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2018

Alabama Defense Enters The Kraken’s Lair

Yesterday, we looked at the Alabama offense’s matchup with the Clemson defense. Today, we’re going to flip that around and look at the Clemson offense vs. the Alabama defense.

“Here comes the pain.” That’s the Alabama defense’s default mentality. They would like opposition skill players to think about how much they really want to carry the ball (or stand in the pocket or catch the ball or even be on the field). Step 1 for any opposing player is overcoming physically “getting your ass kicked in front of millions of people” while trying to do your job. The Alabama formula is not new and not something Nick Saban came up with. It dates back to Bear Bryant who once said, “we teach our players to out-mean the opponent.” From Bryant, this foundational mantra was carried on throughout his coaching tree with Howard Schnellenberger (Miami 80s), Pat Dye (Auburn 80s), Gene Stallings (Alabama 90s), and our own Danny Ford.

Alabama recruits this style of player and that can be seen with the naked eye in warm-ups. In the 2015 matchup, the team rose to the occasion and fought fire with fire physically, but lost the battle on the outside. In the 2016 matchup, Bama doubled down and headhunted Deshaun, but the team persevered through sheer will. Last year, their DBs were superior to our QB and WR corps. We had to play the game in a phone booth and the Bama defense hit us with punch after punch until the offense buckled and gave up more points than they scored. As we get set for the 4th matchup, Bama is still Bama, but the Clemson personnel has changed drastically. Let’s take a look at the personnel matchups.

Personnel

As mentioned in the last article, these matchups are arbitrary. The number by their name is my rating on film of 1-10 with 10 being the best player I have seen on film this year.

  • DE, #49 Isaiah Buggs (8) vs. LT, #75 Mitch Hyatt (10)
  • NG, #92 Quinnen Williams (10) vs. C, Justin Falcinelli (7.5)
  • DE, #99 Raekwon Davis (8) vs. RG, #59 Gage Cervenka (7.5)
  • SLB, #47 Christian Miller* (?) vs. TE, #44 Garrett Williams (7)
  • MLB, #30 Mack Wilson (9) vs. LG, #74 John Simpson (8)
  • WLB, #32 Dylan Moses (7) vs. RB, Travis Etienne (10)
  • Jack, #33 Anfernee Jennings (8) vs. RT, #73 Tremayne Anchrum (7)
  • CB, #4 Saivion Smith (7.5) vs. WR, #3 Amari Rodgers (8)
  • CB, #2 Patrick Surtain II (7) vs. WR, #5 Tee Higgins (9)
  • FS, #14 Deionte Thompson (9) vs. WR, #8 Justyn Ross (9)
  • SS, #15 Xavier McKinney (7) vs. QB, #16 Trevor Lawrence (9)
  • Star, #5 Shyheim Carter (8) vs. WR, Hunter Renfrow (8)

*Will Christian Miller play? It’s the Natty, so you would have to think that he would. How effective he will be is a different story and I won’t venture a guess there.

On Film

Shocker: They are sound and disciplined. They don’t usually take the cheese, so they are hard to fool. Sometimes they will have a DL get too far upfield and create a cutback lane, but if that’s happening to us consistently, we’re probably getting beat.

Bama has interchangeable parts up front that they will move around situationally in Christian Miller, Isaiah Buggs, and Anfernee Jennings. This makes it difficult to single out a certain player and exploit a matchup advantage in the run game. On 3rd and long, they will often go to their Nascar look with a DL of Raekwon Davis, Buggs, Miller, and Jennings.

That means that on 3rd and long, they usually pull their NG, who is also their best player. #92 Quinnen Williams is one of the best NGs I’ve ever seen. He has been totally unblockable by anybody on their schedule and it is doubtful that we are going to be able to single block him. He is incredibly powerful and on most plays, he goes where he wants to go.

