Sugar Bowl 2018 Preview: Alabama-Clemson

December is always such a long layoff until the College Football playoff. It takes around a month for us to see the match-up’s that will determine the National Champion and throughout that month we speculate and figure out who the layoff helps or hinders more. Realistically, unless there is a star player recovering from an injury, no advantage can really be had from a personnel standpoint. However it can help a coach like Saban or Swinney game plan against an opponent and my, oh, my will this game require a strong game play. Let’s break down both sides.

 

 

Alabama Crimson Tide

2018 Sugar Bowl

Let me start off with this; I love saying Roll Tide as a response to anything. It’s hilarious. It’s right up there with Rock Chalk Jayhawk for Kansas. It is a random phrase that outside of sports sounds insane. Alabama has had a weird 1 loss season. Hell, the SEC has had a weird season as a conference, but let’s focus on Bama. This team had such a cupcake schedule that the team has Diabetes now. Opening the season against the eventual 6-6 Seminoles didn’t help their resume, especially when the rest of their schedule until LSU contained a single competitive game against the 7-5 Texas A&M Aggies (Tide won 27-19). In fact, the only end of season ranked teams up until Auburn that Alabama faced was 8-4 Mississippi State (won 31-24) and 9-3 LSU (won 24-10).

 

So, What Does This Tell Us Exactly?

Well, against Miss State, let’s look at the core of the Tide’s offense. Jalen Hurts. He is atypical to the usual Saban pocket passer and thus far that has hurt him. Last year against Clemson in the National Title, Hurts was a mere 13/31 (41.9%) for 131 yards and a single TD. The bulk of Bama’s offense came from Scarbrough’s 5.8 yards per carry (16 rush, 93 yds) and 2 TDs with Hurts adding 63 yds and a TD on 10 rushes. But DeShaun Watson, an NFL caliber QB, threw for 420 yards and 3 TDs (36/56, 64.3%) against the Tide defense while rushing for 43 yards (21 rush) and another TD. Watson effectively was the Clemson offense. Why do I bring this up when referencing the Miss State game? Because it was a similar situation. The exception being Miss State QB Nick Fitzgerald is not an above average QB and could not takeover. It took Bama till 9:49 left in the game to tie it up and then with 25 seconds to go, Hurts finally throws a TD to seal the victory.

 

What About Jalen Hurts?

Hurts is essentially a bulkier version of JT Barrett. Perfectly fine throwing ability 10 yards and under, but primarily an athletic rusher who cannot hit deep throws with consistency. Hurts has lost 2.1% completion from 2016 to 2017, all while throwing 158 fewer passes and completing 104 fewer passes. This is a double edged sword for Saban. He does limit Hurts ability to, pun not intended, hurt his offense which can be seen by going from 9 INTs in 2016 to a single INT in 2017. But at the same time it limits offensive dimension and sliced 8 passing TDs all while focusing more on rushing Harris and Scarbrough. Hurts also dropped 5 rushing TDs from 2016 to 2017. Saban is essentially limiting Hurts which makes sense at face value but it really hampers the offense. That isn’t even to point out the change in dynamics from Lane Kiffin to Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator. Kiffin was far more liberal with his handling of Hurts where as Daboll’s conservative approach restricts Kiffin’s original risk taking. Jalen Hurts is the crux of the Tide offense and in 2017 he has been having a rough year.

 

That Crimson D

Defense is what Saban has always valued and made a sticking point to Alabama and that hasn’t changed in 2017. The defense has been the saving grace for the Tide in games that mattered. They held LSU to 10 points and held off both the Aggies and Miss State in single score games. Then Auburn happened.

