Championship Preview Saturday 6-Pack: Alabama-Clemson

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

OFFENSES

Point-per-game averages in the mid-to-high 30s. Heisman Trophy finalists on both sides. Explosive wide receivers and potent run games. For all their differences, the Alabama and Clemson offenses have plenty of similarities.

The differences are just strikingly stark in nature.

ALABAMA

Points Per Game: 34.4 (No. 32 nationally)

Yards Per Game: 423.8 total; 204.4 rushing/219.4 passing (No. 51, No. 29 & No. 68 passing)

Average Time of Possession: 33:48.5 (No. 6 nationally)

Turnovers Lost: 17 (No. 31 nationally)

The traditional approach Alabama’s employed throughout Nick Saban’s tenure remains the Crimson Tide’s hallmark. This year, Derrick Henry rode that approach all the way to an SEC rushing record and just the second Heisman in Crimson Tide history.

But Lane Kiffin, the world’s last barman coordinator, added just enough of a twist so as to spice up this Alabama Slammer.

However, this version of Kiffin is Tom Cruise post-Caribbean, making his redemption tour.

The Crimson Tide offense came with quite an unexpected kick in a 38-0 rout of Michigan State, countering a Spartan defense that played pretty damn well for a quarter-and-a-half with a shot of Jake Coker, chased by Calvin Ridley. Coker proved doubters (read: ME!) dead-wrong with his stellar showing in the Cotton Bowl, and Ridley continues to build a portfolio worthy of offseason Heisman buzz.

Alabama’s passing attack must be sharp once again, as Clemson would be foolish to not load up on the run. At the size of some defensive ends, Henry is a load to bring down, and running behind one of the nation’s most impressive offensive lines, he’s like an armored Humvee rumbling with a convoy of tanks. Ryan Kelly and Cam Robinson anchor the Crimson Tide front effectively, setting the tone with a physical style that beats opposing defenses into submission.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ strategy initially will set the stage in his chess match with Kiffin. Should the Tigers sell-out on the run, Coker must move the ball effectively through the air — a challenge against a Clemson secondary’s that’s been better than Michigan State’s this season.

Tight end O.J. Howard, who has been sparingly used but had a big play to open things up against Michigan State, is a potential X-factor.

CLEMSON

Points Per Game: 38.4 (No. 16 nationally)

Yards Per Game: 512.0 total; 228.6 rushing/283.4 passing (No. 11, No. 16 & No. 26 nationally)

Average Time of Possession: 32:06.7 (No. 26 nationally)

Turnovers Lost: 26 (No. 113 nationally)

No Chad Morris? No sweat. Clemson continued right along in its first season without the offensive guru calling plays, thanks to the Heisman finalist campaign quarterback Deshaun Watson put together.

Watson’s improvisational skills mask many would-be deficiencies, as was best evidenced in Clemson’s wins over Notre Dame and Florida State. The Fighting Irish and Seminoles boasted the two most talented (and statistically best) defenses the Tigers saw in 2015, and Watson delivered two of his most impressive, dual-threat games. He’ll need to make it a hat trick against Alabama, as his rushing ability from behind center is the ace-in-the-hole against college football’s premier rush defense.

Clemson won’t be able to rely on Wayne Gallman charging ahead — not initially, at least. Watson must open the field via the pass, a strategy with which Michigan State had some success in the second quarter before a costly, goal-line interception.

Connor Cook’s misread just shy of the end zone would have made for a much different game heading into halftime; whether Sparty could have maintained it is questionable, but Clemson is better suited to such an attack.

Artavis Scott provides reliability, while Charone Park and Hunter Renfrow have big-play potential. However, the absence of explosive Deon Cain looms large.

Cain’s presence made negligible impact on the Orange Bowl, which Dabo Swinney pointed out to reporters this week, but Cain was Clemson’s primary explosive-play receiver throughout the regular season. Tight end Jordan Leggett’s pass-catching ability adds an element to the Tiger attack capable of attacking Alabama at open seams of 8-10 yards.