By Eric Boynton Spartanburg Herald-Journal
Clemson won the last matchup with Alabama in last season’s national title game. Here are three things the Tigers need to do to win again:
The Big Guys
It’s few and far between whenever an opponent holds the upper-hand over Alabama regarding winning the line of scrimmage, but Clemson holds that rare edge in the trenches and it’s an area the Tigers must exploit to be successful.
Clemson features two graduate students and two juniors among its five offensive line starters, led by top left tackle Mitch Hyatt. The Tigers have the experience and talent to help provide time and space against an always salty and aggressive Alabama defense. With both defenses adept at containing the run game, a huge factor will be which team can protect its quarterback with a big play or two downfield possibly deciding the outcome in what figures to be a moderate scoring affair.
Clemson’s defensive front, an area where the Crimson Tide’s roster has held the advantage the majority of the time, is by far the best Alabama has faced this season and could ultimately become the decisive force in the game’s outcome. With man-child Dexter Lawrence mucking up the middle alongside versatile inside-outside tackle Christian Wilkins and the fast and powerful duo of Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant setting the edges and getting after the quarterback, the game could be won or lost based on the performance of these four players.
The Tigers would love nothing more than to grab and maintain and early lead and force Alabama to throw, allowing Bryant and Ferrell to come full force after quarterback Jalen Hurts and make him mighty uncomfortable in the pocket.
Ground and Pound
As is always the case, Alabama is ridiculously stingy in defending the rush, ranking third nationally in allowing only 94.1 yards per game and just eight touchdowns on the ground all year. Clemson has continued to establish itself as one of the nation’s premier defenses annually, having become consistently good enough to be on a par with the stellar Crimson Tide.
The Tigers rank 12th nationally against the run (allowing 112.8 yards per game) and are tied with Wisconsin for the top spot in surrendering only five rushing touchdowns all season.
The Crimson Tide has long employed a physical, rushing-based offense while the Tigers made up for the loss of big-armed quarterback Deshaun Watson by making great strides on the ground this season, mostly thanks to the ability of dual-threat quarterback Kelly Bryant, the improvement of Spartanburg’s Tavien Feaster, and quick emergence of freshman Travis Etienne.
Alabama out-rushed Clemson 221 yards on 34 carries to 91 yards on 42 attempts yet still lost last year’s championship meeting as Watson threw for 420. That kind of disparity in rushing once again will undoubtedly signal an Alabama blowout victory. The Tigers don’t have to be dominant on the ground, and probably won’t against the Crimson Tide, but if Clemson makes very little headway carrying the ball, it’s going to be a long evening for the defending champions.
Alabama has to be thrilled to not have to face Deshaun Watson for a third-consecutive time after the quarterback carved up the Tide defense for 941 total yards and eight touchdowns the past two meetings. The huge advantage the Tigers held at the game’s key position is now gone and it’s a toss-up between Alabama sophomore Jalen Hurts and Clemson junior Kelly Bryant as to who has the edge.
Both are extremely dangerous running the ball while Bryant is the better passer despite some earlier season inconsistencies. He’s also surrounded by far better talent at wide-out than what Hurts has at his disposal with the Tigers content to spread the ball to a deep corps that includes big-play threat Deon Cain and Alabama killer Hunter Renfrow on the shorter routes.
There’s little for Clemson to fear at receiver aside from receiver Calvin Ridley (55 receptions for 896 yards and three touchdowns) as none of his teammates has more than 14 catches or 244 receiving yards.
Both quarterbacks have carried the ball at least 10 times in nine different games with Hurts averaging 64 yards per game on 5.6 yards per carry and Bryant averaging 49.7 and 3.7. Those numbers are somewhat skewed with Bryant losing yardage on sacks while attempting 138 more throws than Hurts.
With recent opponents trying to force Clemson to win via the pass, Bryant has obliged by averaging 251 passing yards his last three outings with six touchdown throws and one interception. If neither team is able to sustain much success on the ground, Clemson can win the game through the air while it’s a far less likely scenario where Hurts is able to do the same.