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Alabama-Clemson IV: The Matchup We Deserve

By Jim Johnson
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Breaking down all the matchups within the matchup between Alabama and Clemson for the national championship.

It’s almost time for Alabama-Clemson IV, and for as much as matchup fatigue has been a storyline surrounding this year’s national championship, these are clearly the best two college football teams, and the best two programs of the last four years. For anyone that truly loves college football, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Alabama is 55-3 since 2015. Clemson is 54-4. One of those three ‘Bama losses came against Clemson. Two of Clemson’s were at the hands of the tide. They’re outscoring opponents by 25.5 and 22.2 points per game, respectively, over that stretch. They combine to own all three of the most recent titles, and Georgia, in the Rose Bowl a season ago, is the only team to even win a game in the College Football Playoff, be it a semifinal or final, past the inaugural bracket.

I picked Clemson to go 15-0 and win it all in the preseason, but then I picked Alabama on a radio interview earlier this week. Now, I want to flip back to Clemson, but the Dexter Lawrence suspension keeps stopping me in my tracks. It doesn’t feel like an interior defensive linemen should be what keeps me from pulling the trigger, especially given how good the Tigers are up front otherwise, but the hairs one must split between these two teams are that thin.

Vegas favors Nick Saban and company by six points, which feels simultaneously fair and way too high. Dabo Swinney’s Clemson teams, as a postseason underdog, according to ESPN Stats & Info, have gone 7-1 against the spread with six outright wins, for people interested in that sort of thing. Plus, the higher ranked team has lost each of these teams’ last three battles, although historical precedents like that are largely useless.

ESPN’s FPI gives Alabama a 53% chance to win, while S&P+ has it at 52%. A Crimson Tide victory would break Saban’s tie with Bear Bryant for most national championships ever, while a Clemson one would see Swinney join Saban as the only active coach with more than one ring. On Monday night in Santa Clara, two of probably the best five or six teams of the past decade are basically flipping a coin with history on the line.

This has hardly been the most chaotic or exciting season in the history of the sport, but the right two teams are playing the last game of the year, and, on paper, the matchups within this matchup point to a finale that will make every chalky second worth the wait.

It’s disingenuous to say that Alabama never had great offenses until now, but it’s also fair to concede that this is easily the best unit Saban has ever had on that side of the ball. This time last year, Tua Tagovailoa was just Jalen Hurts’ backup. A few days from now will be the anniversary of his achieving legend status in the course of mere seconds, in overtime against Georgia. Over the next twelve months, he proceeded to cement himself as one of the best quarterbacks in college football history.

According to Pro Football Focus, he enters this game with the highest passer rating in the FBS from a clean pocket, the fourth highest under pressure, the 11th best adjusted completion percentage, and a top five big-time throw percentage ranking. He also boasts a 41:4 touchdown to interception ratio, an average of 11.4 yards per attempt (2nd in the FBS), elite marginal efficiency and explosiveness ratings, and, oh yeah, the highest NCAA passer rating ever.

He has, of course, benefitted from a star-studded receiving corps led by Jerry Jeudy. The latest dynamite South Florida receiver at Alabama leads the group in marginal explosiveness and has been especially dominant on slant routes, where he lead the nation’s receivers with 109 yards after contact during the regular season, and was also tops in yards after the catch and yards per route run -- all without a drop.

Henry Ruggs, while not as explosive as Jeudy, hauled in a remarkable 40% of his contested targets, as did tight end Irv Smith, according to CFB Film Room, and Smith was also the nation’s best pass catcher on corner routes, according to PFF. Freshmen Jaylen Waddle, though, was arguably the most well rounded of the group, first among their top five most targeted weapons in catch rate, first in marginal efficiency, and third in marginal explosiveness -- earning him the highest overall grade of any freshman receiver. Devonta Smith rounds out the group, and is second in marginal efficiency, however he had the biggest game of any in the Orange Bowl, just further illustrating their depth and talent.

Behind an offensive line led by Jonah Williams, the best tackle in the country, who had allowed just pressures on 410 pass block snaps through the SEC Championship, and center Ross Pierschbacher, with just four pressures allowed, Alabama’s 3.7% allowed sack rate is 14th, nationally.

Altogether, the passing offense ranks 1st in S&P+ and marginal efficiency, and 5th in marginal explosiveness.

However, on the flipside, Clemson ranks 4th in pass defense S&P+, 8th in marginal efficiency allowed, and 12th in marginal explosiveness.

Those numbers are, in large part, thanks to what may have been the best front four ever. It was obvious that the loss of Dexter Lawrence wouldn’t hurt much against Notre Dame’s miserable offensive line, but the same is not true against Alabama. Still, for what it’s worth, for the season, Clemson is 5th in sack rate, and first, by a wide margin, with a nearly 46% pressure rate.

Lawrence averaged 33 pressures per year for his career, and had 31 this season, but his primary replacement Albert Huggins did have 15 on 143 pass rush snaps, which is a comparable rate, albeit on a smaller sample size.

Christian Wilkins is certainly capable of covering any losses, however, having raised his pass rushing game in a big way this season. With 40 pressures and five sacks, there wasn’t a better interior pass rusher in the ACC.

Clelin Ferrell has also made a bit of a leap, up to 49 pressures and 11.5 sacks on 280 pass rushes this season from 46 on 357 in 2017. Austin Bryant, conversely, may have taken a step back in the pass rush consistency department, but still managed to bring down opposing quarterbacks eight times during the campaign. Plus, with depth to match the top end talent, there probably aren’t ten teams in the country that Xavier Thomas and Nyles Pinckney wouldn’t start for. Clemson just happens to be one of them.

At linebacker, Kendall Joseph also contributed another 23 pressures on 86 blitzes.

Granted, as ridiculous as this group is, the secondary was exposed a couple of times this season. The team numbers are obviously fantastic, but the defensive backs rank just 49th in havoc rate and Clemson is 115th in passes defensed to incompletion ratio, indicating that the pressure was far more responsible for that success.

Regardless, even Alabama might have to become a one-dimensional passing team, as good as Clemson is against the run.

That aforementioned defensive line ranks 1st in both standard and passing down line yards per carry allowed, 1st in percentage of 5+ yard carries allowed, 1st in havoc rate, 5th in percentage of stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, and was the lone FBS team to allow fewer than one yard before contact per attempt.

Again, losing Lawrence’s 13 run stuffs is not ideal, but Albert Huggins had five of his own in 2018. Ferrell led the group with 21, followed by Wilkins’ 17.5 -- Wilkins was first on the team in marginal efficiency allowed -- and then 15 from Austin Bryant, who allowed the fewest yards per play of any starter. Xavier Thomas and Tre Lamar are also in the double digits.

Tanner Muse has also done a good job diagnosing run plays from his safety spot, recording 12 stops, or tackles that constitute a win for the defense.

Cohesively, against the run, Clemson is 1st in S&P+ and marginal explosiveness allowed, and 4th in marginal efficiency allowed.

Comparatively, Alabama is 4th in rushing S&P+ and 3rd in marginal efficiency, but 82nd in marginal explosiveness.

Perhaps “one dimensional” was a stretch behind this ‘Bama offensive line that ranks 5th in percentage of 5+ yard carries, 2nd in allowed stuff rate, and 2nd in standard down line yards per carry. Don’t expect too many monster gains on the ground, but Alabama just might be able to run the ball somewhat reliably, especially with this stable of backs.

Damien Harris leads the team in carries, and averages more than 3 yards per carry after contact. Josh Jacobs is second, and forces a missed tackle on nearly a third of his carries. However, Najee Harris, with one fewer than Jacobs, actually tops the trio in percentage of 5+ yard carries, marginal efficiency, and boasts a bonkers 4.5 yards per attempt after contact. So, even if Clelin Ferrell is hitting him right as he gets the hand off, especially as big as Harris is, he can at least just fall forward to the line of scrimmage.

All things considered, Alabama’s offense ranks 2nd in S&P+, 1st in marginal efficiency, 3rd in marginal explosiveness, 3rd in drive finishing, and 2nd in points per drive, excluding garbage time. Clemson’s defense is 1st in S&P+, 2nd in marginal efficiency allowed, 1st in marginal explosiveness allowed, 1st in drive finishing, and 1st in points per drive allowed.

