Every defensive meeting at Clemson this week might as well have started with coordinator Brent Venables passing around a photo of Alabama’s O.J. Howard with the caption “Know where 88 is at all times.”
For the second straight season, the Tigers and Crimson Tide will meet for the College Football Playoff championship. Howard is the talented tight end who came into last season’s title game with 33 catches for 394 yards and no touchdowns. He then went off for 208 yards on five catches with two scores as Clemson’s defense seemed unaware that Howard was an eligible receiver.
While it’s safe to assume quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Jalen Hurts will play pivotal roles in Monday’s game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, you never know who will emerge as a star on the big stage — especially with the most talented rosters in college football facing off.
With the help of some coaches who have played each team and the scouting website Pro Football Focus, these are some of the matchups that could determine Tigers-Tide II.
Watson vs. Alabama’s scoring defense
Watson is probably going to throw an interception at some point against Alabama. He has thrown 17 on the season after throwing 13 last season, including one in his magnificent championship game performance.
The junior Heisman Trophy runner-up is a confident passer who will try to make difficult throws. He is also able to escape trouble with his mobility and strength. Add those up and he occasionally courts trouble.
As everyone who has been paying attention knows by now, Alabama’s defense scores a lot. Twelve touchdowns to be exact. Alabama’s athletes are so crazy good — from defensive end Jonathan Allen to linebacker Ryan Anderson to safety Minkah Fitzpatrick — that they become dynamic ball carriers when running through fast guys who can’t tackle and big guys who aren’t fast enough to keep up.
Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, who faced Alabama when he was coach at Western Kentucky this season and lost 38-10, said the touchdowns are no fluke. Most defenses provide some opportunities for safe throws. Not Alabama’s.
“They’re going to press you,” he said. “They’re going to get up on you. So there’s not a whole lot of separation unless you want to hold onto the ball.” And holding on to the ball usually doesn’t end well against the best pass rush in college football — a pass rush that does not rely on much blitzing.
Troy coach Neal Brown, whose team lost 30-24 at Clemson on Sept. 10, said Clemson usually tries to set up Watson for easy throws early in the game to get him comfortable.
“They did a great job schematically of getting him into the flow of the game,” Brown said.
Brohm said Clemson’s offense, which is heavy on misdirection and gets Watson involved in the running game, matches up as well as possible against Alabama’s defense.
Alabama’s offense, with an inconsistent passer in Hurts, is not necessarily built to match scores with Watson. Clemson’s path to victory includes forcing the Tide’s offense to provide all of Alabama’s points.
Clemson WR Mike Williams vs. Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey
Williams, at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, gets compared to all those big, impossible-to-cover receivers that play in the NFL : Alshon Jeffrey (6-3, 216), Demariyus Thomas (6-3, 235) and even former great Calvin Johnson (6-5, 237).
The junior is Watson’s security blanket — almost to a fault. The Tigers have so many effective weapons that at times this season they almost became too reliant on Williams and limited an offense that does so much well. Then again, it’s easy to want to force feed Williams, who has the speed to get deep and size and strength to catch passes when covered.
Physically, Humphrey is about as a good a matchup for Williams as you’ll find. The junior is 6-1 and 196. His problem has been getting beat down the field. He has allowed 16.3 yards per catch this season, according to Pro Football Focus, after allowing 17.4 last year.
Hurts vs. Clemson’s pass rush
The Tide’s pass rush is ferocious (50 sacks), but the Tigers get after passers almost as well (49 sacks).
Pressure has been a problem for Hurts. According to Pro Football Focus, Hurts’ completion percentage drops to 31 percent when he is under pressure. Incompletions are not the worst thing. Better than interceptions. Hurts has thrown four of his nine picks when facing pressure, according to PFF. Hurts (891 yards rushing) can also turn a near sack into a big gain.
So Clemson needs to force hurried throws, but also be disciplined enough to not allow Hurts room to take off.
LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said Lane Kiffin, now the former Alabama offensive coordinator, turned the Tide’s offense into one that morphs from week to week to attack an opponents’ weakness.
“The biggest thing with Alabama, you had to look at yourself before you looked at them. What hurt you in the past?” said Aranda, whose team lost 10-0 to Alabama on Nov. 5. Now with Steve Sarkisian calling plays : “I’m wondering how much that changes,” Aranda said.
Aranda said Alabama gets Hurts involved in the running game when defenses get overly aggressive.
“The quarterback run cancels out a lot of aggression for aggression sake,” Aranda said.
Alabama center Bradley Bozeman vs. Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence
The Tigers got 17 sacks from tackles Carlos Watkins (10.5) and Lawrence (6.5), the 340-pound freshman freak. Venables is going to make it hard for Alabama to double-team the big guy.
“Venables does a great job creating Bear fronts, which, in a Bear front, all five offensive linemen are covered. Which creates one-on-one matchups,” Brown said.
The good news for Hurts is Alabama’s offensive line is as good as any in the country at protecting the passer. The Crimson Tide allowed 24 sacks but that’s a little misleading because it counts running plays where Hurts was caught behind the line. In 434 passing plays, Alabama allowed six sacks, according to PFF.
Bozeman is the rock in the middle of that line, a 319-pound junior. Guards Ross Pierschbacher and Korren Kirven will also get their chances to deal with the Clemson’s man-child. In fact, don’t be surprised if Venables tries to get Lawrence matched up on the guards who are not as good as Bozeman.
Alabama is better or at worst equal to Clemson everywhere but one spot: quarterback. Watson and the nature of Clemson’s offensive scheme give the Tigers answers for Alabama’s smothering defense that few teams have. But the combination of Nick Saban’s preparation and planning and the most talented roster in college football means nothing less than another all-time performance from Watson will be needed for Clemson to win. It wasn’t enough last year and it won’t be this year.