 

What did Auburn do differently? Well, Auburn’s defense happened. Yardage wise both teams were within 30 yards of each other, not much different from LSU or Miss State. The Tide offense however had 3 fumbles, with 1 lost. Even only losing a single fumble doesn’t show how much fumbles can derail an offense. It can stifle you on 3rd down or make 2nd down more difficult. It’s a lost play and a lost down which hurts an often struggling Tide offense in this game. Alabama’s defense had plenty of issues with Jarrett Stidham (75% completion) and Kerryon Johnson (104 rush yds, TD pass), but it again comes down to play-calling and Hurts abilities. Hurts had 18 rushes, which equals the total of Harris, Scarbrough and Jacobs combined and Calvin Ridley hauled in 3 passes, the most of the game. Hurts single-handedly determines the Tide offenses fate, which is something that Saban has somehow avoided with his quarterbacks until Jalen Hurts. Alabama lacks true wideout talent and has a slew of B average running backs. Hurts is the focal point of the offense and Hurts himself is around a B+ college player. Due to that, Auburn was able to hold serve in the 4th allowing no scores while Stidham made it a two score game with his 16 yard run to open the final quarter of play. Alabama has a lot to worry about against the defending National Champion Clemson Tigers.

 

What Does Alabama Need to do to Win?

Strictly speaking, Alabama needs to keep it low scoring. If you saw what Clemson did to the inferior (and overrated) Miami then you can see how this game could easily get out of hand. If Clemson goes up by 10 or 20 points then it forces Saban to throw the ball and if you are forcing Hurts to beat you with his arm then you are playing exactly how you need to in order to beat Alabama. Saban needs to slow the rushing attack of Bryant, Etienne and Feaster and avoid turnovers to the stout Clemson D. Low scoring and a slog favor the Tide, but Hurts needs to be accurate and avoid dumb plays and turnovers.

 

Clemson Tigers

Clemson is the team that is defining how weird as hell this season is. First it handles Auburn in a 14-6 win, but then mid-season loses to the eventual 4-8 Syracuse Orangemen all culminating in putting the spurs to Miami in a devastating Brock Lesnar like beat down 38-3. That loss to Syracuse can be partially attributed to losing starting QB Kelly Bryant as I am not a believer in the “next man up” philosophy. High highs, low lows. The real team identity that is Clemson is more like the Clemson we saw against Auburn. Clemson is a defensive team that relies heavily on their run attack (sound familiar?). Due to this, it makes Clemson a time management focused squad that wants to keep the ball and sit on it allowing their defense to rest and forcing opposing offenses to play catch-up.

 

What We Learned From the Auburn Game

It worked against Auburn due in part to limiting plays. Stidham had 18 rushes for -42 total yards. It kept Stidham in check, not that he’s a runner, but it forced him into no win situations. Stidham was 13/24 for only 79 yards. Limiting a primarily ineffective running QB to only 79 yards passing is essentially a death sentence for any offense. The defense swallowed up Auburn while Bryant found room for 181 passing yards and 59 rushing yards along with a pair of TDs. Auburn’s defense is no slouch either, but I don’t need to explain that again after their handling of Alabama.

 

An Ugly Loss

Clemson’s big black eye is that loss to Syracuse. It is given leeway however due to Bryant being knocked out of the game due to concussion symptoms. It’s a forgivable loss, especially this year and even more after the world eating destruction laid upon The U. Losing your starting QB then losing a tough game to a lowly team early in the season is something that can be easily forgiven so long as a dominating win takes place. Clemson did just that and shot themselves back up to #1 while Alabama had to luck out to OSU getting thumped by Iowa towards the end of the season even with their numerous top 25 wins. So that ugly loss loses its shimmer after all factors are added in. The only undefeated team is UCF and they had no chance of making into the top 4 which means a loss meant nothing. Could Clemson have lost even with Bryant? Sure, but it would have been rendered meaningless after OSU’s losses, Oklahoma’s loss and the three way lose fest between Auburn, Alabama and Georgia.

 

Can Bryant Lead the Way?

