It is imperative the Clemson Tigers immediately impose their will from the defensive side of the ball and stop Derrick Henry on the ground tonight. The worst possible case for the Clemson defense would be if Henry gets going early in this game, because it will enable Alabama’s offense to get in 3rd and manageable situations. And worse, he will wear this front 7 down and then have his way in the 2nd half, controlling clock and gaining yards in larger chunks. Therefore, I believe the 15th rated run defense of Clemson must play the run early, and force Jake Coker to beat their athletic secondary, a secondary significantly better than Michigan State’s, which Coker had success against last week.
Alabama has faced only two run defenses which ranked inside the top 30 since mid-October: Florida and Tennessee. Against Florida (4th ranked run defense) Alabama finished their first 5 drives of the game with 4 punts and 1 fumble, and gained a first down on just one series, while rushing for only 3.1 yards per carry. The problem for the Gators was time of possession, which they lost badly due to their terrible offense (58th), going 0-11 on third down and giving Alabama well over 2:1 time of possession edge. Against Tennessee (27th rated run defense) Alabama finished their first 5 drives of the game (and their only drives of the first half) with 3 punts, 1 interception and 1 touchdown. Alabama averaged 4.3 YPC on those drives, and only 2.8 YPC over the entire game. Tennessee’s offense (42nd) was simply not effective enough against the stingy Alabama defense and the Crimson Tide won by only 5 points (as -14.5 point favorites).
Clemson’s run defense can cause trouble for the Alabama first half run offense, and indeed, they must. But here is the hidden element of this game I envision playing out: The second best team in the country at forcing opponents into third down is Clemson. The only team close to that ranking that Alabama faced was Florida, and Alabama had 17 third down attempts in that game. But, not only is Clemson 2nd best at forcing opponents into third down, they are the nation’s best third down defense, allowing only 24 percent conversions. While some of that success came against poor third down offenses, here is the surprise: Alabama is one of those poor third down offenses, ranking 98th.
Alabama has faced four top-20 third down defenses (Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and Texas A&M). Against these teams, they converted just 17 of 57 third downs, or 29.8 percent. They actually went 3 & out on 34 percent of their total drives against these opponents and punted on 51 percent of their drives. To allay fear that I’m factoring in garbage time when Alabama is up by a significant margin, I looked again at only first half numbers against these teams: Alabama went 3 & out 36 percent of their first half drives (a worse rate) and actually punted on 56 percent of their drives, also a worse rate in the first half alone. Clemson is better at forcing teams into third down than any of those opponents and is better in third down than any of those opponents.
Alabama may start slow in this game as a result of facing more third downs and failing to convert, which could give a huge boost of confidence to the Clemson sideline. But even if all of that occurs, and Alabama is relying on Coker to unsuccessfully convert third downs against a truly solid defensive secondary, all will be meaningless if the Clemson offense cannot produce on the scoreboard. All of that defensive confidence will be wiped away and Alabama will regain the in-game emotional edge. As such, it’s incumbent upon Dabo Swinney and the Clemson offense to produce. Fortunately, there are a few areas where production could (and must) occur.
First, via being set up by their own defense. Clemson’s defense ranks 1st in fewest percentage of drives that result in at least one first down. In other words, they force more three and outs than any team in college football. And that could mean a few drives with decent field position for the Tigers offense. Additionally, if the game plays out like it has the potential to, I can envision a first half drive where Coker is passing on 2nd/3rd and long on his own side of the field and throws an interception. This year, 75 percent of Coker’s interceptions have come from his own 21-39 yard line and occur when the game is close (within one score) with Alabama looking for a spark. I certainly can see that happening on Monday night in the first half.
Second, it can come from explosive offense from Clemson. The Tigers rank 16th in explosive play offense. In Power-5 schools, no quarterback has more touchdown passes on explosive passes than Deshaun Watson this season. You would have to go all the way back to the Mississippi game (Alabama’s lone loss) to find an opponent who is more explosive than Clemson’s 16th ranking this year. If Clemson’s offense dials up early, explosive offense it may pay off, and even if it doesn’t, the message it sends to the Alabama defense might be valuable. It could get Alabama to hesitate a half-second in a similar, future play call which could be an edge for the Tigers. Mississippi’s Chad Kelly threw seven, explosive passes en route to his 341 yard performance against Alabama earlier this year. It’s extremely important to produce explosive play touchdowns to put up points against Alabama because of how often Alabama’s opponents are put in third down and then fourth down. But fortunately, Clemson has performed the best in the nation in this explosive passing touchdown category.
Third, production could come from the dual threat offense under Deshaun Watson. Traditional, pro-style offenses get eaten for breakfast by Nick Saban’s defense. And while Alabama has made a lot of changes to its roster, substitutions and team in general to combat its glaring weakness defending dual threat quarterbacks, those quarterbacks still have seen a fair amount of success against Alabama in 2015. Mississippi’s Chad Kelly and Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs posted the best passer ratings against Alabama this year. Kelly ran 8 times and scored a TD, and completed a lower percentage of passes (only 55 percent) but averaged 19 yards per completion with 3 TDs and 0 INTs. Dobbs ran far more often (16 times) with far fewer attempts (22) but hit at a higher rate (59 percent) on targets and gained 13 yards per completion. While his season long averages are not as jaw-dropping, Watson has averaged 23 rushing attempts the last 3 games, and in games which were decided by 10 or less points this season, Watson has averaged 17 rushing attempts (they obviously keep him healthy with a large lead). The threat to run coupled with deep shots is something that has given Alabama’s defense trouble and might again if executed efficiently.
The public sentiment is that we will witness another drubbing by Alabama in what will be a lower scoring game, and that certainly is a potential outcome. Clemson cannot be fooled into believing their offense will “do enough” by sticking with the traditional play calling they have used this season. The use of higher variance, more aggressive play calling, if successful, would really dictate the direction of this game. A common theme in the majority of Alabama’s late season losses the last 4 years have been first half offensive production from their opponent. In these games, Alabama’s offense averaged a solid 18 first half points, however, opponent offenses averaged over 21 first half points. And with Alabama being so tremendous at forcing opposition into third down and then forcing them to punt at the conclusion of third down, Clemson absolutely must make the most out of explosive plays and defense-generated short fields, utilizing an extremely up-tempo offense. If they can start the game utilizing this blue print, with strong early down defense forcing Alabama’s run offense to the bench quickly and often, coupled with an aggressive offense, there is absolutely no reason to believe Clemson can’t earn a cover. But if they don’t slow down the Alabama running game early, even while the game may be close at halftime, Alabama can slowly wear down this talented defense which is shorter in depth. And then the Crimson Tide could pull away in the second half. In this game, pay close attention not just to third down conversion rate, but also to how often each defense forces the opposing offense into third down.