This season’s College Football Playoff Championship matchup is a nightmare for people who hate cliches. The adage “defense wins championship” gets further reinforcement, no matter if Alabama or Clemson hoists the hardware Monday night.
Stout defense has long defined the Crimson Tide. For Clemson? It’s a much more recent development. We’re just one recruiting cycle removed from the Tigers surrendering an Orange Bowl-worst 70 points to West Virginia.
Points Allowed Per Game: 13.4 (No. 1 nationally)
Yards Allowed Per Game: 256.8 total; 70.8 rushing/186.0 passing (No. 2, No. 1 & No. 18 nationally)
Turnovers Gained: 26 (No. 20 nationally)
Alabama’s front seven has been lauded not only as the best of 2015, but perhaps the greatest in college football history. Featuring mega-talents A’Shawn Robinson, Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen on the line, with Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Ryan Anderson at linebacker, the Crimson Tide absolutely stifle opponents at the line of scrimmage.
Alabama ranks No. 1 nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (70.8), yards per carry (2.3) and touchdowns surrendered (6). Clemson’s Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott would certainly love to establish Gallman as a threat, but the reality is they won’t be able to do so without Watson hitting on a few big pass plays early.
Explosive passes certainly looked like they could be the Tide’s Achilles’ heel entering the season with questions in the secondary, and Ole Miss’ 341 yards Week 3 seemed to corroborate that idea. However, Alabama’s pass defense improved by leaps and bounds for the remainder of the fall, giving up 300 yards through the air just once more — that came in a 31-6 blowout of Mississippi State.
Safety Eddie Jackson was a 1st Team All-SEC honoree, and a potential difference-maker against Clemson. Look for Jackson to operate as a spy against the dual-threat Watson, which becomes an intriguing balancing act. Cyrus Jones might be able to hand being left on an island in coverage, but leaving youngsters Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humprhey isolated too often could leave Alabama susceptible to big plays — at least, that’s Clemson’s most realistic hope for getting at this defense.
Points Allowed Per Game: 20.0 (No. 6 nationally)
Yards Allowed Per Game: 301.6 total; 124.4 rushing/177.2 passing (No. 6, No. 18 & No. 9 nationally)
Turnovers Gained: 25 (No. 24 nationally)
Despite considerable turnover from an outstanding 2014 defense — most notably lineman Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett — Clemson’s continued along impressively. Shaq Lawson grew into one of the nation’s premier pass-rushers, picking up the slack for former All-American Beasley with 23.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. Lawson’s ability to get into the backfield and disrupt Coker becomes tantamount to a Tiger victory.
The next phase to that end is the play of Clemson’s secondary, which features dynamic play-makers Jayron Kearse and Cordrea Tankersley. I pinpointed Tankersley, Clemson’s leader in interceptions, as the wild card for a Tiger win should he draw Ridley in coverage. Eliminating that long-ball threat is the essential ingredient for turning Alabama one-dimensional — but what a one dimension that is.
Derrick Henry will get his yards, as Kiffin’s proven more than willing to feed him 40-50 times in a game. The Clemson linebacker corps is among the nation’s best, with B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware setting the tone for a No. 18-ranked rush defense. Opponents averaged just 3.6 yards per carry on the Tigers, and limiting Henry to a similar yield puts Venables’ defense in a good place.
Gang-tackling will be key to slowing Henry, as will tackle Carlos Watkins causing some push-back at the point of attack.