NEW ORLEANS – Alabama’s offensive identity is everything and nothing.
That’s the impression you get talking to the Clemson Tigers, who play the Crimson Tide on New Year’s Day in the Sugar Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff.
Alabama’s offense has been productive in 2017 – ranking in the top 10 in scoring at 39.1 points per game and 17th in total offense at better than 465 yards on average – but UA has struggled in spots in the latter portion of the season against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn.
This attack isn’t like Alabama’s in 2015, when everything was built around Heisman Trophy running back Derrick Henry, or the year before when wideout Amari Cooper was the focal point, or even last year, when offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was fooling defenses with jet sweeps and pre-snap motion.
It’s been hard to tell this season what Alabama’s identity is, upon what it believes it can depend.
Clemson ranks in the top 10 in scoring, total and passing defense, and 12th in rushing defense. The Tigers have to get a handle on exactly what they are trying to stop.
“Where do I start?” mused Brent Venables, Clemson’s defensive coordinator, at a news conference on Thursday.
Alabama ranks eight in rushing offense at better than 279 yards per game, but a mediocre 86th in passing at around 200 yards per contest.
“It starts in the running game,” Venables said. “They’ve got the best collection of backs in the country and do a great job in a variety of ways of getting them the ball both in space and between the tackles.”
Venables discussed the dual run-pass threat quarterback Jalen Hurts presents, and wideout Calvin Ridley’s utility as a deep threat.
“They’ve got terrific players, very highly-recruited players at every position in that huddle,” Venables said. “So even when everything is (defended) right, the margin for error is very little.”
The fact that you can’t put a finger on Alabama’s offensive pulse might be what makes it most difficult to defend.
“I feel like they’re one of the most versatile offenses we’ve seen, probably the most versatile we’ve seen this year,” sophomore defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “They don’t really have a weakness. That’s the hardest thing: When you game-plan for somebody you try to find a weakness, and they don’t really have any.
“Not every (area of the) team is great in every aspect, but they’re good at every aspect I would say.”
Clemson believes other aspects of Alabama’s offense will fall into place if it establishes the run game. Linebacker Dorian O’Daniel summed up Alabama’s attack succinctly: “Downhill running team that’s going to play-action you and take shots.”
Stopping that ground game will be Clemson’s goal. The Tigers will want to force Alabama to pass rather than move the chains with the run game and throw downfield passes at its leisure.
“They’re going to see if you want to go out and hit and play physical and win at the point of attack,” Ferrell said. “And if not, then they’re just going to run it down your throat every play.”
Alabama’s offense under first-year coordinator Brian Daboll may not look as tricky as it was the previous three years under Kiffin, but Venables says the Crimson Tide can still identify and attack a weakness.
“You’re not going to hide against these boys,” he said. “They’re smarter than that. If you have some deficiencies, they’ll expose you in a minute.”
Alabama will have 60 minutes to do it on Jan. 1 in the Sugar Bowl. But Clemson’s defense has an identity of its own.
“I’d say (they’re) disruptive, make a lot of negative plays,” Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williams said. “I think they do a good job of that.”