Clemson vs. Alabama: Diving Into Potential Showdown

Brad Senkiw

Yes, Clemson plays Syracuse this weekend. 

Yes, Clemson is favored by 46 points. No, the No. 1 Tigers won't suffer their first loss in ACC play since the Orange pulled off an upset in 2017. 

And no, it's not too early to start talking about a potential Alabama-Clemson showdown. In fact, for all the reasons listed above, it's the perfect week. After all, the No. 2 Crimson Tide are coming off an impressive 41-24 victory over then-No. 3 Georgia in which they shut the Bulldogs out in the second half. 

Also, No. 5 Ohio State begins play Saturday at noon in the Big Ten's opening weekend. 

Those are the three presumed best teams in college football, even though the Buckeyes will need to play some games to work their way up with the pollsters. Until there is actual evidence and not paper theories, let's go with Clemson and Alabama as the likeliest national title game at this moment. 

It's easy to envision a path in which these two meet, and after taking 2019 off, when the Tide fell short of the College Football Playoff, it would mark the fifth showdown since 2015. 

Which team in college football is the best is also a strong debate among analysts and fans. Associated Press Poll and Coaches Poll voters don't necessarily see it that way as the Tigers racked up over 85 percent of the first-place votes in both rankings. 

There's no question that Alabama has the best victory this season, the one over Georgia. Clemson owns a top-10 win as well, over Miami. 

But forget about the strength of schedule for a moment (more on that later) and just look at these two teams in several important statistical categories (national ranking out of 77 teams in parentheses): 

Tale of the tape

Clemson-Baama stats

Overall, Alabama has the better offense, but not by as much as Clemson's defensive advantage. Who would guess that a Nick Saban defense ranks in the bottom third in total defense and yards per play allowed? They aren't creating havoc in the backfield or stopping the pass. 

Has Alabama played better offenses? Yes and no. So far, Clemson has played two of the top 25 scoring offenses in the country. The SEC has become an offensive league this season, with five teams in the top 35 in scoring offense. 

It's also producing four of the worst 22 defenses in points allowed per game, so is that because the offenses are so good or becasue there are a lot of weak defenses?

In the ACC, Clemson hasn't been challenged by a great offensive team. Miami is pretty good, but efficiency-wise, the Hurricanes aren't elite. They did get shut down and held to 210 total yards. 

The bottom line, it's hard to use the strength of schedule and strength of opponent based on a handful of wins from each team.

But what about from a betting perspective? According to power ratings from Action Network's Collin Wilson, Clemson would be a 3-point favorite if it played Alabama in a neutral stadium. Power ratings will vary from professional gambler to professional gambler, but it's unlikely anybody would favor either team by a touchdown margin. 

That said, let's take a look at who has the edge in several positions:

Quarterbacks: Clemson's Trevor Lawrence looks unflappable, and with the Tide not getting enough pressure on QBs, he could feast. Meanwhile, Alabama's Mac Jones is even more efficient than Lawrence this year and is second in Heisman Trophy odds behind the Tiger QB, but Jones doesn't have the big-game experience of his counterpart...Edge: Tigers

Running backs: Alabama's Najee Harris is one of the best running backs in college football, but he averaged under five yards per carry against Georgia's stout defense, and Clemson doesn't give up big rushing yards often. Alabama might have the better overall depth right now, but Clemson all-time rusher Travis Etienne's versatility and explosiveness are the difference...Edge: Tigers

Receivers: As talented as Clemson's Amari Rodgers, Frank Ladson and tight end Braden Galloway are, nobody in the country has a trio like Alabama's Jaylen Waddle, Devonta Smith and John Metchie, who have combined for 11 touchdown receptions. They're a real problem for any defensive coordinator...Edge: Alabama

Defensive line: Both are young and inexperienced at edge rusher, but the Tigers have still found a way to affect the opposing quarterback more and produce sacks behind youngsters Myles Murphy and Justin Mascoll. Alabama will get better at that as the season goes, but Clemson will also get Xavier Thomas back in full and potentially Justin Foster, both preseason starters...Edge: Clemson

Linebackers: This is one of the most overcheiving units Brent Venables has had at Clemson, and not because they aren't talented. They just hadn't proven it outside of James Skalski, but Baylon Spector and Mike Jones Jr. have answered many questions. However, Alabama has one of the best defenders on the field in Dylan Moses, and Christian Harris is having an excellent season...Edge: Alabama (slightly)

Secondary: Clemson hasn't been perfect here, but for every mistake made by a young backend, there have seemingly been twice as many huge, momentum shifting plays made by a squad that's forced six picks in the last three games. The Tide, meanwhile, have had more struggles but they did bounce back with a huge performance against Georgia, intercepting the Bulldogs three times...Edge: Clemson

Special teams: Neither program has excelled in recent years in this category, which makes it more impressive what they've done on offense and defense. This year, so far, both have been pretty good. Alabama ranks 15th overall in ESPN writer Bill Connelly's SP+ rankings while Clemson is 18th nationally...Edge: Even