Back Matchup Breakdown: Clemson-Alabama

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Matchup Breakdown: Clemson-Alabama

By Jim Johnson
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It’s the rubber match that college football fans both need and deserve.

It’s the rubber match that college football fans both need and deserve.

Clemson and Alabama square off for the third time in as many years, in the Sugar Bowl, the victor likely to be favored in the subsequent National Championship.

The pair boast the two top defenses in college football.

They combined to score 151 points in rounds one and two of the battles that may come to define the early College Football Playoff-era. That number might not go up all that much in round three, though.

In any case, this has all the makings of yet another matchup for the ages.

However, neither of these teams is perfect. Each holds some specific advantages in each facet of the game. Here are the mismatches to keep an eye on:

Alabama’s Offense: Calvin Ridley

Clemson has the best defense in college football, ranking second in both S&P+ (an opponent adjusted metric that measures combined efficiency, explosiveness, field position, drive finishing, and turnovers, from SB Nation writer Bill Connelly) and FEI (an opponent adjusted drive efficiency measure that filters out clock kills and garbage time), fourth in yards allowed per play, and first in points allowed per drive. The only relative sign of mortality they’ve shown is somewhat of a susceptibility to big passing plays, as denoted by their 37th place ranking in pass defense IsoPPP (equivalent points per successful play; a measure of explosiveness).

Alabama’s offense, meanwhile, ranks 11th in passing IsoPPP, due in great deal to Calvin Ridley, the beneficiary of 31.6% of the team’s total targets. For a frame of reference, no other Alabama pass catcher has a target rate above 10%.

The future first round draft pick ranks in the national top ten for yards per route run, and the top 25 for catch rate on passes 20 or more yards downfield, from which 18.3% of his targets come.

The Tide are one of the more run heavy teams in the sport, but they must get Ridley involved. No one Clemson Tiger can cover him, and that’s not even a slight -- no one can.

Clemson’s Offense: Short Yardage Conversions

On paper, Alabama’s defense is as good as ever, ranking 3rd in S&P+, 5th in FEI, 1st in yards per play allowed, and 2nd in points per drive allowed. Yet, while the results may not be that different, the construction of the unit has -- and along with it, the direction in which the efficacy trickles down.

Unlike years past, Alabama’s defensive prowess is due, first and foremost, to the secondary, which is the nation’s best.

As a result, in part due to some injury related personnel attrition in the linebacking corps, the front seven has suffered. There’s no dearth of talent, with the like of Da’Ron Payne leading the way, but Alabama’s short yardage run defense has been abysmal.

They are allowing conversions on 73.9% of third and fourth down rushes, with two or fewer yards to go (104th in FBS). Clemson on the other hand, thanks to one of the premier run blocking offensive lines in the country, is converting 69% (54th).

It doesn’t feel true about a Nick Saban team, but the fact is, Clemson’s leading offensive advantage will be in the trenches.

Alabama’s Defense: Limiting Big Plays

This one was an absolute no-brainer for awhile. Alabama hasn’t really allowed big plays -- 2nd in rush defense IsoPPP and 33rd in pass defense IsoPPP -- while Clemson hasn’t really been very explosive -- 91st in rushing IsoPPP and 121st in passing IsoPPP.

But then Kelly Bryant went and pulled a total 180 degree turnaround, down the stretch. Over the first ten games of the season, Bryant completed 36% of his passes that travelled at least 15 yards downfield for an average of 10.5 yards per attempt, with a 78.3 QBR. In his last three games, he completed 64% of such passes for 18.1 yards per attempt, with a 100.0 QBR, including a 5/5 showing with a touchdown against Miami’s widely heralded secondary, in the ACC Championship.

That, coupled with the ever-present home run threat that is Travis Etienne (who is secretly Dash from The Incredibles), makes this one a little more of a close call.

Still, led by defensive virtuoso Minkah Fitzpatrick, who recently joined the transcendent company of Patrick Peterson and Charles Woodson as the most recent player to win both the Bednarik and Thorpe Awards in the same season, it’s awfully tough to get behind the Tide, who have allowed the second fewest plays of 20+ yards from scrimmage in college football.

Clemson’s Defense: Pass Rush

Obviously, Clemson’s defensive line is incredible. Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence combine to create the most formidable interior defense there is, while Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant have both emerged as stars in their own right. They lead the nation in adjusted sack rate, bringing down opposing passers on a remarkable 12.4% of standard downs (1st) and 10% of passing downs (21st). Moreover, they do so without really having to blitz very often.

There’s nothing surprising about that.

What’s surprising is how poor Alabama’s pass protection has been. They currently rank 99th in adjusted sack rate, giving one up on 10.2% of standard downs (124th) and 9.4% of passing downs (93rd).

The left side of the line is solid, with Jonah Williams, Ross Pierschbacher, and center Bradley Bozeman, but right guard Lester Cotton has been a little more of a weakness in pass pro, and right tackle Matt Womack has been a downright liability.

Not a team to sling the ball around too much, Alabama may be able to diminish the value of Clemson’s pass rush with their running game, but if not, that’s a problem for the Tide.

Alabama’s Special Teams: JK Scott

Scott is like the blade in the Joker’s boots in The Dark Knight. Nick Saban doesn’t need it. He’s got innumerable guns, and mean, hungry dogs, and some sort of explosive cell phone device in dude’s stomach, and… what is that, a bazooka? Yet, when his back is against the wall, or he just wants to be cruel, he simply clicks his heels and out comes JK Scott to stab you with his foot.

Scott ranks third in the country in punt success rate, with 23 of his 42 punts being downed inside the 20 yard line (54.8%). Clemson, on the other hand ranks 55th in punt return success rate.

Ray-Ray McCloud can be a dynamic returner for the Tigers, but JK Scott is at another level.

Clemson’s Special Teams: Kickoffs

Clemson has had struggles across the board, on special teams, this season. The best facet of this phase, for them, is on kickoffs, where they rank 50th in success rate and 46th in opponent yards per return.

This is more about Alabama’s lacking return game, ranking 101st in kick return success rate.

The team that wins the field position battle wins the game, over 70% of the time. Don’t forget about special teams.

Deciding Factor: Kelly Bryant

It’s simple: if the Bryant from the first ten weeks of the season, that couldn’t stretch the field, shows up, Clemson is in serious trouble. It’s imperative that they be able to keep that versatile secondary honest, and to make Deon Cain a viable threat. If Bryant 2.0, from the last three weeks of the season, shows up, Clemson’s offense becomes an entirely different animal.

It’s cliche to cite quarterback play as a deciding factor, but it’s cliche for a reason.

Everyone knows what they’re getting from the defenses, the two best in college football. Jalen Hurts, more or less, is what he is -- very good, albeit limited.

It’s a different face behind center for the Tigers, but his impact is of identical weight. No one should expect a Watson-like performance, that’s not realistic, and shouldn’t be necessary with these two defenses. However, that doesn’t mean he’ll be any less the difference between a win and a loss.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP