Coaches explain how to beat No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama
With the College Football Playoff title game only a few days away, SI.com is analyzing the matchup between No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama from every angle. We've already covered each position unit, X-factors and answered some key questions. Below is a breakdown of the Tigers and Tide from coaches. This originally appeared in this week's version of Sports Illustrated.
How to beat Clemson
The Tigers' biggest weakness is their offensive line, and I'd be surprised if they can move the line of scrimmage against Alabama. They start a true freshman at left tackle [Mitch Hyatt], and if you study them on film, a lot of teams are knocking him backward. He'll be a good player someday, but he'll be in for a long night. They have a center who isn't bad [junior Jay Guillermo] and a guard who isn't bad [senior Eric Mac Lain], but against better teams they've given up sacks.
Alabama's defensive line is deep and talented—one of the best the SEC has seen in the past decade—including pass rushing specialists in juniors Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson. Those guys have to wear Clemson down and disrupt the offense's high tempo. At the same time they must stay disciplined in their rushes and the linebackers must remain alert and active, because quarterback Deshaun Watson can scramble and often rolls out, allowing him to throw on the move or take off for a big gain.
On defense Clemson plays multiple fronts and mixes man and zone, so the Tide should abandon the plan they used against Michigan State, when senior Jake Coker threw the ball 30 times. They need to pound away on the ground with Heisman winner Derrick Henry, get after Clemson up front and turn this into a toe-to-toe heavyweight fight. If they do, there's no way that Clemson wins. The key to freeing up Henry is establishing early that receivers Calvin Ridley and Richard Mullaney can beat the Tigers' two big corners—Mackensie Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley—in one-on-one matchups. Once Coker does that, it will force Clemson to take the safeties out of the box and give Henry room to run.
How to beat Alabama
Wayne Gallman will not be able to run inside against Alabama's 315-pound noseguard [junior Darren Lake] and two ends who are more than 310 [senior Jarran Reed and junior A'Shawn Robinson]. The Tigers will have to exploit the perimeter—bubble screens and jet sweeps.
Nick Saban has struggled over the years with spread offenses because when they go into 11 personnel—one running back, one tight end and three receivers—he tends to counter with a nickel defense, which puts one less linebacker on the field and is susceptible to the run. When a team like Ole Miss plays the entire game in 11 and runs the ball a lot or a team has a running quarterback, the Tide are at a disadvantage, which is why all of their losses the last four years have come against spread teams [Texas A&M, Auburn, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Ole Miss twice]. The combination of tempo and a nontraditional offense still bothers Alabama.
With Watson, Clemson can play with anyone—every other team in college football would trade its quarterback for him. The Tigers can't let Alabama pressure Watson rushing only four, because that will let Saban get exotic defensively with the seven other guys. Watson will need to complete some over-the-top shots.
On defense Clemson must slow down Henry by forcing him to run east-west. Some teams used slanted lines, which means bringing a big guy off the edge so Henry is cutting into a linebacker or an outside blitzer, who will force him to turn his shoulders so he can't run downhill. The Tigers also need to give Coker a different look postsnap than they do presnap—showing a single-high safety then going to split safeties. Film reveals that if you show Coker the same thing a few times in a row, he'll take advantage.