Saturday, January 7, 2017

2016 FBS Championship Preview: Alabama vs. Clemson

FBS Championship
Alabama (14-0) vs. Clemson (13-1)
Monday, 5PM PST

Looking at Alabama
The Crimson Tide will be the favorite going into this rematch of the 2015 title game, which Alabama won 45-40. I do not see the Tide allowing as many points this season as they did last year, as Alabama likes to keep scoring down with their young QB, Jalen Hurts, running a scaled down version of the offense that Alabama ran last season.
The Tide are favored by as much as 7 in Las Vegas at the MGM Mirage and at CT Technologies. That seems reasonable at this point. At most other books, they are favored by 6.5 today.
Alabama is run by defense first, but offense has been the story this week, with Lane Kiffin being given the boot by Nick Saban, and Steve Sarkisian being handed the reins to take the lead as OC. One thing Sark cannot do is reinvent the wheel heading into this football game. The offense is proven, and minus some minor wrinkles that can be immediately installed, changing things with a freshman QB could turn into a disaster, and Saban would not likely allow for that to happen. All Sarkisian has to do is let the offense work. It's not broken, so don't fix it.
I expect RB Bo Scarbrough to get a bulk of carries as he is coming off a 19 carry, 180 yard performance in the win over Washington. Punding the football and chewing up clock is what Bama does best on offense, and that would also do well to slow down what could be an explosive Clemson offense by keeping off of the field for large chunks of time. Alabama is the 11th best rush offense in the nation, averaging 241 yards per game, and Jalen Hurts was not exactly awesome throwing the football last week. For Alabama to win, they must establish a solid run game early, and keep Hurts from having to be the hero by throwing the football. Of course, running the football will be a battle of wills, because Clemson only allows 123 yards rushing per game. Exploiting anything will take some work.
Defensively, Alabama is a beast up front. Applying pressure to Deshaun Watson will be paramount, as if they can get to him, he is prone to the turnover, having tossed 17 picks this season. Alabama will first stop the run, as they are the best team in the nation doing so. The Crimson Tide only allows 62 yards rushing per game, and completely removed that aspect of the football game against Washington in the Peach Bowl.
In turn, Alabama, by removing the run early, then forced Jake Browning to be a hero, and after a strong start early, he started to feel the strain, tossing 2 picks in the loss, and failing to reach 200 yards passing for the game. In all, Alabama only allows 182 yards passing per game, and gives up just 244 yards per game passing/rushing combined.
Key Players For Alabama: Offense
Of course, Alabama has one of the best lines in football. Getting huge up front efforts in the blocking scheme will be important for taking down what is a strong Clemson rush defense.
Jalen Hurts needs to be an efficient passer. If he is asked to do too much, he tends to fold, as he is not a pure passer. He averaged just 189 yards passing per game, but did toss 9 picks. He has to be a game manager, not a game winner. He has 22 TDs, so his ratio is barely over 2:1 on TD to INT, so he can be prone to make mistakes. He did rush for 891 yards and 12 more scores, so if he can tuck and run, Clemson will be in trouble. He averaged 12.73 carries per game, more than any one Tide back.
Bo Scarbrough went off against Washington, but he is still isted behind Damian Harris on the depth chart for Monday against Clemson. Harris rushed for 1013 yards on the season, but is not their best scoring threat, having just rushed for 2 scores on the season. Scarbrough is the better scoring option, having rushed for 9 scores.
ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley are both completely capable receivers, and combined to catch 15 TDs on the season, so when Hurts has to go to the air, he has viable targets to get the rock to. TE OJ Howard should be a 1st rounder in the NFL draft.
Keys Players For Alabama: Defense
Alabama wins on defense, and this is one of the best units ever in Tuscaloosa. Deshaun Watson has an INT problem, and the Bama secondary has picked off 16 passes this season, and 6 of those went for TDs.
Jonathon Allen is a force of nature up front, and led the Tide with 9.5 sacks, with 15 total TFLs on the year. He's backed by a LB unit comprised of NFL talent in Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, and Reuben Foster, a group that combined for 45 TFLs in 2016. As a defense, the Tide finished with 112 total TFLs.
In the secondary, Watson should probably throw away from Minkah Fitzpatrick, as he leads the club with 6 picks, including 2 for TDs. He also had 7 pass break ups on the season, while Anthony Averett broke up 8.It would also be easy to forget Ronnie Harrison, but he also broke up 7 passes on the year.
Key Players For Alabama: Special Teams
Adam Griffith is good, but he is not near perfect at PK. He hit 20/27 FGs this season, but in this kind of game, those misses loom large.
JK Scott is one of the best punters in the nation, averaging 47.4 yards per punt in 2016. He should be able to help the Tide win the field position war all night long.
Eddie Jackson is dangerous returning punts, as he averaged 23 yards per punt return, and he scored twice. It would be best for Clemson to punt away from him.

A Look at Clemson
Clemson has only beaten Alabama 3 times, and the last time that Clemson won a game in this series was a whopping 112 years ago, in 1905, a Clemson 25-0 win at home. Alabama has won the last 13 match ups in this series. With the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series this year, could this be the time?
Clemson got close last season, but they remain a dog by upwards of a TD. Four of the last seven games have been Alabama double digit wins, so the pressure is on.
Clemson has a defense of their own that is impressive, but their offense has more explosive capacity than Alabama had last season. If they are going to win this football game, they have to work through how to exploit Alabama on defense, and good luck with that.
For Clemson to win, they must find their big play capability, and that comes from the arm of Deshaun Watson, but there is the one drawback in the form of his 17 INTs this season. The reason for that happening was an inconsistent run game in 2016, and Watson was forced to do too much at times.
The Tigers must, and I emphasize must, slow the game down somewhat and get their run game in gear against the best run defense in the nation.
Defensively, Clemson can assert themselves against the run, but they have a two tier process in stopping Alabama, and here are those tasks. First, the Clemson defense, like I said about Washington last week, must keep Jalen Hurts in the pocket as a passer, and they cannot let him become a runner, because that is where he excels. If they can keep him in a passing role, Clemson has a shot to stop him, as Clemson is 17th best nationally against the pass.
Clemson has one more task to be in this football game. They have to stop the Tide backs from running wild like Scarbrough did against the Huskies. Clemson is competent against the run, only allowing 123 yards per game on the ground, but they have not played against a line like this all season.
Clemson did, remember, dominate a very good Ohio State football team last week in Phoenix, but I am not certain that Alabama would not have done the same against the Buckeyes. If Clemson plays to that level, we could have a game.
Key Players For Clemson: Offense
Deshaun Watson is the center of the universe for Clemson on offense. He is their do everything guy. He passed for 4173 yards and 38 TDs, but those 17 picks were a real problem at times. He cannot run everything alone, especially not against Alabama. He will need some help.
That help has got to come from RB Wayne Gallman. Clemson is at their best when he is, and he is not always at his best. He only averaged 77 yards per game, and Clemson needs more if they are to get the upset on Monday. Watson can run, as he rushed for over 500 yards and 8 scores, but if he has to lead the teams run game, Clemson will be in trouble.
Mike Williams is by far the best receiver on this football team with 90 receptions in 2016, and nobody other than Artavis Scott came close to that total, as he caught 73 passes for just 608 yards. Williams finished with 1267 yards and 10 scores, and Alabama is likely to lock down on him. That means that TE Jordan Leggett will have to get some work done, as he finished with 39-641-7. It is likely that someone from the group of Deon Cain, Ray-Ray McCloud, and Hunter Renfrow will have to step up big.
Key Players For Clemson: Defense
Clemson is very active in the trenches on defense, as Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins, and Clelin Ferrell all finished with double digit TFLs this season, combining for 37 total TFLs. This group will have to be as active as that to disrupt the Alabama blocking schemes and stop the Tide from chewing up ground and clock in the game.
The LB group is loaded and active as well, as Kendall Joseph, Dorian O'Daniel, and Ben Boulware cmobined for 30.5 TFLs of their own. Boulware and Joseph combined for 212 tackles as well. Expect a ton of aggression up front as the Tigers throw everything they have at the Tide front.
Clemson has been strong against the pass, as has Alabama. The Tigers picked off 20 total passes on the year, led by Jadar Johnson, who finished with 5. Cordrea Tankersley broke up 10 passes on the season, and Johnson broke up 7. On the year, the Tigers broke up 57 passes on the season, which is why Alabama can ill afford for Jalen Hurts to be the passing game hero.
Key Players For Clemson: Special Teams
Greg Huegel has not been great at PK, hitting just 14/19 FGs on the season. If it comes down to his leg, it could get dicey.
Andy Teasdall is not going to help win the game of field possession, averaging just 38 yards per punt on the season. There are a pair of freshmen behind him, but they have punted a combined 2 times on the season, and this is not the stage to break in teeth.
There is nothing exciting about the return game for Clemson, as they are average across the board.

Head to Head

Passing: Clemson wins the battle with Watson over Hurts
Rushing: Alabama wins the battle with Harris, Scarbrough, and Hurts
Receiving: Alabama wins the battle, with deeper overall talent
Defense: Alabama edges out Clemson on defense
Kicking Game: Alabama wins both kicking and punting battles
Return Game: Alabama wins the battle by far

My Pick: Alabama 28-24

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