We should see the star or NB in this system, #5 Shyheim Carter, pretty much the whole game. He is basically a 3rd CB and you would have to think that he would draw “The Bama Killer” Hunter Renfrow. Of course, last year they used a safety and best cover guy, Minkah Fitzpatrick, on Renfrow. This year, they have another All American at FS in #14 Deionte Thompson, but I don’t think he draws Renfrow because we have a QB that can throw accurately downfield. With Thompson’s excellent range, I think it’s obvious he would be better used patrolling the deep half/middle downfield.

Yes, their safeties have great range and they can get downhill in a hurry as usual. They mix up their coverages a lot from play to play as well.
They will blitz a DB off the edge, T/E Stunt, and they will blitz the A gap. If we can give Trevor Lawrence time though, somebody will come open. The check down will be there when they blitz and TL will need to see the whole field. My guess is that they’re going to help out the CBs and Star deep with safeties over the top. This will allow them to sit on short and intermediate routes on the outside. So, TL needs to be ready to throw the hitches, curls, and check downs until they give us 1-on-1s downfield. In other words, we could see a heavy dose of Renfrow early.

One of the problems Oklahoma had against them initially was that Kyler Murray was anxious to leave the pocket and show off his legs. There were receivers open underneath to the backside and he needed to get them the ball and make Bama pay, especially on early downs. Once you’re sitting back there on a 3rd and 10, you’re not going to have as much time. Take the free yardage, stay on schedule, and force them to have to worry about the run game every down.

Speaking of the run game, they have been a little softer on the edges and don’t have the kind of depth in the front 6 that they have had in years past. One thing that is noticeable on film is that they get moved around up front more and more as the game goes on and it starts around the 2nd quarter. That is, except for #92. Never #92.

Because of the lower caliber depth, this is going to be the kind of game where running a lot of plays and possessing the ball is a good thing. If the game is close in the 2nd half, fatigue could become a factor and that would be advantage Clemson. Being able to give Etienne a hair more of a crease can be the difference between stuffed and score.

Summary

I have the feeling that this side of the ball is the matchup that will largely decide the game. I feel like Alabama’s offense and Clemson’s defense are going to cancel each other out by both performing worse than their season averages in points and points allowed. I don’t see either side dominating the other barring an injury or schematic blunder. Therefore, the bigger unknown is Clemson’s offense vs. Alabama’s defense.

Clemson is greatly improved on offense and will be bringing in the best statistical offense among any of the 4 Clemson playoff teams. Clemson’s offense is a big play, explosive offense that can score seemingly out of nowhere. The Tigers are ranked #2 in the nation in 20 yard plays from scrimmage after being ranked just 59th last year. At the same time, in 20 yard plays allowed, Alabama dropped from #2 to #66 nationally this year.

Now it gets interesting because we’ve waited a year to see this go down. Exit Kelly Bryant, Deon Cain, and Ray Ray McCloud. Enter Trevor Lawrence, Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, and Justyn Ross. It’s a different animal offensively for the Tigers when it comes to challenging the back 7 through the air.

Still, right off the bat, we’ll have to answer a lot of the same questions we had with Notre Dame. Can we run Etienne against 7 in the box? If the answer is a consistent “yes,” there’s a 90% chance we win. If it’s “no,” then can we run against 6? If that’s a consistent “no,” 90% chance Alabama wins. Of course, they’re going to mix it up so it’s not that simple, but that will be the greatest indicator of success.

If they stop ETN, then as we saw last year, the windows to throw in are tighter against Alabama and they close faster than against other teams. Last year, the windows were so tight, KB wouldn’t even throw into them. Lawrence has some of the best arm talent in college football the world. I don’t see him refusing to throw into tight windows whatsoever. He will try, and probably savor, the opportunity to thread the needle. It’s just a question of decision making and accuracy after that.

Much like last week against Notre Dame, the WRs are going to have to win 1 on 1 matchups with the ball in the air. Hunter Renfrow did it in 2015. Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett did it in 2016. Deon Cain couldn’t do it in 2017. Alabama has been hearing all the pundits talk about how the secondary is the weak link. Will Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, Amari Rodgers, and Hunter Renfrow be able to win their matchups? If they can’t, we’re right back to playing in a phone booth.

Gamethread, thoughts and prediction tomorrow.

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