensive line. There’s a couple of guys with good feet who move well, but they’re not as good there as they’ve been in the past. We felt like there were opportunities to attack them there.”
This unspectacular position group has been obscured some by Tagovailoa’s ability to get the ball out so quickly and Alabama’s ability to spread the field. The best way to characterize Alabama’s run game is that it’s efficient, but not dominant. While much focus has been placed – and rightfully so – on the absence of Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence, Alabama will play its second consecutive game without starting left guard Deonte Brown. He’ll be replaced by Lester Cotton, who played solid in the Orange Bowl and is expected to be tasked with blocking Albert Huggins, who is playing in place of Lawrence.
Clemson still has three – and potentially four – defensive linemen who’ll be drafted. If Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell or Austin Bryant can chase, rattle or hit Tagovailoa consistently, it will change the complexion of the game. Watch early for how many men Clemson sends. If they can pressure Tagovailoa without blitzing, it will be a huge advantage.
3. Skill vs. skill
If you want to pinpoint a Clemson player who needs to have a career night for the Tigers to win, sophomore receiver Tee Higgins is a solid choice. One opposing coach saw the success that Oklahoma had in matchups with Alabama defensive back Patrick Surtain II, who was overmatched by Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb (109 yards on eight catches). “Alabama’s defensive backs aren’t that great,” the coach said. “The wideouts for Clemson are going to abuse them.”
Higgins is the most dynamic of a Clemson receiver corps that’s flush with skill. The balance is the strength of the group, as Higgins (56 catches, 11 TDs), Justyn Ross (40 catches, 8 TDs), Amari Rodgers (53 catches, 4 TDs) and Renfrow (47 catches, 1 TD) are all threats.
Higgins and Ross have the ability to stretch the field the most, but one coach pointed out the key to opening up time for Higgins and Ross may just be getting some semblance of a ground game established.
“I’d suspect that Alabama will do a lot in terms of pressing the wide receivers and defending those guys in a manner that’ll make it hard on Lawrence to make [quick reads],” said an opposing coach. “If Clemson is able to get a ground game going, it’ll give Trevor some time to get a rhythm.”
4. Trevor the Great
It’s hard to overstate how giddy coaches, scouts and NFL executives are for the future and potential of Trevor Lawrence. A lot of executives guess that he’d go No. 1 overall in this NFL draft if he were eligible. One NFL scout predicted to Yahoo that Lawrence could be “generationally good.” Lawrence has two years of college remaining and will get only better. (About the only criticism that opposing coaches had is that he rarely reads more than half the field right now, which isn’t that unusual for a true freshman.)
Here’s how one opposing defensive coach broke down Lawrence: “He throws a really, really catchable ball with really good touch and heading into our game we were impressed with how quick he got the ball out of his hands,” the coach said.
Lawrence’s arm strength gives opposing coordinators fits, as they can’t play off receivers on the “field” side of the play. Rarely do college quarterbacks throw across the hashes to the numbers. Not Lawrence. “To him, that was his favorite throw,” the coach said. “He’d catch it and throw before the receiver is out of his break and put it right where it needed to be.”
Lawrence needs to keep the same poise and decision making he has shown all season.
5. Mask weaknesses
The three areas that Clemson is the weakest are tight end, safety and the interior of the offensive line. The tight end position won’t loom large, it just means there’s no significant threat at the position like Jordan Leggett had presented in the past.
The safety position has to be the scariest for Clemson fans, as the Tigers will be required to tackle the best set of skill players they’ve seen all season in space. Opposing coaches consistently pointed to the safeties as the biggest vulnerability on Clemson’s roster. Strong safety K’Von Wallace and free safety Tanner Muse can’t get beat over the top by Tagovailoa.
Opposing defensive coaches found the interior of Clemson’s offensive line – guards John Simpson and Gage Cervenka and center Justin Falcinelli – the most vulnerable. One coach said they preferred pressure up the middle, as opposed to the edge, to exploit that vulnerability. In other words, this crew needs to keep Quinnen Williams at bay and away from Lawrence.
The best way to compensate for a pedestrian offensive line is to play fast, which appears to be Clemson’s best chance to pull the upset.
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