Alabama-Clemson sets up to be a historically great rematch, and an extremely close championship game.
The teams meet at 8:17 p.m. ET Monday in Tampa. Fla. Here are the five keys.
1. Prevent the QBs from running
Both teams use quarterback runs (and option football) as a core element of their offenses. The Tide and Tigers use diverse and intricate schemes that turn the ground game into a series of 1-on-1 battles. And they both have quarterbacks — Deshaun Watson and Jalen Hurts — who are quick and powerful runners.
Clemson , and I’m not using hyperbole , uses the most impressive and varied quarterback power package I’ve seen from any team in college football. On one concept , a lead blocker in front of a direct quarterback snap, it uses 5 different wrinkles to confuse the defense.
Against Ohio State, the Tigers gashed the Buckeyes using the same concept dressed in different ways.
Note: I’ve combined all the examples into one GIF below to better showcase the small wrinkles. I apologize for the quality of the GIF but they’re large files and this page needs to load.
I love a play Auburn ran with Cam Newton: A fake handoff to a running back who then becomes a lead blocker. An offensive tackle (Clemson’s right tackle in this example) down blocks to clear out the player shading his inside shoulder. Meanwhile, the backside guard pulls to the play side and traps the unblocked defender, while the running back comes through and clears out the first second-level player he sees.
The veer fake-toss option that has become synonymous with Clemson’s offense has begun to spread across college football. The Tigers run this concept from different looks and with different blocking combinations. The design is a delayed “lead split-zone,” and Clemson uses it to devastating effect.
Here, it pulls two lead blockers across the formation: the left guard and tight end. At the snap, Watson delays, faking as though he’s running a toss play to his left. As he fakes the pitch, his blockers have time to pull up-field and clear room.
One of the smartest things about the design is that it continues to challenge the eye discipline of the linebackers (the key to option plays) without putting the ball in jeopardy. Rather than Watson sticking his hand into the running back’s gut and reading the defense, he keeps the ball, eliminating the possibility of a botched exchange.
Part of the beauty of this Clemson attack is how much it evolves game-to-game and within games. Like Alabama this season, the Tigers have done a terrific job early in games of setting up concepts that later become “payoff” plays.
Against Ohio State (perhaps unwisely given the score), Clemson attempted a payoff play from the fake-toss look.
Here, the running back initially moved laterally as though he was setting up for a toss. The left guard pulled across the formation. The Ohio State linebacker (No. 35) clamped down to play the toss, and Watson began to take off as he did on so many other option plays.
However, instead of following a pair of lead blockers (as is usually the case), he moved forward a couple of steps and attempted to pop a pass to the running back downfield.
Clemson probably shouldn’t have burned such an excellent design in the semifinal, but it’s an extra wrinkle for which Alabama needs to prepare.
During its semifinal against Washington, Alabama mimicked Clemson’s veer fake-toss play, though with a slight tweak in the design. Traditionally, Clemson’s runs are supposed to get Watson to the perimeter. He’s an explosive athlete in the open field, and he doesn’t take as many clean shots (though in short-yardage situations he’ll run inside). Hurts is more of a power runner, and Alabama sometimes uses him in lieu of a running back.
On its fake-toss play, ‘Bama gave the hard sell. A three-receiver bunch all kicked outside as if blocking for a toss sweep. Instead, Hurts pulled the ball and drove up the middle behind pulling guard Ross Pierschbacher.
Stopping either attack is going to be difficult, though Clemson’s may be tougher to defend.
As I’ve written before, Alabama’s quarterback runs are designed to stretch linebackers, confuse them as to where the ball is, and open up huge holes through play design. It’s also how it most reliably moves the ball. Yes, Bo Scarborough has been terrific down the stretch, but for the most part, Hurts’ legs have moved the ball whenever the team needs it.
By contrast, Clemson pairs its run game with a dynamic passing attack. Watson often reads the box prior to the snap before deciding whether he’s running or throwing. Because of that, Clemson runs out of spread formations that lighten the box and stretch the defense the entire width of the field.
A lot of Alabama’s damage comes between the tackles, and that could be an issue. Not only does Clemson field comparable athletes up front, one could argue that it holds a personnel advantage heading into the game. Alabama’s right guard, Korren Kirven, struggled vs. Washington and often needs help. That’s a fine strategy against a defensive line with one star player, or one that plays a number of traditional fronts. But it can become an issue if Alabama asks Kirven to hold up 1-on-1 at the point of attack.
