Finally, it’s the matchup we’ve all been waiting for!
OK, maybe not. Yet unlike most trilogies, Alabama-Clemson III has a chance to live up to the previous two blockbusters. There’s a new cast, a different script (Clemson is the No. 1 team in the country this time around), and subtle tactical differences that make this game as intriguing as the pair that have gone before.
Let’s go into the Film Room to look at the keys to the game and what you should watch for to overcome that sense of Alabama-Clemson fatigue.
1. Clemson’s linebackers vs. Alabama’s vertical options
Clemson’s linebackers are good. Duh! Isn’t everyone on that defense good?
Not so fast my friend. Clemson’s front is all-time good. Like, historically great. You know about the down linemen by now: They’ll all start in the NFL. But how about we show some love to those off-ball pests who zip around the field and allow those giants up front to cut loose?
No one downloads, diagnoses and attacks option elements or the screen game like the defending champs.
They rotate through a rolling cast of studs. Seven – Seven! – guys have at least two TFLs and a sack. None of them are freshman. They’re talented, hyper-athletic piranhas with experience: Dorian O’Daniel (senior), Kendall Joseph (junior), JD Davis (junior), Tre Lamar (sophomore), James Skalski (sophomore), Jalen Smith (junior), Chad Smith (sophomore), all of them fill a role – even if it’s sparing the legs of one of their more talented buddies.
They pounce on the ball like they’ve seen an advanced copy of the game. It’s borderline cruel:
The front swarms to the ball, with help from late safety rotations, and a pair of twitched edge rushers who are happy running in space.
Out-leveraging that Clemson unit to the sideline is tough. It covers too much ground in a blink of an eye. The linebacking corps is a spread-option equalizer. Opposing teams are forced to adapt – they usually fail.
Alabama is running more vertical option elements than ever before. It’s a new wrinkle introduced by offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. The Tide wants to get Jalen Hurts straight down the field — using mid-line reads and other wrinkles — rather than having him constantly read an unblocked edge defender.
Hurts is elusive, but he’s not overly elegant. He doesn’t plant and explode up field like a zone-cut back. Give him a head of steam, though, and he’ll rumble downhill like Russell Westbrook driving to the basket.
Mid-line reads are all the rage in college football. Daboll has latched onto them. He’s been willing to adapt a creative Lane Kiffin system to fit his personnel and combat the growing trend of “inside shoulder” alignments from defensive down linemen.
More and more, defenses are positioning players on the inside shoulders of offensive linemen on early downs and in short-yardage situations. Traditional three techniques (outside shoulder of a guard) or one techniques (outside shoulder of the center) line up in what’s known as a “2i” alignment (the second gap on the inside shoulder). The point: make it more difficult for offensive linemen to get across the face of the defender.
Alabama wants to be a zone-run and stretch attack; get a hat on a hat and let the running backs read the field and exploit spaces. That’s a tricky proposition when the frontside guard is at a pre-snap disadvantage.
Daboll and company have faced the problem all season, and have adapted. The team now uses more backside pulling concepts:
The frontside guard pins those shade alignments and has guys orbit around him, all with an option tagged on to the backside to even out the numbers game.
But the biggest change has come in the style of option: Vertical options that read an interior defender — down lineman or linebacker – and makes the quarterback the straight-line option, with the running back picking the role as the perimeter threat.
It works the same, philosophically and practically, as an end read: If the defender crashes to mesh point, the quarterback pulls the ball and keeps it. If the defender sits, the he hands the ball off to his back, and one defender has been blocked through a read – leaving the play as a 10-on-10 contest.
Yet edge defenders are now used to the option. It’s their bread and butter. Not inside guys. They’re used to being snarling menaces who only see the quarterback’s eyes when they’ve buried him into the turf. Tease them with a free path to the ball and they’ll jump all over it.
It gives Alabama the best of both worlds, particularly when Damien Harris is in the game at running back.
Harris is a zone-cut guy. He’s nimble footed: A trapeze act on the football field. He navigates creases and contorts his body as well as any back in the country. He rarely, if ever, misses the correct cutback lane:
Harris is averaging 8.7 yards per carry. Not bad. People know Bo Scarborough. He is right out of central casting, if the casting call was “find the scariest human being alive.” Harris is a better player.
