Nick Saban has proven to be one of the best game planners in college football history. He is most potent when given time to put together a solid game plan, and his track record supports just that.
For example, Alabama has never lost a season opener since Saban’s arrival in 2007. In the 2010 BCS National Championship Game – even considering Colt McCoy’s injury – the Crimson Tide appeared to be the better prepared team despite a rocky start to the game. Again in 2012, despite falling to them earlier in the season, Alabama shut out LSU in that year’s BCS National Championship game held in the Sugar Bowl. The following year, Saban’s squad teed off on the undefeated Fighting Irish from wire-to-wire.
Even when taking the College Football Playoffs into consideration, Saban has shone. The Tide are the only team to appear in all four editions of the playoffs and advanced to the championship game in two of the three played since its inauguration. This game, of course, is different than the last few years as the Tide are going to be faced with a team they have become fairly familiar with over the past two years. Clemson, even with its ugly loss to Syracuse, is the clear-cut number one team and is so for a reason.
The Tigers’ defensive line is one of – if not – the best in the entire country. If the game against Auburn taught us anything it is that the Tide’s offensive line is, at best, just above mediocrity in pass protection. Though they struggle at protecting Hurts in the pocket at times, they simultaneously excel at run blocking. Without the likes of linebacker Brian Boulware, who gave the Tide’s offense fits in the first to meetings, Clemson’s defense leans heavily on the play of its phenomenal defensive line.
Their quarterback, Kelly Bryant, is a capable passer and an elite runner. Veteran slot receiver, Hunter Renfrow, will be back to once again stab his kryptonite into the chest of Minkah Fitzpatrick and company. On the ground, they have been more balanced than ever, too. Bryant, Travis Etienne, and Tavion Feaster all split the rushing duties and have done so to near perfection for Dabo Swinney’s offense.
Many will point, and already have pointed, to Alabama’s loss in the first College Football Playoffs against Ohio State as a reason to worry. The Buckeyes were hardly seen as anything but a longshot to make the final four that year, and their inclusion was a shock. The media circuit had essentially already given Alabama the win by the time the two teams met on the field, and it was clear the players had been reading about it, too. Clemson is a different animal, though. They have already proven the ability to win over the last two years and not a player on the team will go be taking them lightly.
Regardless, the biggest x-factor for Alabama in this game is not the play of its offensive line nor its ability to keep Renfrow from touching the football. Instead, it is what they did not get in the first two meetings: time off.
Saban’s ability to game plan so masterfully when given additional time may be what can keep Alabama in the game despite their flaws. Combined with the fact that their injured/banged up players will now have time to get 100% healthy, the time off could have the Tide looking like the team that destroyed a top-ranked Florida State squad to begin the season.