I anticipate Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables (one of the best in the business) will show more bear fronts on early downs — down linemen covering both guards and the center.
That would force Kirven into individual blocks, or force Steve Sarkisian to throw the ball more, thereby making the Alabama offense more predictable and easier to defend.
ESPN analyst Tom Luginbill believes whichever team’s quarterback accrues the most rushing attempts and yards will win. I think that’s a wise sentiment.
If any defense can slow Clemson’s designs, it will be Alabama’s, with its rare combination of elite speed and depth at every level. But the struggle to win the quarterback running game will depend on how Clemson operates its front.
2. The Steve Sarkisian Effect
National championship week or not, Nick Saban will fire you if you’re not getting the job done. Just ask Lane Kiffin.
Side Note: I love that it was framed as a “mutual decision.” Why on earth would Lane Kiffin “mutually” decide to leave the week before potentially winning back-to-back national titles? Don’t give me that he had to focus on recruiting and Florida Atlantic. His time would be better spent securing a second championship ring with which to walk into living rooms, rather than making a late scamper for 2017 National Signing Day. Kiffin was flat-out fired — the Kiffin way to go out.
Per media reports, the transition to Steve Sarkisian as the play-caller has been smooth. That makes sense: Sarkisian has been on the staff, and at this point Alabama is running a simple system.
Given all the window dressing, Alabama’s offense can look complex, but the Tide are using one-read-and-go stuff in the passing game and option elements on the ground. Alabama often asks Hurts to read just one defender, or half of the field, and it isn’t running the same volume of packages as in previous years.
The real impact will come on game day.
For all his faults, Kiffin is one of the best sequencers in all of college football. I’ve waxed poetic this year about his ability to attack opponents with the same concept over and over, dressing it slightly different each time, and then forcing them to over-commit as they gamble on what they think is the same concept.
That’s partly a function of Alabama enjoying more talented players than almost everyone it faces. The more talent a team has, the more simplistic it can be, and the more it can rely on repetitive concepts. But Kiffin remained the master at building up to payoff plays.
It will be interesting to see how Sarkisian calls the game, and if he has the same knack as Kiffin for coming back to the perfect concept at the perfect moment.
3. Put Alabama in third-and-long
If Clemson stifles Alabama’s running game, the Tide will be in trouble.
Hurts’ poise represents one of his standout traits. However, put Hurts in third-and-long situations, and he begins to look like a true freshman. Per ESPN Stats & Info, 43 percent of Hurts’ passes this season have traveled to, or behind, the line of scrimmage. That’s far and away the highest rate of any Power 5 quarterback.
Kiffin did an excellent job scheming around Hurts’ deficiency — throwing accurately down the field. He did an equally good job accentuating his positives — making quick decisions with no defensive pressure and running with the ball.
When defenses force Hurts to hold the ball, he begins to make bad decisions and force throws, and his inaccuracy becomes more prominent. Under pressure, he completed just 31 percent of his passes, per ProFootballFocus, compared to the 73 percent he completed without pressure.
If Alabama falls behind the chains, it allows Clemson’s dynamic front to tee off. For once, the Crimson Tide may feel a taste of their own medicine. Clemson has comparable talent, depth and quickness up front. It’s not quite to the level of Jonathan Allen and others, but it’s pretty close.
Another issue Hurts has faced this season, and a leading cause for his inaccuracy under pressure, is his inability to process quickly. Often, the ball is out of his hand before he has to diagnose a blitz or read a coverage. But if he’s in third-and-distance situations, he’s forced to hang in and read what’s in front of him.
Venables runs creative blitzes, although that declined this year as he has enough talent to overwhelm teams with basic rushes. But he likes to dial up the fun stuff on third downs. He gave Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett fits whenever the Buckeyes fell behind the sticks, bluffing coverages and running zone blitzes.
On this third-and-7 play, the defense showed blitz pre-snap. It lined up in a mug front — a linebacker stood in each A-gap — a common blitz look. Clemson showed press-man coverage on the outside and walked down the slot cornerback as though he was going to blitz off the edge.
At the snap, Clemson morphed. The cornerbacks dropped into zone coverage. One inside linebacker dropped out, the other blitzed, and an edge defender dropped into the space he voided. Barrett and his line were confused. The quarterback had nowhere to go with the ball, danced around and eventually took a sack.
Clemson’s plan will be similar against Hurts, who runs an offense with similar principles and possesses similar traits.
The key to staying out of long yardage? Run the ball. If it doesn’t come by way of the quarterback run, it will have to come from Scarborough, the offensive line — and good blocking from receivers and tight ends.
What’s been interesting about Scarborough’s late-season surge is how much Alabama has attacked the opposition’s secondary and challenged them to be run defenders.
The tactic was evident against Washington. It was clear that the Alabama staff believed its receivers could handle Washington’s secondary. The Tide ran a number of plays directly behind bunched formations, putting the onus to block on their skill-position talent rather than the offensive line.
On Scarborough’s first touchdown run, Alabama ran a zone-ISO play directly behind the stack, with tight end O.J. Howard acting as the lead blocker (as though he were a fullback in a traditional ISO play).
It was a good microcosm of Bama’s running game. Alabama’s receivers played physical, blocked extremely well, and Washington’s secondary stood up the test. But Scarborough played at another level, creating yards after contact at the second level and owning defensive backs who tried to tackle him.
I anticipate Saban and Co. will attempt the same tactic Monday night. Alabama’s receivers are willing and able to block, and the Tide will ask whether the Clemson secondary is up for a fight. That may be Alabama’s best chance to preserve Hurts as a passer.
4. Bait Deshaun Watson into mistakes
It’s rare to get this far through a preview and not mention Watson as a passer.
In my opinion, Watson is the best quarterback in the country, and given the value of the position, the most important player. His performance in last year’s championship game was remarkable, and he’ll need to put on a similar display this time.
Watson has proven he can take control of the offense, play with rhythm and get the ball out on time. But he’s still eager to hit the home run ball and will force it into spots he shouldn’t.
He’s an accurate passer (76 percent adjusted completion percentage ). But he isn’t always precise, and he can be careless with the ball (17 interceptions).
I’d anticipate Saban and Jeremy Pruitt using Watson’s willingness to throw into tight windows against him. They did a similar thing to Jake Browning in the Peach Bowl, using trap coverages, bluffs and zone blitzes to confuse the quarterback, tricking him into throwing into zone pressures.
Alabama’s defense runs bump-and-run man coverage, with pattern-matching elements than can morph into zones. But against Washington, as highlighted here, it ran more zone looks, and did so from the two-high safety sets that it made its base defense this season.
Watson is a smart player, and as highlighted here by Inside the Pylon’s Mark Schofield, he has showcased the ability to process pressures, get the ball out hot, and diagnose the correct coverages. But he’s yet to see some of the more complex looks that Saban and Pruitt ran against Washington. And with the kind of pressure that Alabama’s front can create (and the ghosts they make quarterbacks feel), there should be opportunities for the ‘Bama secondary to make plays on the ball.
5. Slow down Mike Williams
Williams essentially is a Pro Bowl NFL receiver playing college football. Slowing him down will be Alabama’s greatest challenge. Even when he’s covered, he can outjump and outmuscle cornerbacks for the ball.
How Saban and Pruitt decide to defend Williams will be fascinating. This year, the weakest spot on their defense is at cornerback. There are talented players, but not the same physical specimens as in the past.
It’s likely that they’ll bracket Williams and force Watson to go elsewhere with the ball. But that becomes more difficult when Clemson jumps into its five-receiver sets. In that scenario, Williams can beat up any member of Alabama’s secondary 1-on-1. If they opt to double-team him, they open themselves to Clemson’s man-beater concepts — receivers crisscrossing at the line of scrimmage.
Unlike Washington last week, which went five-wide and failed to use any man-beaters, Clemson uses quick-hitting pick plays, slower-developing switch releases and deep crossers to attack man coverage.
Here, in the Peach Bowl, Washington went five-wide, with Alabama in man coverage. Yet there was no man-beating concept. Instead, each receiver had to create separation. That would be a fine strategy if it was Washington’s talented receiving corps up against the ‘Bama cornerbacks, with no pass rush involved. But when you add in the hellacious four-man front, the cornerbacks are able to sit at the first down marker and play underneath, knowing there’s not enough time to get beat deep.
By comparison, Clemson runs a number of man-beaters. Here’s a perfect example from the Fiesta Bowl. A slant-flat concept created a natural pick and forced Ohio State’s cornerbacks to cross each other’s faces. Regardless of how good Williams is individually, the play design helped him create separation, turning third-and-7 into an explosive pickup.
There’s no easy solution. That’s the headache great players cause. But if Alabama is able to find a way to keep Williams in check, it will celebrate back-to-back championships.