Using Harris as the perimeter threat, with Hurts as the head-on threat, rather than the traditional reverse — that backside zone read you’re so used to seeing — maximizes the threat of both, while keeping up with the principles of option football — 1-on-1 battles across the board.
Even the run-pass option (RPO) game gives the quarterback a straight-line option. One of the Daboll’s favorites is a swing screen tagged with a quarterback draw:
The running back marauds into acres of space toward the field side of the formation on a pre-snap motion. He drags a linebacker out of the box or attempts to out-leverage and flood the perimeter. It’s an easy option for the quarterback: If there’s a vacated space in the middle of the field, pull it and take off. If not, flip it out to the back and let him go to work.
It’s ripped right out of the old Baylor playbook – a veer-and-shoot vertical style as oppose to horizontal style from the branches of Chip Kellyism (past offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was a disciple).
This look familiar:
(Oh, and look at that, there’s a backside guard pulling around to lead the way for the quarterback. Think we’ll see that one in New Orleans?)
Daboll deserves credit. Things were more horizontal under Kiffin. The team went sideways too much.
Now, the Tide come downhill as they did in the early days of the Saban era. Only this time, they have a premier running threat at quarterback, run the option and have the most stacked backfield in recent memory – OK, I guess some things don’t change.
It’s a good thing this Clemson defense is not too shabby. It’s exceptional, in fact – second in defensive S&P+, per FootballStudyHall.
Its dominance when using a three-man front allows the linebackers to play a quick trigger, see-ball-get-ball style that makes it feel like there’s 15 guys on the field. It helped against Alabama’s horizontal attack in last year’s National Championship Game.
This year’s contest will be different. Those premier linebackers will need to get used to seeing a big bodied guard and quarterback screaming downhill together, right into their lap, rather than zipping from hashmark-to-sideline. There will be serious collisions. It’s not an easy mental switch.
Whether or not the linebacking corps can stack and shed those head-on matchups will be decisive in slowing down Alabama’s rushing attack. And they can’t afford to over run plays in anticipation of the ball going outside, particularly if the guys up front bite on those mid-line reads.
Stop the option game and Daboll’s offense becomes restricted. The team falls into third-and long territory. It lacks the talent to win that kind of matchup against this Clemson front.
2. Alabama avoiding Clemson’s pass rush
The key subplot to this game: How the heck does Alabama block Clemson’s pass rush? And, if they can’t (spoiler alert: it can’t), what kind of game does Daboll call to avoid an offensive catastrophe?
Some of the usual options are out the window. Rolling the pocket and moving the launching point – adjusting the sight lines of pass rushers and forcing them to run all over the field – will be ineffective. Clemson can rotate bodies, and rolling the pocket constricts the field. Hurts doesn’t do well in confined spaces. He moves to run. He’s not a great thrower on the move.
That’s a problem. Daboll has channeled one of Kiffin’s quirks to help Hurts this season: Using deep dropbacks from the shotgun to buy the QB more time to read the field and to avoid intimidating pass rushes.
Clemson is a different beast. It has the perfect marriage: Great players, great coach and a great scheme.
The defense ranks first in the nation in adjusted sack rate. The defensive line ranks eighth in havoc rate, per FootballStudyHall. The players refuse to be blocked.
Defensive lineman Christian Wilkins leads team in the “fun to watch” category. He is playing as well as any defender in the country. He shuffles right across the formation, aligning anywhere and everywhere:
One by one he put a clown suit on each and every member of the Virginia Tech offensive line above. His combination of size, burst, strength and intelligence was too much for any individual to handle. Double teams were no good.
In the first quarter against Virginia Tech, he aligned as a three technique (shading the outside shoulder of a guard), as a traditional defensive end in a four-man front, reduced inside as a head-up nose and in a shade alignment in a three-man front. That’s bonkers.
What Wilkins did to center Eric Gallo bordered on bullying. It was flat-out mean.
Gallo had more pirouettes than a ballet recital. Wilkins’ quickness off the line left the center stuttering and sputtering. His clutching and hugging wasn’t enough to stop the defensive lineman from erupting whenever he felt like it, launching himself into the backfield with break-neck speed.
When he’s feeling it, all a lineman can do is hold on to Wilkins for dear life.
He will shift all over the place against Alabama, as Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables probes for the best possible matchups and tries to disguise looks.
