Monday, Jan. 7, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California
Free NCAAF Pick: Alabama Team Total ‘Over’
Best Line Offered: 5Dimes
Strength of Schedule
Clemson ranks number one in points allowed per game (13.4), but let’s look at strength of schedule. Here is the respective offensive s&p+ of the offenses that Clemson faced (discounting FCS schools): 19, 51, 31, 44, 56, 21, 108, 109, 95, 76, 29, 64, and 26. Clemson played in perhaps the weakest Power 5 conference, the ACC. Clemson’s defense succeeded against two top-30 offenses. NC State never showed up and lost 41-10. They committed a comedy of errors, a key drop on a wide open bomb, a fumble deep in Clemson territory, numerous penalties. Clemson also shut down Notre Dame, whose big and slow wide receivers presented zero difficulty for Clemson’s physical cornerbacks. The Irish offensive line, diminished by the departure of NFL talent during last offseason, couldn’t help its run game.
The Tigers’ two toughest games came against Texas A&M, whose offense ranks 19th, and South Carolina, whose offense ranks 29th. The Aggies scored 26 points, South Carolina 35. Both opponents exposed Clemson’s defensive weakness, its secondary. Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond threw for 430 yards and three touchdowns. Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley threw for 510 yards and five touchdowns. Mond extended plays with his legs and made great throws. Bentley throws a great deep pass and speedsters Deebo Samuel and Shi Smith combined for 19 receptions and 309 yards. Clemson’s secondary was absolutely torched by the two SEC teams that it faced.
Here is the respective defensive s&p+ of the defenses that Alabama faced (discounting FCS schools): 110, 65, 109, 42, 111, 80, 38, 96, 14, 6, 18, 16. Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa was challenged in the second half of the season against solid SEC defenses which are more physical, which don’t allow Tua’s pre-snap read to be open as often so that he has to go through his progressions. Plus, Tua was dealing with knee and ankle issues that hindered his mobility – although some of those issues were caused by his unwillingness to throw the ball away. He often tried too hard to extend plays, to wait for the home run play to develop. In the semifinal against Oklahoma, he did a much better job of checking down or throwing easy slants instead of deep passes. Alabama scored 29 at LSU, whose defense ranks 14th, 24 against Miss State, whose defense ranks sixth, 52 against Auburn, whose defense ranks 18th, and 35 against Georgia, whose defense ranks 16th.
Of the top defenses faced, LSU and Miss State rank top three in opposing passer rating. Georgia also has a high-ranked pass defense. Plus, its pass rush showed up like it hadn’t all season. Auburn, though, had lost a top pass rusher and significant talent in the secondary during the offseason and often struggled in pass defense. Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, for example, threw for 120 more yards against Auburn than against any other opponent and his quarterback rating was 172. Tua amassed 324 passing yards with a 214 passer rating against these Tigers.
The key factor for Alabama’s offense will be the time that Tua has to make plays. Alabama’s lowest point totals, and Tua’s worst performances, came against LSU with its elite secondary and against Miss State with its dominant defensive line (in terms of sack rate) and pass defense.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables is aggressive in the way that he is committed to stopping the run and creating havoc with his front seven. Clemson ranks third in stuff rate, meaning that it’s very successful at stopping runs at or behind the line of scrimmage, and its front seven ranks fourth in havoc rate, meaning that its defenders near the line of scrimmage excel at batting down passes, sacking the quarterback, etc. Venables loves to execute stunts and other techniques at the line of scrimmage to generate propitious match-ups for his defensive linemen. He also likes to drop a larger defensive back into the box. Despite his focus against the run, he still has to gear his defense against the spread-heavy ACC offenses. He does this by using interchangeable pieces in the secondary and at linebacker. Strong-side linebacker Isaiah Simmons is also a safety.
The potential backfire is when Clemson forces the opposing offense to pass and the offense picks up the blitz or the quarterback extends plays with his legs like the Aggies’ Kellen Mond and Alabama quarterback Jake Coker in Bama’s 45-40 national championship win in 2015 against Clemson. Clemson’s relatively physical defensive backs get left isolated against the receiver and athletic, SEC-caliber receivers, like those of South Carolina, have torched Clemson’s secondary. Alabama’s receiving crew is stacked with three supremely talented receivers, including the Biletnikoff Award winner for best receiver Jerry Jeudy, who have at least 40 receptions and 700 yards.
Alabama’s offense appears to have the edge because it can punish Clemson’s secondary. Alabama’s offensive line ranks 18th in rate of sacks allowed despite playing in the SEC and Tua is much healthier than he was against Miss State and Georgia. Tua needs to keep checking down when necessary but explosive pass plays will come against this Clemson defense. Bama has scored 40+ points in all six games when Tua threw for at least 300 yards.