So What Happens Next for Alabama Now That They’re Back in the Playoffs?
By: Larry Burton
ROUND ONE: On January first, 2018, Alabama will take the field against Clemson University for round three of the Tigers vs Tide and Clemson will be exactly who they were when they ran all over Miami for the ACC Championship. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Alabama team that takes the field will not be the one the country saw in their last game. They will be rested, the will be relaxed but more importantly, they will be recovered.
What happens now, starting today, December 3rd, 2017, is that Alabama will have had over one month to recover and come back with players who have been dinged up and down right damaged. But what’s more important is that this year, Clemson won’t be the focus of one week of study between the first round and the championship game, they will be in the cross hair of Nick Saban’s focus for almost one month. If there’s a crack in the Clemson armor, Saban will find it as he did in the first playoff contest between the two as in the offside kick.
When Saban has had more than two interrupted weeks to prepare for a team, he is a deadly predator. Give him almost a month to scrutinize a team and it could be even more so.
His focus will be three fold.
ON DEFENSE: Saban will try and find a way to takeaway what Clemson’s offense usually does best. In this case, it’s limiting Kelly Bryant from making big plays. If you force Bryant into throwing over the middle and deep, he’s very beatable. He is a very good runner. Think Jalen Hurts in a Clemson jersey here. For the season he has almost as many yards rushing as their top running back. He’s put up good numbers passing but 85% of his passes have been screens and quick tosses to the sidelines letting the receivers getting lots of yards after catch. Think Blake Sims in a Clemson jersey here. He rarely completes a ball that’s thrown over 15 yards in the air. It’s a dink and dump passing game, but it works. It they catch you watching those sideline receivers and jet sweep runners too much, they try and bust a run up the middle or run a quarterback draw.
Saban and Jeremy Pruitt must find a way to take away what they do best and that is stop Bryant from making first downs with his legs by keeping him in the pocket and taking away his quick read dump it off receivers and forcing into looking for targets downfield. Given the fact that they had problems keeps a quarterback not known for his rushing prowess, Auburn’s Jarett Stidham from doing that, Alabama will have their hands full to find a way to keep Bryant from doing it. You can bet that Alabama will be man on man for most of the day clearly signaling to Clemson’s Kelly Bryant if you think you can beat us deep, take your chances because we’re focusing on on stopping the run and those sideline passes and screens. Alabama will stack the line from end to end and dare Bryant to over the top.
Projected result: Alabama is the nation’s leading defense for a reason, but they also struggle against a team with a mobile quarterback. Clemson is the nation’s 21st ranked offense. They will playing against the nation’s number one defense. Clemson usually puts up 35 points a game against the average college football team. Taking into account that they won’t be playing an average defense in this one, look for them to still put up 24.
ON OFFENSE: For the next month, Saban and Brian Daboll’s job is simple. They’re in repair mode. What they have to fix is their third down conversion rate. Alabama rates out as just the 55th best team in third down conversions. This means about half of all the teams in the country are better at converting third downs. They are converting a season average of just 41.5% of their third downs. Just in case you didn’t know, that sucks. Against Auburn, it was much worse. They converted just 3 first downs in the entire game out of 11 chances. That was a just over a 27% success ratio.
Part of Alabama’s defensive plan is to keep the Clemson offense on the bench and they can’t do that if their own offense isn’t running ball, running the clock and keeping the chains moving on third down.
To convert third downs, the conventional wisdom is that you have to have to get good yardage on first down. Alabama has to find a way to be great on first down to give them a better chance on third.
Alabama has the nation’s number 10 rushing offense gaining an average of just over 265 yards a game. Clemson has the nation’s 13th best rushing defense that gives up an average of just about 113 yards a game. When Alabama rushes for over 225 yards a game, they are almost unbeatable. Alabama will enter the game with a very healthy stable of running backs and a rested offensive line. So for Alabama to accomplish what they want to accomplish is simple and something I’ve been yelling in my mind all season long. “Just run the damn ball!” Against Auburn, Alabama averaged 5.6 yards on each rushing attempt and for some reason after rushing the ball every play on the opening second half drive for a touchdown, they abandoned the running game for most of the remaining second half. I don’t look for Alabama to make that same mistake in this game.
Just when Clemson is selling out to stop the run and leaving their defensive backs playing man on man defense, Alabama can take shots to their talented receiving corps deep.
Projected result: Alabama has the nation’s 20th place total offense, one place better than Clemson’s. They will be playing against a Clemson defense that is nationally rated as the 6th best in the nation. That’s good, but Alabama practices against a much better one than that every week. Alabama usually put up just over 39 points per game, four more than Clemson. Taking into account that they will be playing one of the best defenses they’ve played against this year, they’ll only score 29 in this one.
Getting the players ready: Both teams have adequate motivation. Saban’s third focus will be to get the ready mentally and to make sure they are adequately motivated.
Clemson’s motivation will be two fold. Las Vegas has Alabama as the favorite. Nobody respects you. Go out there and earn your respect! Secondly it will be, we almost beat them in the first championship meeting, we did beat them in the second, you are the champions, go and play like it!
Alabama’s motivation will also be two fold. The committee and world thinks you’re the fourth best team in this four man race. You had to have help or you wouldn’t be here. Lots of folks don’t think you deserve to be here. Go out there earn your respect! Secondly it will be, we beat these guys in the first championship and should have beaten them in the second but we lapsed at the very end. Go out there and show them and the world who is the real champion here. We are Alabama and we are the only gold standard.
Projected result: Both teams are experienced playoff teams and won’t require a lot motivation and less rah rah talk. Both take this game seriously and in a business like fashion. Neither team is scared of the other and both feel they can win. In my opinion, both teams will show up and give us their A game, both will be well coached, well prepared and both may have a wrinkle to throw at the other. The race to get the players ready is a draw.
OVERALL FINAL ANALOGY: Clemson is deserving of it’s playoff ranking and is a great team. This may be the contest between the best two teams of the four that made the playoffs. Both would be wise to play the game that way. Alabama was the runaway best team in the nation until injuries and the wear and tear of an SEC schedule wore them down in November. With the entire month of December to regroup and recoup their injured players, they will once again show the nation the team they were for most of the season.
The team that makes the rushing game work will have a real advantage. Alabama is number 10 in rushing offense and Clemson is 33rd. The difference though is just about 61 yards a game.
But the winner of the day will be the one who can convert third downs and keep their opponents offenses on the bench. Clemson completes 46.73% of their first downs and Alabama converts just 41.50. Clemson converts 7.15 first downs a game on average while Alabama converts just 5.08 first downs a game. Here advantage Clemson by 2 first downs. On the other hand Clemson allows opponents to complete just 4.38 first downs while Alabama allows opponents to convert 4.38 per game. Slight advantage Clemson.
This may be the best defense Alabama has faced so far, but the same can be said of Clemson and comparing the two, the Tide’s is better overall.
Add this to the fact that Alabama has a much higher rated offense than Clemson and has played two opponents that rate higher than Clemson, the edge here goes to Alabama too. Clemson has not played an offense rated as high as Alabama’s.
While Clemson’s mobile quarterback causes his share of trouble for Alabama, it’s not enough and Alabama win the game 29-24.
Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter