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Can Alabama's physical defense erase Deshaun Watson and Clemson's numbers edge?

By Andy Staples
January 04, 2016

For Alabama's defense, Deshaun Watson is the hill.

Nick Saban tells a story about the three summers he spent as a young man driving a Coca-Cola delivery truck. Saban's boss did not appreciate Saban's habit of burning out the clutch, but Saban had a perfectly understandable reason. "The hardest part for me was the hills when the truck wanted to roll back," Saban said on his radio show in October. "You've got a big, heavy truck and it rolls back and you've got a cart behind you. You've got one foot on the brake. One foot on the clutch. How do you give it gas? You've got to do it quick, and if you don't lean on the clutch, you're going to roll backward." In other words, unless the operation is completed using superior physical technique, the driver can't possibly perform it correctly. Saban, to his boss's chagrin, often did it incorrectly. "I was three for three, man," Saban said during that radio show. "I went three summers. Three clutches."

What does this have to do with Clemson's sophomore quarterback? Watson's unusual aptitude for throwing and running (68.2% completion rate, 3,699 passing yards, 31 passing touchdowns, 1,032 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns) allows the Tigers to get defenders into positions where they can't possibly do their jobs correctly unless they physically dominate blockers. On that same radio show, Saban—whose team was then about to face Georgia—explained why teams that run effectively pose such a problem for defenses in the age of the run-pass option. (A run-pass option is a play in which the quarterback has the choice to hand off, keep or throw without changing the blocking scheme and tipping off the defense.) "When you have to put extra guys in the box, then you're going to put more pressure on the corners," Saban said. "A lot of these teams that run these run-pass options now—which Georgia runs, which Ole Miss ran all the time—as soon as they see three-deep (an extra guy in the box), they're not running anyway. They're going to fake the ball to the guy. They're going to have two guys running slants here and they're going to raise up and throw the ball to them. You get to where you can't be right."

Clemson makes this more difficult than any team Alabama's excellent defense has faced this season since Watson can still run on downs when most quarterbacks would throw. Why? He changes the math.

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Saban pointed out that a team that can stop the run using only its front seven can usually play two safeties deep. This tends to cripple an opponent's passing game. "When you play middle of the field coverage—the old Cover 3 for some of you old football guys—where you've got a safety down [in the box] and one in the middle, the corners are kind of out here by themselves," Saban said. "Whether you play Cover 1 or Cover 3, it doesn't matter. When you can play split safeties, that means the guys in the box can stop the run by themselves. They don't need an extra guy in there. All these guys playing pass defense have somebody backing them up. That makes a big difference in how you can play."

The problem with defending a quarterback like Watson is someone also has to serve as a spy in case he takes off running while everyone is rushing him or covering receivers. That need for an extra man close to the line of scrimmage makes it quite difficult to play two deep safeties against the Tigers.

Even with that extra man spying Watson, Clemson still manages to win the numbers game. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has always run his quarterbacks frequently because he wants to "plus" the defense. The Tigers' offense functions much the same way. There is nothing complex about the concept. It's simple arithmetic. On handoffs in most offenses, the quarterback can be ignored because he isn't going to block. A pro-style offense might use six blockers (the five offensive linemen and the tight end) to handle a defense's front seven. The unblocked man will likely be on the back side of the play, and even if he finds his way into the action, the back is supposed to be athletic enough to make one tackler miss. In an offense—be it single wing, triple option, read option, etc.—that frequently uses the quarterback as a runner, the count changes. On a designed quarterback run, the back also serves as a blocker. Six on seven turns into seven on seven. The numbers also even up on plays in which the quarterback chooses whether to give the ball to a teammate or to keep it, because the quarterback will read one unblocked defender—effectively removing that tackler from the play. In these offenses, the ballcarrier doesn't have to make anyone miss to reach the second level if every blocker does his job. This is why Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson calls his version of the option a "big-play offense" even though the Yellow Jackets don't often throw vertically. When a ballcarrier can reach the second level untouched, all sorts of bad things can happen to a defense.

Clemson's co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott try to make this numbers crunch even more pronounced. Take a look at this short-yardage play from the Tigers' 24–22 win over Notre Dame on Oct. 3.

On third-and-two, the Fighting Irish loaded nine defenders in the box. When Clemson receiver Artavis Scott (number 3 in orange) motioned across the formation, he became the Tigers' ninth player in the box. That's nine-on-nine. If Watson (number 4 in orange) keeps the ball, Notre Dame will be outnumbered compared to a standard play. Now watch how the numbers changed on the play side a second or so after the snap.

Scott was an orange herring, drawing a linebacker and the free safety toward the wide side of the field. They had to follow Scott because Watson could either hand him the ball on an end around or pass it to him. At the same time, Clemson's center and left guard pulled to the short side of the field. That overloaded a group of defenders already left shorthanded by the departure of their teammates who followed Scott. Including defensive tackle Sheldon Day—an NFL-bound player who used his quickness to squirt in from the back side to nearly catch Watson in the backfield—the Irish had four men to Clemson's five where all the action was taking place. Notre Dame didn't stand a chance on this play, and Watson raced for a 22-yard touchdown.

Combine these numerical advantages with the fact that, since the Tigers switched to this offense under former coordinator Chad Morris, Watson is given far more freedom to change plays than his predecessors. Given that a few successful runs tend to force a defense to dedicate even more resources up front, this opens up Clemson's passing game. And because Watson throws much better than most quarterbacks who run as often as he does, the Tigers are able to thrive. In the title game, it also means that Alabama could be looking at a full-on Johnny Football situation.

However, there's a key difference between this Alabama defense and the ones that got discombobulated by mobile quarterbacks (Manziel, Trevor Knight, Cardale Jones, etc.) in recent years. This is the deepest, most physically dominant defense Bama has had since 2011, and its current front seven may be deeper and more talented than that year's group. Clemson has seen some excellent defenders in games against the Fighting Irish and Florida State (a 23–13 victory on Nov. 7), but the Tigers have yet to see a collection of linemen and linebackers with the skill or depth of the Crimson Tide's. Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly—who was booted from Clemson in 2014 when he acted out after falling behind then-freshman Watson and Cole Stoudt on the depth chart—led his team to a win in Tuscaloosa and kept plays alive with his legs, but the Rebels also benefited from five Bama turnovers and one fortuitous bounce. It's probably safe to assume Alabama won't melt down on special teams and offense the way it did against Ole Miss. The Tigers will likely have to beat the Tide's defense straight up, and that will require Clemson to put its numerical advantages to good use.

All the Tigers' careful planning can go awry if one blocker gets beaten by a physically superior player, and this is where Alabama has an edge. Even with a favorable angle or a teammate to help, Crimson Tide defensive ends A'Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen are nearly impossible to erase from a play. Rush linebackers Denzel Devall, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams are fast enough to beat tackles one-on-one on passing and running downs. Meanwhile, the speed of an Alabama secondary in which every starter began his career as a cornerback makes for some challenging moving targets for blockers.

Just watch what happened when Clemson's blockers failed to do their jobs against an ultra-athletic defense. On this fourth-and-two play against Florida State, the Tigers moved Scott into the backfield. The Tigers like to run the option from this arrangement, and the Seminoles knew it. The problem for Florida State was that the Seminoles were outnumbered nine to seven on the play side.

If every player blocks his man and Watson correctly reads that he needs to pitch (and times the pitch well), Scott will at least get a first down and probably score a touchdown. But Clemson right tackle Joe Gore (C8) didn't finish his block on linebacker Terrance Smith (F5), and cornerback Jalen Ramsey (jersey number 8 in white)—maybe the best pure athlete on the field on this play—beat receiver Charone Peake (C9) on the edge. Watson pitched to Scott, and Florida State's Nate Andrews (F6), the unblocked player being read by Watson, quickly changed direction and began forcing Scott toward the sideline. Andrews didn't stop Scott, but his pressure pushed Scott into the waiting arms of Ramsey, who tackled him for no gain. Had Ramsey been blocked, Smith still would have stuffed Scott short of the first down. The play was perfectly designed. The Tigers had the numbers. Yet the result was a turnover on downs. A brilliant scheme is no match for a combination of athletic ability and playing one's assignment precisely with superior effort.

The Clemson offense and the Alabama defense will face their toughest challenges of the season in the College Football Playoff national title game in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 11. Clemson will have the numbers on most plays, and Saban knows it. That may be a steep hill to climb, but Saban may also have the kind of athletes who can hit the gas without rolling back and without burning out the clutch.

A random ranking

This topic created some controversy at the dinner table last week. Here are the top 10 teen movies released between 1996 and '99. (Yes, sportswriters come up with extremely specific criteria while eating dinner.)

1. Can't Hardly Wait

Ethan Embry was the ultimate leading man for my generation.

2. American Pie

This would have been my No. 1, but the sequels made me start to hate it.

3. Scream

It's more horror movie than teen movie, but it's great no matter the category.

4. Varsity Blues

The most realistic portrayal of football ever committed to film.

5. 10 Things I Hate About You

Ha. You just learned Shakespeare while watching Julia Stiles rock out to Letters to Cleo singing Nick Lowe.

6. Cruel Intentions

Now begins the Reese Witherspoon portion of the program …

7. Election

As fans of The Leftovers know, when Tom Perrotta provides the source material, viewers are in good shape.

8. Pleasantville

The over/under on how many times you'll say, "I totally forgot [insert actor here] was in this," is at 4.5.

9. The Craft

It was either this or Jawbreaker, and Rose McGowan couldn't carry Fairuza Balk's goth in a suitcase.

10. She's All That

Teens today wouldn't understand this movie. Instead of realizing Rachael Leigh Cook was secretly a beauty under those overalls and nerdy glasses, they'd just say "nice frames" and "sweet overalls." Writing movies for evolved people must be such a pain. (Also, if you want to see the entire movie, just watch the trailer.)


1. Holding the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year's Eve cost ESPN a third of its viewers from the same two games last year, and people still don't seem to understand why the games were held on a regular, non-holiday workday when Saturday, Jan. 2 was available. Allow me to explain again why this happened and which party deserves the blame for the ratings disaster.

This is partly ESPN's fault, but not for the reason you think. It is absolutely the fault of the conference commissioners who run the playoff. They don't care what you think and don't really care if you watch because they get the same half billion dollars whether one person watches or one billion people watch.

ESPN executives wanted to move these games to Saturday, but the commissioners in charge of the playoff insisted on holding the games on New Year's Eve for no particularly good reason other than stubbornness. ESPN could do nothing about this because network officials agreed to the contracts that dictate the Rose Bowl will be played at 5 p.m. ET on Jan. 1 and the Sugar Bowl will be played immediately after that. ESPN officials also agreed to the deal for the playoff semifinals. Buying time slot flexibility likely would have cost more money, or perhaps the playoff leaders knew they had such tremendous leverage at the time that there was no chance they would have given up their say over when the games are played. ESPN is paying $80 million to the Big Ten and Pac-12 for the Rose Bowl and $80 million to the Big 12 and SEC for the Sugar Bowl, and those contracts require that those games be played in their given time slots.

The College Football Playoff's media rights deal doesn't end until after the 2026 season, so there is precious little incentive for conference commissioners to care about ratings. Even five years ago, they would have been adamant they maximize ratings to increase the value of the next deal. With ESPN losing subscribers along with the rest of the channels on cable and satellite television, though, no one knows what rights deals will look like in 2027. It will take some creativity for ESPN to create revenue streams that allow the network to pay more than it does now. It may be that Apple or Google or Netflix forks over a fortune for the rights to the playoff the next time around, and ratings matter less to those companies than exclusivity and cross-promotional opportunities.

It's possible, if the New Year's Eve thing continues to cost the playoff viewers, that ESPN will manage to get some time slot flexibility if the parties renegotiate during one of the contract's built-in look-in windows. But New Year's Eve is on a Saturday next year, and the games will be played on Jan. 1 in the Rose and Sugar bowls following the 2017 season. Just remember that whatever playoff executive director Bill Hancock says now doesn't actually mean much in the grand scheme. He's also the guy who said there would never be a playoff, and now he works for the playoff. If change becomes necessary, the people in power will change. And they'll act as if it was their idea.

2. Not all of this season's bowl games were boring. TCU erased a 31-point deficit in a 47–41 triple-overtime win over Oregon in the Alamo Bowl on Saturday. A halftime wardrobe change by Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson may have helped.

3. TCU was playing without quarterback Trevone Boykin, who was sent home last week following his arrest after a fight at a San Antonio bar. TMZ obtained video of the incident.

4. Want to feel old? Read about the player Alabama senior cornerback Cyrus Jones—who had an interception and a punt return for a touchdown in the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State—grew up idolizing. "My favorite player growing up was Tavon Austin, a guy I grew up watching from Baltimore. He's just really explosive with the ball," Jones said. "He had moves [that were] similar. And I kind of patterned my game after him growing up. And that was moves I get from him. So you can credit him with those."

5. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables played for and worked for Bob Stoops at Kansas State. Later, Venables spent 13 seasons on Stoops's staff at Oklahoma. Venables has done one of the nation's best jobs this season keeping the Tigers at an elite level despite losing a host of stars (defensive linemen Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett, for example) to the NFL draft. On Thursday, Clemson shut down Oklahoma's offense despite losing its best pass rusher (defensive end Shaq Lawson) in the first quarter. Afterward, Stoops offered his former protégé a congratulatory hug.

6. Venables was hired at Clemson in 2012 to replace Kevin Steele, who was fired after a 70–33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Steele is doing much better now. Last week, Auburn hired Steele away from LSU to be its defensive coordinator. Steele, who will get a raise from $1 million at LSU to $1.4 million at Auburn, will become the defensive coordinator for a third SEC West school. (He was Alabama's coordinator in '07.) There is a little-known SEC bylaw that states if a person serves as a coordinator at every school in a division, he receives a lifetime supply of Golden Flake Dill Pickle-flavored potato chips. Steele is well on his way.

7. Replacing Steele in Baton Rouge is Dave Aranda, who spent the past three seasons running the defense at Wisconsin. Aranda made $520,000 in Madison. He'll make a reported $1.3 million at LSU. In other words, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez's inbox will be filled with emails detailing the supply-and-demand curves for quality assistant coaches.

8. What do you do when you're up 21 points and have a junior offensive tackle probably set to leave after the game to become a top-10 NFL draft pick? Throw him a touchdown pass, of course.

9. Dabo dancing? Dabo dancing.


10. Saban dancing? Saban dancing.

What's eating Andy?

George R.R. Martin posted an update on Saturday that The Winds of Winter isn't done and probably won't be done any time soon. So, the rest of you Game of Thrones viewers can stop worrying about us A Song of Ice and Fire readers spoiling the plot from this point forward. However, for those of us who would prefer to continue watching and reading the saga, it may be time to take matters in our own hands. I'm starting to buy into the theories that Martin is never going to finish The Winds of Winter, so it may be up to us to keep this thing going. Personally, I'm ready to find out what happened to Sam at the Citadel after the end of A Feast for Crows. My fellow nerds know what I'm talking about.

Andy Staples

What's Andy eating?

The menu at the Pink Magnolia suggested one of two extremes. Chicken fried ribeye? Cheddar and bacon meatloaf? These would either be glorious takes on traditional comfort food or they would be entirely too precious. Classed-up comfort food is a trendy concept these days, but not everyone understands that it doesn't matter how expertly the classically trained chef prepares the dishes if the place doesn't feel—what's the word?—comfortable. Too many places offer high-priced, pint-sized, churched-up versions of something your mom used to make much bigger and better. Fortunately, this four-month-old spot in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas did not fall into any of those traps.

I'm not entirely sure when chef Blythe Beck met Ella Mae Cook and traded recipes, but I'm certain they must have done so. It's either that or every diner who leaves Pink Magnolia believes Beck got a few tips from that diner's grandmother somewhere along the way. In the writing world, we can spot the difference between people who write stories designed to impress contest judges and those who write stories aimed at their readers. The restaurant world isn't that different. Some chefs prepare dishes to wow other chefs and food critics. Others cook for their customers. Beck's food suggests she falls into the latter category.

I expected the chicken fried ribeye to be tiny, and I also expected to be mad. Usually, people only fry a steak that is too tough to cook any other way. Only after it is battered, dunked in boiling oil and drowned in cream gravy is the meat then rendered edible. At Pink Magnolia, Beck batters and fries a sizable hunk of meat until it takes on a light, crispy crust. (Picture the difference between a world-class fried chicken joint like Gus's in Mason, Tenn., and your average Popeyes. Both taste great, but one is call-all-your-friends-and-brag-about-it good.) One can—and should—swirl each bite around in the savory bacon redeye gravy, but this dish would taste amazing without that.

Andy Staples

The meatloaf, meanwhile, is a healthy hunk of beef and cheese wrapped in sweet glazed bacon and sitting atop a bed of pimento mac and cheese. It's essentially everything good about your childhood on one plate, and it tastes the way a hug from mom feels. A place more interested in being trendy would have messed with the preparation. Maybe a more frou-frou chef would have split the meatloaf into three bite-size pieces and sprinkled some jus around the plate. Beck doesn't do that. She sends out a slab of meatloaf knowing the taste matters so much more than fancy presentation.

And, yes, the banana pudding does come in a Mason jar. It is a little bit precious. But it's also spiked with Maker's Mark, large enough to feed five and perfectly balanced between bitter and sweet. Meanwhile, the chocolate fudge waffle with peanut butter ice cream is exactly what the menu advertises. In other words, it might be scientifically formulated to activate every pleasure center in the brain.

As great as the food tasted, we left Pink Magnolia feeling even better about trading our money for its calories because Amelia Henderson's front-of-house staff made every guest in the place feel as if he had just walked into an old friend's house. Beck's visit to each table only reinforced the vibe that even though we were first-time diners, it felt as if we had known the place forever. A restaurant that serves food as tasty as Pink Magnolia doesn't have to treat customers this way. It can do decent business on flavor alone. But the women who run this place understand that by treating people like honored guests, those guests—and all the friends they have told about their visit—will always come back for another meal.

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