Wilkins’ best fit is as a three technique, where he can jump off the ball, shoot up field and has enough dip and bend to sink his hips and give guards nightmares. He pairs that with top-level hand-to-hand fighting skills and the desire to close to the quarterback:
He’s not an elite edge. He doesn’t quite have the hops or bend to take on high-level tackles. But Venables likes to kick him out there on early downs or slide him into a three-man front with five on-ball players.
That’s where the Tigers get creative. Anybody can blitz, anybody can drop. Anybody:
That’s only a 6-foot-4, 300-pound guy lining up at nose guard and dropping into a hole coverage. I mean, you’ve got to be bleeping kidding me? How is that even possible.
Big guys shouldn’t move that way. They shouldn’t be fluid. Wilkins is a football oxymoron. He does things you’ve never imagined, let alone consider putting into practice. How about this:
That’s a future first-round NFL draft pick hustling his tail off to help a pair of his buddies corral a ball carrier along the sideline.
Wilkins has dropped into coverage as a zone defender on 7 snaps this season, per ProFootballFocus (which accounts for passing plays only, not run plays or options).
Expect Venables to have a Wilkins-laden trick up his sleeve in an attempt to bamboozle Hurts and Alabama’s blocking assignments.
And yet, impossibly, Wilkins may not be the top NFL draft prospect on his own D-line.
He is flanked by a pair of stud edge defenders: Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. Ferrell has 9 sacks and 17 TFLs on the season. Bryant has 8 sacks and 14.5 TFLS. They’re as nasty a duo as you will find. Then there’s Albert Huggins, another “how does a guy that size move that way” interior lineman, and Dexter Lawrence, perhaps the most talented of them all.
Venables does a remarkable job of rotating each of them, as well as a bevy of linebackers who’re equally as happy lining up on or off the ball.
It’s an egalitarian system. And Venables is as good as any coordinator in the country at creating favorable matchups for his collection of future Pro Bowl standouts. They all get to feast. They all stay engaged.
Venables is excellent at scheming 1-on-1 opportunities. First, there are so many good players it’s tough to know who to double team. But even if you commit to double teaming a player, that guy is suddenly shifted all over the place, he starts dropping into coverage (Ferrell has dropped into coverage 39 times this season. Bryant: 40.), or Venables starts sending five-man rushes, so that the offense can’t double team anyone.
The Tigers toy with opponents. They line up five of their studs on the ball together, often in a “Bear front” with all three interior guys covered. From there, one guy can drop, two can drop, everyone can rush, they can stunt, twist, or run any kind of gap exchange they want.
Panic sets in. It’s tough enough to block these guys when you know what they’re doing. Throw in some confusion and it’s game over.
If the three-man rush is effective, Venables starts to use uber-creative designs to take away the rushing threat of a quarterback:
Two defensive tackles “wide rush” pressing outside to draw a double team and widening the pocket. They’re edge setters who start the play lined up over guards. You can run funky stuff like that when you have great athletes. The two pass rushers drop into coverage: One guards the slot, the other slides in as a “spy” mirroring the movements of the quarterback.
It’s darn effective. That doesn’t bode well for Alabama. Bear fronts wreaked havoc on Alabama’s offense during the last contest. They couldn’t block Clemson’s studs 1-on-1. The offense bogged down.
Things haven’t been much better this season. The offensive line struggled mightily against Mississippi State’s pseudo radar fronts – typically one down lineman with a bunch of stand-up players walking around him. MSU stood everyone up:
The offensive line looked clueless. They couldn’t figure who was coming or who they were supposed to block. Venables must be licking his chops.
Daboll can’t afford too many three or five-step dropbacks. He can’t trust his group. And he can’t trust his quarterback to roll out on anything other than a designed run.
He needs to get creative with misdirection plays, while sticking to the vertical philosophies he’s installed this season – mostly from deep shotgun drops (seven and nine steps), or a quick one-step timing throw (though Hurts has proven to be unreliable on those as well).
If those sound contradictory, it’s because they are. That’s what facing a great pass rush does to you – you second guess everything. A coach gets in his own head: Do we adjust to the opponent? Do we attack them with what we do best? What percentage of each? Some, like Steve Sarkisian in last year’s national title game, wind up in a mental pretzel.