The key for Alabama will be avoiding third and longs. They’re only 66th in average third down distance, and 61st in percentage of third and longs. Granted, they’re 2nd in third and long success rate, but even the best success rates from that depth are well beneath even average ones from more manageable scenarios. Clemson, correspondingly, is 2nd in average opposing third down distance, and 7th in percentage of third and longs forced. They’re also in the top 20 in third down success rate allowed. It doesn't matter how good your offense is, no one wants to face too many of those uncomfortable passing downs against Brent Venables and this d-line.

This matchup within the matchup is fairly reminiscent of one we saw pretty recently -- that being Oklahoma’s offense against Alabama’s defense. Clemson and Alabama have the two best defenses in the country, Oklahoma and Alabama have the two best offenses. Oklahoma has actually been more balanced than the Tide this year, and they go a bit faster, but from a personnel and matchup standpoint, it’s similar. Alabama’s relative weaknesses are at cornerback. Clemson’s are also in the secondary. Oklahoma had arguably the best quarterback in the country. Alabama has the other side of that argument. Both are loaded, across the board, at the skill positions, and trot out elite offensive lines that will still probably be overmatched.

Yet, as good as Alabama’s defense is, Oklahoma scored a little bit. It scored 34 points to be exact. If you averaged Alabama’s points per drive with Clemson’s points per drive allowed and multiplied it by the average number of possessions per game, it comes out to a few decimal points above 34. I’m just saying. The question then becomes whether or not Clemson has the guns to keep up.

It has been awhile since we saw a true freshman quarterback as impressive as Trevor Lawrence. Jake Fromm was great last season, taking his own team to the title game, but, with all due respect, he wasn't burdened with close to the workload that Lawrence is.

He gets the ball out quickly -- his the second fastest of any P5 passer and in under 2.5 seconds over two-thirds of the time, according to PFF -- and safely -- the only FBS signal caller with at least 20 of PFF’s big-time throws and less than five turnover-worthy balls. In fact, with only three turnover-worthy attempts, his four picks are a mark of sheer bad luck. He’s in the top 15 in passer rating from a clean pocket, the top 25 when pressured, and the top 20 in adjusted completion percentage. His 155.2 NCAA passer rating is also right there in the top 15.

That said, just like Tagovailoa, he benefits from an absurdly deep, gifted, complementary receiving corps. Tee Higgins is the number one option, and leads the Tigers in marginal efficiency, while somehow reeling in 46.7% of his contested targets, and freshman Justyn Ross is tops in marginal explosiveness. Ross also graded out as PFF’s third best freshman receiver.

Amari Rodgers and Hunter Renfrow provide a couple of reliable safety valves. Rodgers has the highest raw catch rate, bringing down just under 80% of his targets, but Renfrow, noted Alabama killer, has continued to build a remarkable legacy at Clemson. The 23rd year senior has the lowest drop rate on the team and has actually caught two-thirds of his contested targets, according to CFB Film Room, which is not a thing that should be possible, but apparently is.

Mitch Hyatt, and his 11 allowed pressures on 398 snaps in pass pro, leads a Tiger offensive line that sits at 18th with a 4% allowed sack rate. However, factoring out Kelly Bryant’s snaps, it’s actually 2.9%, which would be in the top ten.

Altogether, Clemson’s passing offense is 17th in S&P+, 23rd in marginal efficiency, and 50th in marginal explosiveness. Yet, though it’s not elite, it matches up well with Alabama’s pass defense, which has some deficiencies of its own.

That group ranks 5th in pass defense S&P+, 15th in marginal efficiency allowed, and 56th in marginal explosiveness allowed.

Again, that is more due to some inexperience on the backend. The pass rush is unassailable.

Alabama was the only team, other than Clemson, to clear a 40% pressure rate. Sure, whereas Clemson was above 45%, Alabama just barely gets over that bar, but still. They also rank 3rd in sack rate, paced by Isaiah Buggs’ 9.5 and 33 pressures. Raekwon Davis has added another 31 pressures of his own, but Quinnen Williams is the headliner of the group, and the defense, at large.

He finished the regular season with 43 total pressures, including 24 combined sacks and QB hits, which tied for the national lead, according to PFF, and graded out as the best interior pass rusher in the country. He may not be the most valuable player, or even defender in college football, but he is the best player. There was no one better in 2018 than Quinnen Williams, regardless of position.

