Monday, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Free NCAAF Pick: Alabama Team Total ‘Over’
Best Line Offered: 5Dimes
Special teams players only receive glory in exceptional circumstances, but they repeatedly affect the game’s action and the scoreboard. Punters, kickoff specialists, and punt and kick returners affect field position. Field position is crucial because it can make an offense’s goal to score points much easier or much harder to fulfill. Field goal kickers also are crucial because their success or failure will often play a decisive role in the outcome of whether a spread is covered or a game is won straight-up.
In terms of field goal kickers, Clemson has a small edge. Alabama’s kicking issues have largely flied under the radar because the Tide has won so many games by multiple touchdowns. But the shakiness of freshman Joseph Bulovas could affect the ATS outcome for bettors. Six of Alabama’s ATS results were determined by three points or less. So it looks like almost a 50-percent chance that the ATS result between Bama and Clemson will be similarly close. Bulovas is reliable from close range, but he’s only made four of six field goal attempts from 30-39 yards, has attempted three field goals between 40-49 yards, and hasn’t made a field goal longer than that. If Clemson can limit Alabama’s offense to field goal attempts instead of touchdowns, the Tide may end up finishing multiple possessions with zero points instead of three. Also, when the Tide scores touchdowns, that extra point is no guarantee. Bulovas already has missed five this season. Dating to last season, Bama is 0-1-1 ATS when missing multiple field goals.
On the flip side, Greg Huegel is a reliable kicker for Clemson. He’s 71-for-72 on extra point attempts. So if Clemson and Alabama exchange touchdowns, Clemson will have a slight edge because they could be trading seven points for Clemson and six for Alabama. This seven-to-six exchange is more relevant if the game is higher-scoring because it could amount to a two- or three-point difference in the result. Huegel hasn’t missed a field goal attempt from 20-29 yards. So whereas his accuracy is similar to Bulovas on longer kicks, on shorter kicks Huegel is more reliable.
Whereas the kicking game could produce approximately a two-point edge for Clemson, the return game can be more decisive. Alabama’s edge here gives it the overall special teams edge. Alabama ranks number one in kickoff return rate. It’s true, though, that Clemson excels at generating touchbacks. It ranks 12th in kickoff success rate. But still, Clemson ranks 99th in punt success rate and Alabama ranks 51st in punt return success rate. If Clemson fails to generate a touchback and if Alabama gets to return some punts, Alabama will likely get significant advantages in field position that will make it easier for them to score touchdowns. The Tide could even return one all the way.
Josh Jacobs flashed his elusiveness as a running back against Oklahoma. He also is an electric kickoff returner, accruing one touchdown. Speedster Jaylen Waddle is difficult for any coverage unit (or secondary, for that matter) to catch and he has one punt return touchdown. With Jacobs and Waddle, Alabama is one of the highest-ranking teams in average field position, which makes it that much easier for them to score touchdowns. On the flip side, Clemson is statistically mediocre in limiting opposing punt and kick return yardage. It’s reasonable to project one additional touchdown for Alabama to come because of propitious field position generated by its strong return game. So while Huegel can give Clemson a two-point edge, Jacobs/Waddle can give Bama a six-point edge.