Figuring out how to move the ball when Clemson’s front begins to tee off, and when run it runs its fancy zone-blitz stuff, could be a career maker for Daboll. It’s also ripe for him to be the fall guy. I don’t envy him.
3. Put pressure on Kelly Bryant
You don’t win big games without defensive pressure. Clemson will bring it. Can Alabama?
It needs to. Clemson’s quarterback, Kelly Bryant, hasn’t been in this situation before. He hasn’t faced a team as deep and talented as Alabama. He hasn’t played on this kind of stage; the ACC Championship was a nice teaser.
Alabama must pressure and fluster Bryant, who’s been the ultimate cool customer throughout his maiden season as Clemson’s starter.
It’s not a question we’re used to asking of the Tide in the Saban era. But it’s a fair one this time around. As I detailed earlier this year, Saban and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt have transformed the Alabama defense into a series of hybrid fronts, in a bid to get more speed on the field.
The team lacks dip-and-rip rushers who can take over a game all by themselves. They’re usually falling over them along the sideline. Last year they had three studs: Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams – all of them finished with more than 9 sacks.
This season, no Alabama pass rusher has more than 7 sacks – Raekwon Davis has 6 1/2. Rashaan Evans has 5. It’s not enough.
Alabama’s defense ranks 50th in the nation in adjusted sack rate. The defensive line is 67th in havoc rate. Take the names off the jerseys and you come to one conclusion: These guys aren’t disruptive.
So where will the pressure come from?
Former top recruit Da’Shawn Hand has had another disappointing year. So has Da’Ron Payne, though he’s been excellent on run-stunts:
He remains ineffective against the pass. Saban and Co. didn’t expect to have to scheme him opportunities to make plays in either phase of the game. With his blend of size and power he should be a one-man wrecking crew at multiple spots across the front. A lack of bend, dip and burst has hampered his progress.
Injuries haven’t helped. “Jack” linebacker Anfernee Jennings missed time with an injury. He hasn’t looked like his springy self for most of the season. He’s yet to register a sack.
Payne, Hand and Jennings have combined for 3 sacks. Ugh.
Saban and Pruitt have had to scheme up more designs to get open rushers. They’ve upped the team’s blitz percentage. Having a great, experienced, secondary has allowed them to routinely send five.
Rather than having the front four fly off the ball, we’re treated to more zone pressures, delayed blitzes and green dogs — If the man you’re designated to cover stays in to block, blitz!
Pressure will come from all angles. Defensive backs Ronnie Harrison, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Levi Wallace all have 2 sacks or more. They’ve all out-sacked Hand, the former No. 1 overall recruit in the nation.
Expect Alabama to attempt to buy extra beats by running trap coverages and bluffs to confuse Bryant, while sending blitzers from funky angles. It’s not a traditional Saban look, but it’s the team’s best shot.
It will be a fascinating pre-snap tussle. Saban will want to conceal everything until the last moment, obviously. His defensive backfield, flooded with experience and stars, will allow him to use late rotations and complex coverages like cones (morphing double teams) and traps.
Clemson will do all it can to reveal the coverages for its young quarterback. As it did during the Deshaun Watson-Mike Williams era, Clemson likes to isolate one receiver into the boundary:
The actors have changed — Bryant and rotating cast of long-limbed giants are in for Watson and Williams. The idea is the same.
Clemson isolates a receiver on 3×1 formations and sticks him to the short side of the field. By doing so, it forces teams to reveal their intentions before the snap. If they double team Deon Cain by giving safety help over the top, that gives the other receivers 1-on-1 matchups. If the defense decides to single up Cain, Bryant has shown the trust to let his receiver go make a play.
Will Saban and Pruitt have the guts to send boundary blitzes out of those looks?
It’s rare you go into a game where Saban and his staff are the ones who have to figure out problems.
Dabo Sweeney and company have one large question: Can they separate from Alabama’s glue coverage. The offense will attempt its usual cavalcade of man-beater concepts. This Alabama secondary is unusually experienced. It’s as talented as usual. They will switch a lot and play lockdown press coverage on third downs.
However, Clemson knows what it needs to do. Maximize what they do best. Alabama has plenty of questions. Can it find the answers to advance to its third National Championship Game in successive years? That alone makes this game as intriguing as either of the ones that have gone before it.