Factor in a linebacking corps of Mack Wilson, who had 18 pressures, Anfernee Jennings, who had 29, and Christian Miller who is second only to Buggs with 8.5 sacks, and this will be the best pass rush Trevor Lawrence has ever seen… except in practice.

Alabama’ secondary, inexperienced as it may be, is playmaking, ranked 9th in havoc rate and 13th in passes defensed to incompletion ratio. Deionte Thompson is the best safety in America, especially in coverage, where he’s allowed a sub-50% catch rate, .35 yards per coverage snap, 1.5 yards per target, and a 54.0 passer rating on his targets, with two picks and eight pass breakups. Xavier McKinney also came on strong at the other safety spot over the latter half of the season, and ultimately is allowing under 5 yards per target.

Cornerback, however, is where there are some relative issues. Especially since Trevon Diggs went out for the season, Alabama has been thin on the boundary. Patrick Surtain has been solid, with an allowed 72.2 passer rating and 3.9 yards per target given up, but he’s a true freshman, and looks it at times. The other spot, though, with Savion Smith, is where Clemson can really look to take advantage of mismatches. Smith is a reliable tackles and flashes good ball skills, but he’s allowed a 91.9 passer rating on throws into his coverage, and was picked on downfield by SEC quarterbacks all season, giving up the most yards per target in the conference on balls that travelled 10+ air yards.

The slot battles between Renfrow and Shyheim Carter will be fascinating. Carter is allowing just about 5 yards per target and is allowing a mere 49.2 passer rating. Versatile linebackers Mack Wilson and Christian Miller can both hold their own in coverage, as well.

It’s certainly not bad -- quite good in fact, but Alabama’s pass defense is not infallible. Clemson has some exploitable matchup advantages, but doing so consistently, especially given the stage, is a big ask even for any true freshman quarterback, even one of Trevor Lawrence’s stature. Travis Etienne will need to go out and prove that he’s the best running back in the country one more time for Clemson to have a chance.

He can surely do it, though. No Power Five ball carrier with even just 120 carries averaged more than 8 yards per attempt. Etienne is at 8.27 with 190. Nearly half of those yards have come after contact. He’s also tied for the national lead in rushing touchdowns, gains at least five yards 54.2% of the time, and gains a unbelievable 9.0 highlight yards per opportunity -- or extra yards per chance, upon getting to the second level.

He’s not alone in the backfield, though. Tavien Feaster actually leads the Tigers in marginal efficiency, Adam Choice has the highest percentage of 5+ yard runs, and Lyn-J Dixon is somehow beating Etienne with 11.7 highlight yards per opportunity.

Give the offensive line some credit, too. They rank 6th in percentage of stops at or behind the line of scrimmage allowed, 10th in standard down line yards per carry, and 9th on passing downs.

As a unit, Clemson ranks 6th in rushing S&P+, 14th in marginal efficiency, and 18th in marginal explosiveness. This Alabama run defense ranks 3rd in S&P+, 14th in marginal efficiency, and 29th in marginal explosiveness.

Quinnen Williams, with his 25 run stuffs, has been at least as good against the run as he has been as a pass rusher, if not better, but the same can not be said for the group at large, although they’re hardly struggling.

The defensive line is 43rd in havoc rate. The front, as a whole, is 10th in percentage of 5+ yard carries allowed, 40th in stuff rate, and 21st and 43rd, respectively, in standard and passing down line yards per carry allowed.

The linebacking corps, particularly Dylan Moses and Christian Miller, make up for it with their top ten havoc rate, but it’s not unfathomable to think that Clemson could move the ball effectively on the ground.

There are some inconsistencies, but the playmaking is still there. Moses, Miller, Anfernee Jennings, Raekwon Davis, Isaiah Buggs, and, again, Quinnen Williams, do all have double digit stuffs.

Shyheim Carter has also been elite against the run, boasting 19 stops and PFF’s highest run defense grade.

All told, Clemson’s offense is 5th in S&P+, 11th in marginal efficiency, 23rd in marginal explosiveness, 6th in drive finishing, and 8th in points per drive. Alabama’s defense ranks 12th in S&P+, 9th in marginal efficiency allowed, 50th in marginal explosiveness allowed, 40th in drive finishing, and 2nd in points per drive allowed.

