Back For Tide Defense, It’s New Year, New Clemson

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For Tide Defense, It’s New Year, New Clemson

By Matt Smith
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For the Clemson offense, the 2018 Sugar Bowl was an absolute disaster.

64 rushing yards.

124 passing yards.

2 turnovers.

2.69 yards per play.

For the Clemson offense, the 2018 Sugar Bowl was an absolute disaster. The top-ranked Tigers came into the rubber match with Alabama confident after splitting a pair of national championship games and scoring a total of 75 points, but they were overwhelmed by the Crimson Tide, 24-6. Alabama, of course, would go on to win the national championship a week later over Georgia.

Clemson has spent the past 12 months and a couple days working to get another chance at Alabama. After rolling through 14 opponents each, the re-re-rematch is set for Monday night in California. To the winner goes the national title for the third time in their past four meetings.

The Tigers knew after last year’s blowout that they had to expand their passing game in order to score on Alabama. That’s why head coach Dabo Swinney pulled the trigger on a quarterback switch after four games this season, benching 18-game starter Kelly Bryant for true freshman Trevor Lawrence, who had shared time with Bryant in the first four games of the season.

Bryant had averaged just 6.8 and 5.6 yards per pass attempt in wins over Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech respectively. Lawrence had gone for 10.2 and 9.8 in those two games, and Swinney had seen enough. Lawrence was named the starter, and Bryant, who was one snap away from losing his ability to redshirt, left the team. He’ll play the 2019 season at Missouri.

Lawrence missed most of Clemson’s only competitive game since he became the starter – a 27-23 home escape against Syracuse – after being knocked out with a head injury. Since that game, Clemson has won nine straight by an average of 37 points. Lawrence has thrown 18 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions, while Bryant finished 2017 with 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Aiding Lawrence has been the emergence of three underclassmen receivers who combined for just 36 receptions in 2017. Sophomores Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers have both exceeded 50 receptions this season, while true freshman Justyn Ross is averaging a whopping 21.1 yards per reception. He had the best game of his young career against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, catching six passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns.

While Alabama’s pass defense is still among the best in the nation, it’s been a little more gettable this season than in years past. This is the first year since 2014 that the Crimson Tide defense has not been ranked in the top 10 in passing efficiency.

Even with the outcome never really in doubt, Oklahoma was able to pick on the Alabama secondary in the second half of the Orange Bowl allowing 308 yards and a pair of touchdown passes to Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Kyler Murray. This came on the heels of a brilliant game from Georgia’s Jake Fromm in the SEC Championship Game, in which he also topped 300 yards and threw for three scores in Alabama’s comeback victory.

The Crimson Tide aren’t forcing as many turnovers of late. After five multi-interception games through the first seven weeks, Alabama has managed just two total interceptions in their last seven games. With Lawrence a good protector of the football, it won’t be easy for the Tide to get back to their September and October ways on Monday evening.

While we can also expect more from the Alabama offense than the 261 yards it managed in last year’s Sugar Bowl, this game does present another stern test for the defense. Lawrence may not be Murray, but given time, he can make every throw available.

Even with Alabama’s identity shifting this year to where the offense is the more dangerous unit, the Crimson Tide have still maintained their familiar dominance of seemingly capable opponents. There’s one final mountain climb for Alabama. While it still has a big orange paw on its side, this version, thanks to a potent passing attack, presents a rockier path to the apex than the one the Tide topped with ease a year ago.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.