Clemson is not supposed to beat Alabama tonight. The Tigers are a touchdown underdog in the College Football Playoff championship game, squaring off against the greatest dynasty of the sport's modern era. And it just so happens that this particular edition of the Crimson Tide may be head coach Nick Saban's very best team of all.
Heading into the Playoff, Alabama boasted the sport's most efficient defense since 2005, with possible first-round NFL Draft picks at six different position groups. Meanwhile, the offense is better than ever before. Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry has been replaced by two running backs who average at least a yard more per carry apiece. Replaceable quarterback cog Jake Coker has been swapped out for Jalen Hurts, a preternaturally calm true freshman with all of Blake Sims' mobility from two seasons ago, augmented with exponentially more command and dexterity in the passing game. The Tide's traditionally calorically imbalanced offense is gone. On the right day, it's now as fearsome as Saban's defense.
So, yes, the Tigers are expected to lose by a comfortable margin, because that's the reasonable thing to expect. Yet if anyone is capable of wedging a crowbar into the gears and disrupting Alabama's powerful, terrifying engine, it's Clemson. The Tigers always have been the rest of college football's great hope to turn back the Tide, thanks to a blend of advantages that no other school possesses. It's plausible—if not likely—that the Tigers will leave Tampa as national champions.
First, remember that Clemson very nearly upset Alabama in last year's championship game. They hung 40 points on Saban's defense, with Watson cracking 400 yards passing and notching four touchdowns. One simply does not do such things to the Crimson Tide, but Watson did. After some intermittent handwringing about his production earlier this season, he entered this year's Playoff boasting nearly identical production to last year.
Watson's supporting cast is intact, improved, and lethal. Wayne Gallman is fresher, carrying the ball 69 fewer times with a similar yards-per-carry average and three more touchdowns. Last year's fleet of economy-sized pass catchers—Artavis Scott, Ray-Ray McCloud, Hunter Renfrew—is a year older, while bigger bodies like Jordan Leggett and Deon Cain have enjoyed career seasons.
The lone personnel change of note was a massive upgrade: Charone Peak, a capable outside receiver, made way for the returning Mike Williams, a potential NFL franchise player. Peak was a complementary piece; Williams put up the most productive season for a Clemson wideout since Sammy Watkins. There's no need to overcomplicate this: The offense that wrecked Alabama last season now features a pass catcher better and more physically imposing than anyone who lined up for the Tigers last year.
Equally important is Clemson's ability to give Watson plenty of time to work. The Tigers' offensive line thrives in passing situations, ranking fourth in adjusted sack rate and second in sack rate on passing downs. That's an upgrade over even over last year's impressive group—which ranked sixth and eighth, respectively—and absolutely essential against Alabama's front seven, which on the strength of Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, and Tim Williams counts as the Tide's best unit. There's not holding them off, not entirely, but between Watson's legs and all the outlets Clemson has for his arm, simply slowing Alabama down could prove sufficient.
Defensively, Clemson is better equipped than most schools to force Alabama into throwing the ball, the ubiquitous and elusive goal of every defensive coordinator who schemes against them. For everything that Hurts brings to the table, he is still an inexperienced player, and hardly a finished product like Watson. He see-saws between otherworldly and ordinary, and it's not a coincidence that his least effective performances came against LSU, Florida, and Washington, Alabama's stiffest tests this season.
The advanced statistics place Clemson's pass defense in the same elite grouping as those schools: they rank 3-4-5-6, with Clemson checking fourth. But among those the four, only Clemson has a defensive front featuring a trio of 300-pounders who are almost as laterally quick as they are strong. While LSU, Florida and Washington each slowed Hurts in the passing game, none of them could contain Alabama's rushing attack to force the Tide into continuing the throw the ball despite diminishing returns.
The Tigers have the size to do exactly that. The caveat is that Clemson's 900-pound beef curtain has worked out better in theory than in practice: the same numbers that have the Tigers fourth in pass defense place them a meager No. 26 against the run. Far more accomplished run defenses have been torn apart largely because their players simply could not match up physically with Alabama. The Tigers can, and if redshirt freshman defensive end Clelin Farrell can extend his breakout from the Ohio State game, Alabama will have to be wary of the entire quartet.
Overall, the Tigers are far more complete than anyone Alabama has seen since the two schools played this time a year ago. The Tide never needed to worry about LSU or Florida's passing attacks. They knew that Washington lacked the depth to hang with them for 60 minutes. They embarrassed USC in the season opener because the Trojans' lines couldn't measure up, pound-for-pound. They exploited Texas A&M's mediocre quarterback and Tennessee's weak constitution and Arkansas' forgiving defense.
Clemson has none of these flaws. The Tigers enter tonight knowing that this is their last game together, with Watson, Gallman, Williams, and Scott set to turn pro early, and defensive stalwarts like Carlos Watkins, Cordrea Tankersley and Ben Boulware set to graduate. Clemson came so close last year; desire seldom trumps talent, but the Tigers have every reason to give maximum effort, and no reason to believe they can't win.
None of his is enough for the safe money to get behind Clemson pulling off an upset. But safe money isn't always smart.
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