How Clemson is the same as last year
The defense is still formidable up front
Clemson lost seven starters off its 2015 defense but put together another top-10 unit overall in 2016, with just about the same effectiveness against the run: The Tigers gave up 125.27 rushing yards per game a year ago (18th in the country) and so far have allowed 123.07 yards per game this time around (19th in the nation). Shipping stud defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd to the NFL had little effect on the front line’s disruptiveness. Clemson ranked No. 1 in tackles for loss per game in 2015 (8.40). But a massive, athletic, mobile front four anchored by Carlos Watkins, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence precipitated 8.79 tackles for loss per game this season, good for second nationally. This is still a defense that is generally difficult to deal with at the point of attack, as Ohio State found out while getting ransacked for 11 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Clemson would happily take a repeat performance in the final.
Deshaun Watson is still the best offensive player on the field
The Tigers’ 6’ 3”, 218-pound quarterback threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for another 73 yards against Alabama last year. He’s typically been used as a rushing threat only when necessary in 2016—no shock that he logged double-digit carries against Auburn, Louisville, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Ohio State— so he still is the threat that amassed 1,105 yards with his feet in 2015. Clemson coaches explain away the uptick in interceptions (13 last year to 17 this year) by saying Watson simply has thrown the ball more, and it’s not entirely his fault. He’s basically just as accurate as he was (67.8% completions in 2015, 67.3% this year) and his arm remains capable of the big-boy throws into tight spaces, which is what you need to make any sort of progress against Alabama this year or last.
How Clemson is different than last year
I’m Mike Williams, you might remember me from such 1,000-yard seasons as 2014
Just 11 snaps into the 2015 season, Clemson lost its best big-play receiving threat when Mike Williams caught a touchdown pass, was shoved from behind and ran head-first into a goalpost, fracturing a vertebrae. The 6’ 3”, 225-pound beast who amassed 1,030 yards receiving in 2014, who can run the full complement of routes and demonstrate ridiculously good ball skills at the end of them, was lost for the rest of the year. Well, he’s back. Williams has caught 90 passes for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns this fall and his six-catch, 96-yard night against a stingy Ohio State secondary in the Fiesta Bowl was a keen reminder of how he can use his frame and hands to loosen defenses. That might be useful Monday night, too.
The defense surrenders fewer big plays
As good as Clemson’s defense was last year, coaches were uneasy about its consistency. Opponents cracked off too many big-chunk plays for the staff’s taste, as the Tigers ranked 102nd nationally by surrendering 71 plays of 20-plus yards. An off-season focus on limiting liability there via better attention to detail appears to have worked, as the Tigers cut the 20-yard plays down to 54, which currently puts them in a tie for 31st nationally. It is still an aggressive unit with a lot of pre-snap movement, but it doesn’t pay for the gambles as much.