College Football Playoffs Preview: Clemson vs. Alabama

In what’s developed into a very nice rivalry over the last few years, the Alabama Crimson Tide will square off versus the Clemson Tigers in one of the two College Football Playoff Semifinal games.

There are a multitude of significant storylines surrounding this contest. For one, the Crimson Tide will be looking to exact revenge upon the program that robbed them of yet another title. As for Dabo Swinney’s side, they continue to fly under-the-radar despite possessing a boatload of talent.

This piece will analyze multiple categories leading up to the contest. At the conclusion, we’ll offer our prediction for the contest.

Offense: Alabama

Alabama’s offense hasn’t been poor, per se. The Crimson Tide rank No. 17 nationally in total offense (465.4 yards per contest). However, the unit has taken a small step back from where it was under former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.

Most notably has been the efficiency of Jalen Hurts as a passer. Many are quick to knock Hurts for a lack of accuracy on downfield throws. While he does rightfully deserve some of the blame, the current scheme under new OC Brian Daboll isn’t exactly conducive to lighting up the scoreboard.

It’s no secret Alabama relies heavily upon its run game. Much of it is predicated upon quarterback-designed runs by Hurts. From there, the likes of Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, and Josh Jacobs are sprinkled in to add some dimension.

Against an elite run-stuffing defense in Clemson, Hurts will have to prove that he can hurt the Tigers’ secondary with his arm. Calvin Ridley will be double-teamed early and often. Ridley leads the team with 55 receptions. The next closest on the roster to him catch-wise is Jerry Jeudy and Cam Sims (13).

Alabama is talented enough to overpower opponents with depth, athleticism, and physicality. However, they won’t be able to walk all over Clemson the same way they would against a lesser opponent.

Alabama ranks No. 17 nationally in total offense — averaging 465.4 yards per contest.

Offense: Clemson

Interestingly enough, Clemson does compare favorably to Alabama from an offensive standpoint. Quarterback Kelly Bryant — like Hurts — is a dual-threat signal-caller. Much of the tempo with which Clemson operates is predicated upon Bryant’s effectiveness in running the football.

Clemson’s offensive scheme likes to dink and dunk its way down the field with a plethora of high-percentage throws. Bryant has completed 67.4-percent of his throws on the year — though he’s only thrown for 2,678 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The receiving corps is an explosive unit. Deon Cain is the headliner here — though Hunter Renfrow, Ray-Ray McCloud, Milan Richard, and Tee Higgins are all threats to make plays.

In the backfield, Bryant is complemented by the two-headed monster of Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne. Either is capable of ‘taking it the distance’ on any carry. Etienne has a 7.2 yards-per-carry average on the year to go along with 13 rushing scores. Feaster isn’t too shabby either — as he’s collected 7 rushing touchdowns and is rushing at a 6.4 yards-per-carry clip.

Clemson ranks No. 30 nationally in total offense — averaging 448.2 yards per contest.

Advantage: Clemson

Defense: Alabama

Alabama’s identity under Saban has unquestionably been carved out on the defensive side of the football. The suffocating unit routinely ranks among the nation’s best, and this year is no different.

The Crimson Tide yet again possessed the SEC’s top defense — as well as a top-five standing from a national standpoint. Built like a fire hydrant, defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne sets the tone up front. He might not record gaudy numbers, but he sure does flash on film. By occupying two offensive linemen, it enables linebackers to crash down through running lanes.

Rashaan Evans exemplifies this premise. One of the best linebackers in the country, Evans was third on the team in tackles (57) and second in sacks.

Though injuries have somewhat lessened the usual depth across the board, Alabama possesses starpower on all levels. Pairing with Payne is freakish 6’7″ defensive lineman Raekwon Davis. The secondary pairing of Hootie Jones and Minkah Fitzpatrick is also as good as it gets.

As per usual, Alabama will attempt to pressure Bryant at will. The goal will be to keep containment on the edge while forcing Bryant to beat them with his arm rather than with his legs.

Alabama ranks No. 2 nationally in total defense — allowing 257.8 yards per contest.

Defense: Clemson

99-percent of the time, Alabama will possess the superior talent across the defensive line. With that said, we’re operating with the 1-percent scenario in this contest.

Clemson boasts three future first-round draft picks (Christian Wilkins, Clein Ferrell, Austin Bryant) across its defensive front. Wilkins is a load inside — possessing quick hands and a powerful base. Bryant and Ferrell are lightning-quick off the edges. Ferrell accrued an eye-popping 17.0 tackles-for-loss and 8.5 sacks this past year. For good measure, Bryant had 14.5 tackles-for-loss and 7.5 sacks of his own.

Assuming the likes of Scarbrough, Harris, or Hurts gets to the second level, they’ll then have to contend with Clemson’s top-two tacklers in Dorian O’Daniel and Kendall Joseph. Each can hit like a Mack truck, and both excel in coverage.

Defensive coordinator Brent Venables is a rising star within the profession. Clemson applies pressure from all over the field. A key will include keeping Hurts within the pocket. Should he get out on the perimeter on zone-read looks, it could be a long evening for the Tigers.

Clemson ranks No. 6 nationally in total defense — allowing 277.9 yards per contest.

Advantage: (Slightly) Alabama

Coaching

While Swinney has established himself as one of the nation’s best, this category is the easiest one to call.

Saban unquestionably is the better coach in this contest. His track record speaks for itself — as does his penchant for winning enormously big games.

Advantage: Alabama

Verdict

Alabama has battled injury concerns and inconsistency within its passing game for virtually the entire season. Yet, it’s still been an excellent team. According to the S&P+ ratings (a metric ranking sheer dominance), Alabama is No. 2 in the country. The same study has Clemson positioned at No. 7.

The two squads are eerily similar to one another. As such, the slightest of deviations could be the ultimate difference in the contest.

Alabama’s suffered a bit of tumult defensively — as defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has taken the Tennessee job. He’ll still be around for the game, though many wonder as to whether his constant responsibilities with his new job could cause a lull in preparation.

Secondly, Alabama can get away with being rather one-dimensional on offense based upon literal talent. It won’t have the same luxury in this contest. Clemson is the most gifted team Alabama will have seen all year long. In fact, the team most closely mirroring Clemson — Auburn — beat the Crimson Tide in the regular season finale.

Clemson is good enough to force Hurts into third-and-long situations. By making him a thrower, Hurts will be out of his comfort zone. It’ll also enable the Tigers’ host of elite pass-rushes to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.

Winner: Clemson 24-19

Image Sources: John Reed/USA TODAY Sports, Adam Hagy/USA TODAY Sports, Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports, Matt Bush/USA TODAY Sports, Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY Sports, Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports

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