For the third time in four years, the Alabama Crimson Tide will face the Clemson Tigers in the National Championship Game. Alabama and Clemson will face off for the fourth year in a row in this fierce, but respected, rivalry. This time around, there seems to be a different feeling of the game when it comes to both teams. Since the beginning of the season, it always seemed like Alabama and Clemson would meet again for the title game. It also seemed that Clemson would be the only team to have a chance to compete with Alabama. Not only could Clemson make a game out of Alabama, but they’ve also got a high chance to beat the Tide.
Keys for Alabama against Clemson
The second-ranked Clemson Tigers, along with the Tide, have the fewest amount of weaknesses on their team. This game will come down to winning every small scenario on each play. The Tigers are not unbeatable, and neither are the Crimson Tide. Both teams will exploit every weakness that they come across at any given moment. A huge portion of this game will come down to studying the other team before the game and create game plans to where they will have the most success. The Tide are looking for their 18th National Championship title as a program. They are also looking for their third title in five years in the College Football Playoff system. Here are some of the key game plans for the Crimson Tide against this Clemson Tigers team.
Tide’s Offensive Line Must Win at the Line
Clemson’s defensive line is one of the best units in College Football, if not the best. Clemson’s defense ranks fourth in points allowed per game (14.8) and second in defensive efficiency (88.4) due to the high impact from the Tigers defensive line in stopping the run and creating pass rush. Clemson leads the nation in total sacks accounted for with 52. The four play-makers in the defensive line are tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence and ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant. They all have the potential to be first round picks in the upcoming 2019 NFL Draft. Wilkins and Ferrell were selected as First Team All-Americans this season. The four players have combined to account for 52.5 tackles for loss and 26.5 of the 52 sacks this season. Lawrence, of course, won’t play on Monday night due to his suspension for a positive drug test.
The Tigers’ defensive line will try to make every possession and play as difficult as possible for Alabama’s efficient offense. Lawrence’s replacement, Albert Huggins, is a suitable replacement but doesn’t have much experience. Alabama can double-team Wilkins to create a better run scenario for their 33rd-ranked rushing offense with running backs Damien Harris, Najee Harris, and Josh Jacobs. The biggest part of the game for the Tide’s offense will be the passing game. To make sure quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has a chance to throw, the Tide’s offensive line must pass protect efficiently. They’ve only given up 14 sacks all season (tied for 110th) but they showed gaps in a few big games.
Tua Tagovailoa’s Time
In the past couple of seasons, the Tide usually relied on their run game to create high-scoring games. This season, Heisman Trophy runner-up quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has taken full control of the Tide’s explosive offense. Alabama’s offense ranks second in the nation in points per game (47.7), fifth in total yards per game (528), and seventh in passing yards per game (325.6). They are also the second most efficient offense in the nation (96.6). This is due to the explosive, smart, and consistent passing of Tagovailoa and his explosive, reliable receivers. Tagovailoa has passed for 3,671 yards, 41 touchdowns, and only 4 interceptions on 223 completions out of 321 attempts. Each of his top receivers, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, freshman Jaylen Waddle, and tight end Irv Smith Jr., have accounted for at least 40 receptions, 650 yards, and 7 touchdowns.
If there is one weakness in the aggressive yet efficient Clemson defense, it is their secondary. The Tigers’ defense ranks 18th in passing yards allowed per game (183.3). They are, however, tied for 71st most in interceptions accounted (10) and tied for 62nd most in pass deflections (43). While a portion of this low output from their secondary does account from the success from the defensive line, there is still some measure of how vulnerable the secondary can be. They do not play man coverage very well. This gives the Crimson Tide’s offense many options to take in their play selection. This also gives Tagovailoa several different options. If Jeudy, his star receiver, is shut down or double-covered then this will allow him to look for an open receiver in Waddle, Ruggs, or Smith.
Alabama Must Stop the Clemson Rushing Attack
In the past three matchups with the Alabama, Clemson had a dual-threat quarterback. This is what gave the Tigers their stellar victory in the 2016 title game against Alabama with quarterback DeShaun Watson. This season, freshman phenomenon Trevor Lawrence has emerged early during the season as the starting quarterback. Lawrence is more one-dimensional as a passer but this has given running back Travis Etienne the potential to explode. This season, Etienne has rushed for 1,573 yards and 5 touchdowns on 190 carries. He averages 8.3 yards per rush. Overall, Etienne and the stout Clemson offensive line together rank tenth in the nation in rushing yards per game (256.3). Alabama’s defense continues to be one of the best defenses in the nation. They rank second in defensive efficiency (88.4) and fourth in points allowed per game (13.7).
Alabama’s defense plays more in a 4-2-5 where they have four defensive lineman, two linebackers, and 5 secondary players. This is their devotion to shutting down the passing game. The strength of the defense lies in the defensive line, who are stout and efficient as well. The surprise of the season is defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, who is posting high-numbers as a true 1-technique defensive tackle. Williams, Raekwon Davis, Isaiah Buggs, and Anfernee Jennings will be the first line of the defense for Alabama. Each one of them are highly-reliable play-makers when it comes to creating penetration at the line of scrimmage. Linebackers Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses will need to play efficiently when reading run plays and picking running lanes. Alabama might get in a shootout with Clemson, but it might be too much if Etienne is exhausting the energy out of the defense.
Tide must learn from mistakes from Oklahoma to stop Clemson’s high-power passing game
The Crimson Tide’s defense had one of their toughest test in the 2018 Orange Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners. Their top ranked offense tested the young Alabama defensive backs to their limit. In the game, cornerback Saivion Smith and safety Xavier McKinney played some of their best games in the entire season. True freshman cornerback Patrick Surtain II struggled against consistent man-to-man coverage against an explosive receiver in Sooners’ CeeDee Lamb. This game will be a different level of going against an explosive, yet consistent offense. Alabama’s defense made the Sooners inconsistent due to the constant aggressive pass rush of the defensive line. Clemson’s passing offense ranks 24th in the nation in passing yards per game (274.1) but Lawrence is great at exploiting weaknesses against opposing defenses. Lawrence doesn’t play like a freshman. He is already showing NFL-caliber mechanics and progressions as a pure passer.
It will be difficult to get more inconsistent play of out him than what Alabama did to Sooners quarterback Kyler Murray. The key for Alabama’s defense when it comes to the passing game is to tighten up the coverages in man-to-man and to make Lawrence stay in the pocket for a longer duration. The defensive line can get to Lawrence against this good Tigers’ offensive line that has allowed 17 total sacks this season. Tigers receivers Tee Higgins and Justin Ross are excellent deep targets for Lawrence. Receiver Hunter Renfrow III can play a huge part against Alabama once again by being an open inside receiver. Either the linebackers or an extra secondary player like Shyheim Carter or McKinney will need to keep Renfrow in check. Tightening the coverages and routes will force Lawrence to make throws to where the defense can make potential interceptions.
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