The big play battle will be vitally important for Clemson. Alabama does a stellar job of limiting efficiency, but there are chunk plays to be had. The Tide are 50th in the FBS, allowing a gain of 20+ yards on 7% of opposing plays. Clemson is 4th in percentage of 20+ yard plays on offense, with a 12.2% rate.

No one’s going to win every rep, or even all that consistently against Nick Saban’s defense, but when you do, you have to make it hurt. Travis Etienne can make it hurt. Justyn Ross or Tee Higgins matched up with Savion Smith can make it hurt, especially if Deionte Thompson is otherwise engaged.

I think we decided that 34 was the magic number, and no one has broken that threshold yet, but Oklahoma got there. Clemson’s offense isn’t on Oklahoma’s level, but Georgia came within a score of it, and Clemson is right there with that one. It’s far from impossible. Heck, even Arkansas got to 31. Is Chad Morris busy on Monday?

If you’re not sold on Alabama-Clemson IV yet, then something’s wrong, but wait, there’s more.

Not only are the two best defenses that the sport has to offer taking on two of the five or six best offenses in the game, college kickers will be there, too!

It’s so baffling how the two premier programs in the country can be so top-to-bottom solid, so deep, so complete, and yet play such smoldering garbage special teams. It’s not just a one off, either. Both of them were trash last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. It’s ridiculous.

Greg Huegel’s 66.7% field goal percentage has Clemson ranked 90th in field goal value per kick, which measures the output of a given kicker against the expected output of the average college kicker. Joseph Bulovas has Alabama at 88th (his 76.5% field goal percentage is a bit misleading, in context).

Alabama is last in the nation in yards per punt and 120th in allowed punt return success rate. It’s fine, though, since Clemson is 123rd in punt return success rate.

Clemson’s own punt team ranks 99th in allowed success rate. Alabama is 51st in return success. Jaylen Waddle could be dangerous here, but he’s not particularly reliable.

Bulovas only has a 37.9% touchback rate on kickoffs, but solid coverage does have Alabama at 36th in allowed success rate. Clemson is a mediocre 59th in kick return efficiency.

In fact, the only aspect of special teams that either of these teams are good at it will probably cancel each other out. Josh Jacobs is an elite kick returner and has Alabama ranked 1st in kick return efficiency, but BT Potter has a 67.9% touchback rate, and Clemson is 12th in allowed efficiency.

For the sake of all that is good and holy, this game better not come down to special teams. Alas, it very well may. The team that wins the field position battle wins the game 72% of the time. Both teams have benefitted from this all year, with each ranking in the top 20 in offensive and defensive average starting field position.

The turnover battle will be of great import, as well. Clemson is just 33rd in turnover margin at +5, but has been mildly unlucky, with an expected turnover margin of +7.2, which is 12th. Alabama is +8, good for 20th, but has had similar misfortune and is 2nd with a +11 expected turnover margin.

Taking it all into consideration, Alabama’s a little better than Clemson on offense, Clemson is a little better than Alabama on defense (although it would still be a helluva statement to prove that without Dexter Lawrence), and both are awful on special teams.

That said, Alabama’s offense isn’t playing Clemson’s offense, and vice versa. Alabama’s offensive line will have to play its best game of the year against one of the greatest defensive lines in college football history, in order to buy Tagovailoa enough time to pick on that suspect secondary.

Clemson’s offense, meanwhile, will have to keep Quinnen Williams at bay and take the utmost advantage of their big play opportunities, through matchup advantages against Alabama’s inexperienced cornerbacks and the sheer dynamic ability of Travis Etienne.

And both will need to try their best not to kick field goals.

Get out of here with all that talk about Alabama-Clemson fatigue. Just because we’ve known since before a single ball kicked off this season that these were the two best teams doesn’t take away from the matchup.

The point of the national championship is to see the two best teams play, right? This is that. These aren’t just the two best teams this year, either -- but the two best programs of this era. And, not only are they the two best programs of this era, but they’re led by the two best coaches in the sport, right now.

One of these teams will become the first FBS team to ever go 15-0. If it’s Alabama, that would break Nick Saban’s tie with Bear Bryant for most national championships ever. If it’s Clemson, Dabo Swinney will join Saban as the only active coach with more than one ring.

It hasn’t been the best season ever. No one would argue that. But, if you’re not excited about how it’s going to end, that’s a you problem.

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