How Dabo Swinney and Clemson will attack Alabama’s defense
It’s becoming a yearly tradition unlike any other, the annual Playoff matchup between the Alabama Crimson Tide (14-0) and Clemson Tigers (14-0). Twice they’ve met in the National Championship game (with each coming away with a victory), and last year they met in the semifinals (a comfortable Alabama victory).
Now, it’s back to the title game for all the marbles.
I’ve said this before, but it merits repeating – this should be the best game yet between the two, because this is the best versions of both teams, at least in terms of recent history. Each team is extremely talented and has shown few cracks in their very formidable foundation, and both possess elite coaches, quarterbacks and defensive lines.
Clemson’s offense by the numbers
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For Clemson to win, it will have to play a nearly flawless game. Of course, its defense is going to have to play the game of a lifetime trying to slow down the Alabama offense, but you can make the case that the Clemson offense might hold the keys to ultimately winning a second national championship in 3 years.
How will Dabo Swinney attack Alabama’s defense, and what are the keys to beating the vaunted unit?
Establishing the run is paramount. Fortunately for the Tigers, they have one of the premier tailbacks in college football in Travis Etienne, who is 5th nationally in rushing yards, racking up 1,573 on 190 carries, averaging a ridiculous 8.3 yards per carry and finding the end zone 22 times.
Etienne is an explosive back with the shiftiness to make guys miss in space but the burst and deep speed to go the distance once he finds the seam. The key for Clemson is try and get him in space to capitalize on his game-breaking speed, and Alabama will do everything it can to try and keep him between the tackles so the hog mollies inside can smother him.
Alabama’s run defense, ranked No. 19 nationally allowing 121.1 yards per game and just 3.5 yards per carry, has been solid all year long, but it has been prone to giving up big plays. Alabama has allowed 47 runs of 10 yards or more, and 17 have gone for 20+ yards.
Clemson wants to use the rushing attack due to its propensity for big plays behind Etienne, but also to control the clock and open up the play-action. Unlike last year, these Tigers have the quarterback and receiving corps to capitalize upon one-on-one opportunities downfield.
Controlling the clock is absolutely critical to beating Alabama, because the best way to beat the Tide is by keeping Tua Tagovailoa off the field. Granted, the Clemson defense has more than its share of blue-chippers and NFL Draft prospects, and Swinney no doubt has a lot of confidence in their ability to slow down Alabama, but the Clemson offense can do its part by maintaining possession and controlling the clock.
Swinney also wants to use the rushing attack to open up the play-action downfield passing attack. When the run game starts humming, Alabama will be forced to put extra manpower and attention in the box and near the line of scrimmage and it’ll also lead to safeties and linebackers biting on play-fakes.
Clemson has a talented receiving corps of Tee Higgins (56 receptions, 855 yards, 11 touchdowns), Amari Rodgers (52, 540, 4) Hunter Renfrow (47, 534, 1) and Justyn Ross (40, 847, 8). Higgins (below) and Ross are each 6-4 and have blistering speed to go with their length, and both have proven to be extremely difficult to cover in single-man coverage due to their ability to consistently get separation.
Ideally, Alabama wants to be able to provide safety help over the top with some Cover-2 looks, but if Etienne and the rushing attack get rolling, they’ll have to bring the safeties closer to the box.
Another aspect Swinney will focus on is protecting star freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who already has scouts salivating for the 2021 NFL Draft. The Clemson coaching staff wisely decided early in the season that Lawrence provided them with the best chance at winning deep in the playoffs because of his tremendous natural arm talent, and he has done nothing since then to make them regret their decision, throwing for 2,933 yards (65.3 percent completion) with 27 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, averaging 8 yards per attempt. Crucial to Lawrence’s success, however, is giving him time to throw and keeping him upright.
Swinney knows Alabama is going to do everything it can do pressure Lawrence and get after him early and often Monday night. To try and force him into making mistakes on a stage he’s never played on before. Plus, if Lawrence goes down, there’s no proven veteran like Kelly Bryant to replace him. This nearly cost the Tigers a game earlier in the year, when Lawrence went down against Syracuse in his first start. Clemson rallied late in that game for the win, but Alabama’s defense is a slightly different animal than Syracuse.
So, I expect Swinney to attack Alabama’s front seven with a heavy dose of Etienne not only for his big play ability, but to control the clock, open the downfield play-action passing attack, where Lawrence and his talented cast of receivers are at their best.
Will this be easy? Absolutely not. Alabama has a front seven easily capable of corralling Etienne without any additional help from its secondary. Just trying to get past the front three of Quinnen Williams, Isaiah Buggs and Raekwon Davis is hard enough, then throw in speedy linebackers Dylan Moses, Mack Wilson, Anfernee Jennings and Christian Miller, and you can see why it’s been so hard to establish the run game against the Tide this year.
Ultimately, I think Alabama wins. Alabama has the better coach, the more experienced quarterback, a more reliable offensive line, a deeper defense and have generally been much more steady and consistent this year than Clemson. But Clemson certainly has a chance, because it is the best team that Alabama will have faced this year.
Suffice it to say, I think this is going to be one heck of a game, much more like Rounds 1 and 2 than 3.