3 things Alabama must do better against Clemson this year
After last year’s epic national championship game, fans across the country should certainly be intrigued by the rematch of Alabama and Clemson for this season’s crown (8 p.m. Eastern on Monday, ESPN).
The Crimson Tide are one win away from completing an undefeated season, but they will have to get by another talented Tigers squad. There are many similarities between these teams and last year’s, which means there are some lessons to be gained from their previous meeting.
If Alabama is to repeat as national champion, it will need to improve in a couple key areas. Here are three things the Crimson Tide will need to do better:
1. Contain Deshaun Watson: This is the most obvious improvement Alabama’s defense must make, but it will also be the hardest to achieve. Watson single-handedly pushed the Tide to the limit in last year’s 45-40 loss, gaining 478 total yards and four touchdowns.
The key to slowing down Clemson’s offense lies in slowing down Watson. This year, however, he has more talent around him. Star receiver Mike Williams is back, and he gives Watson a true No. 1 option in the passing game.
His rushing numbers are way down from last season, but that is likely due to the added firepower in the offense. Watson is still a capable runner, and Alabama’s defense will need to track him from sideline to sideline.
Fortunately, this Crimson Tide defense is a step quicker than last year’s and is now familiar with playing against Watson. Linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson will play big roles in helping to contain Watson on the ground and get to him when he sets up to pass.
2. Force more third-down situations: Part of the reason Clemson was so successful on offense against Alabama was the ability to avoid third-down situations. On the night, the Tigers faced only 14 third downs and converted six of them.
Clemson had a whopping 31 first downs in last year’s championship game, compared to 18 for Alabama. The Tigers were picking up chunks of yardage, which allowed them to sustain drives.
Part of that can be attributed to Watson’s improvisational ability. At various points, it appeared that the Crimson Tide had cornered the Tigers only to watch Watson break contain and make a big play. A more disciplined defense will give Alabama opportunities to get to third down and then get off the field.
3. Run the ball more effectively: Much of Alabama’s offense came through the air against Clemson last season. The Crimson Tide gained 138 yards on the ground, with a big chunk of that on a 50-yard run by Derrick Henry.
Fortunately, Alabama didn’t need to rely on its run game. Behind a career night from tight end O.J. Howard, the offense put up 335 yards through the air. Because Jalen Hurts is a freshman, it might be hard to rely on that same aerial strategy this year.
Hurts brings a different element to the table; he is similar to Watson in that regard. At this point, however, Watson is a much more comfortable passer. Alabama should look to establish its running game early and often against Clemson. After what Bo Scarbrough did against Washington, he figures to be involved in the game plan along with Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs.
This Alabama offense might be more difficult to defend than last year’s, due to Hurts’ versatility. If the Crimson Tide can’t find more success on the ground, however, it will be hard to rely on a true freshman to win this one with his arm.
William McFadden covers the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama for Saturday Down South. For insight on these two SEC powerhouses, follow him on Twitter @willmcfadden.