QB play in college is fickle. Someone like DeShaun Watson is so utterly dynamic and able that he can alone win a game. We saw it last year where Watson was the powerhouse behind Clemson’s victory. Same with Cam Newton at Auburn many moons and financial payments ago. With Kelly Bryant you have a duel threat QB who’s an average passer that is helped by the play calling. His running ability is decent, not amazing, but his 11 TDs shows he get can make a play when needed. While Travis Etienne leads the team in rushing yards (744 yds) and yards per carry (7.2 YPC) as well as rushing TDs (13 TDs), his stats in big games are moot (5 rush. 68 yds, TD vs Cuse | 6 rush, 24 yds, TD vs Miami). He didn’t play against Auburn and had a single TD in the thrashing of Miami. Most of the work was done by Kelly Bryant in those games and I wouldn’t expect anything different against Alabama.

 

Bryant’s raw athleticism, much like Jalen Hurts, is his biggest asset, while his arm restricts some regular downfield ability. Part of the reason that Ohio State defeated Alabama and Oregon in the first ever playoff is because Cardale Jones could throw the ball 70 yards downfield. It opened up options and forced college DBs to play deep while keeping safeties honest and unable to cheat up to cover under routes or blitz. Bryant is built to run and make plays with his legs first. Clemson needs to control pace and the ground in order to defeat Alabama and Bryant is the key. If forced to throw, just like Hurts, it is a detriment although Bryant is nearly 10% more accurate. Kelly Bryant is a better overall QB and player than Jalen Hurts going into the Sugar Bowl.

 

The Clemson D

Clemson’s defense has relied heavily on the offense to control clock and force teams to play from behind, in a bit of a change from Alabama’s style. Where the Tide D keeps the offense afloat, the Clemson offense helps keep the D from being forced to win games. If you look at some of the higher scoring games such as NC State, you can see that their 38-31 victory had a lot to do with Bryant making plays and Feaster clocking 105 yards on just 7 carries. The INT by K’Von Wallace, which he ran back 55 yards, helped with the field position battle, but the need of the offense to actually put up points in those situations was paramount. NC State passed all over the Tigers D while Clemson rushed for 224 yards and 3 TDs on the ground.

My point of this is the Clemson D against NC State in the 4th quarter gave up a TD to bring NC State within 3. The offense turned around and drove, with under 7 minutes to go, down the field and scored a TD to give Clemson a 10 point cushion to work with. The D was able to hold and force NC State to take a field goal with under 2 minutes to go that ended up sealing the victory. So long as the run game is working it keeps the Clemson D from tiring out. It may sound generic and obvious, but Clemson needs it’s defense to be able to run wild, blitz heavy and force passing situations.

 

What Does Clemson Need to do to Win?

Simply put, a similar strategy to Alabama, but the change is higher scoring. Clemson would love to do what they did to Miami and hang 14 early on the Tide. If Alabama is playing from behind then it forces them to think on 2nd and 7 and to take chances downfield. Clemson needs to make the clock the enemy of Alabama and pace their own defense so that ball control becomes the name of the game. No big plays and force Jalen Hurts to throw. Swinney would willingly lose to Alabama if Hurts throws 40 times because you can’t gameplay any better than that. Make Hurts use his arm and contain him effectively. It’s simple on paper, but keeping run games stifled is easier said than done. Scheme is going to win out this battle.

 

Sum It All Up

Alabama is going to be a really popular pick cause… well… its Alabama. Clemson still has the upper hand as they have a more talented QB and a better tested defense, but Alabama still has Saban and a top end defense along with a resilient offense that seems to be able to pull out big plays when needed most. Hurts needs to be at the top of his game for the Tide offense to roll (haha, see what I did there?) because without him making those short throws and plays with his legs it will lead to the Bama defense being stuck on the field far too much. 3 and outs are not going to be acceptable. Clemson has to keep Bryant clean, standing and throwing. They need to get their pass game set up to keep the linebackers for the Tide from choking up and showing blitz all game. The pass needs to assist the run instead of the other way around. I can see Clemson going for a big shot downfield early to test Alabama’s pass D and see how much room the safeties are giving. This game will be an interesting rematch of the 2016 National Title and has a great story no matter which team wins.

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