Friday, December 8, 2017
Why Clemson/Alabama III is Still the Game of the Year
In a rivalry that can now officially be titled in Rocky-esque fashion, New Year's Day will bring us Part III of the Clemson/Alabama saga. Unlike the past two seasons, however, this match up will not determine the national champion.
Or will it?
While a week seven defeat at the hands of eventual 8-loss Syracuse kept Clemson out of the top spot for the first four weeks of CFP rankings, when No. 1 Alabama fell to Auburn in week 12, there was no question who would be top ranked in the country the following week. Then, what appeared to be a marquee ACC championship game became a slaughter, as Clemson bludgeoned then-No. 7 Miami by 35 points to seal their status as the consensus No. 1 in the final playoff rankings.
Meanwhile, Alabama was in the top two in the CFP rankings in each of its first four releases, and sat atop the AP poll the entire season up to their loss in the Iron Bowl. That loss knocked the Tide out of the top four in both polls, but the unfamiliar view from the outside wouldn't last long for the greatest college football dynasty of the young 21st century. In an unprecedented decision from the selection committee, two SEC teams were placed in the final top four, while two-loss Big 10 champ Ohio State ended the year at No. 5.
Oklahoma and Georgia may be Nos. 2 and 3, but the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans is going to match the two most battle-tested elite programs in the country. The winner will emerge as the clear favorite to win the national title, regardless of what takes place in Pasadena on January 1st. When we dive inside the numbers, it becomes clear just how evenly matched these two powerhouses are:
First Downs PG
First Downs PG
And if these deadlocked numbers aren't enough, toss in the fact that TeamRankings.com lists Clemson's strength of schedule as 5th toughest in the country, with Alabama's schedule coming in at No. 10. So it wasn't a disparity in opponent's strength that led to these statistics. The Tigers and Crimson Tide both faced grueling schedules and both dominated in similar fashion, aside from one hiccup apiece.
The comparison goes deeper when one takes a look at the position-by-position match ups. Both teams feature highly mobile quarterbacks who are just as dangerous as runners as they are through the air. Alabama's Jalen Hurts is second on the team with 768 yards rushing and 8 touchdowns, while Clemson's Kelly Bryant finished the regular season third on the Tigers with 646 yards rushing and second in touchdowns with 11.
Alabama's two-headed running back tandem of Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough rushed for a combined 1,455 yards and 19 touchdowns, while the Tigers duo of Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster come in at 1,403 yards and 20 touchdowns. Alabama's defense has recorded 15 interceptions, while Clemson's has notched 14.
Did I mention how closely-matched these teams are?
While both teams have elite pieces on both sides of the ball, both have their weak spots as well. Aside from junior wide out Calvin Ridley, who ranks 5th in SEC history with 216 career receptions, Alabama did not have a single player record more than 14 receptions. Safe to say the Clemson secondary has a pretty good idea of who to key on through the air.
On the ACC champs side, Clemson's kickers enter the Sugar Bowl with an ugly 53% field-goal percentage. In a game that by all accounts should be close, a costly miss or a clutch kick late in the game could be the difference. Primary place kicker Alex Spence is just 7-12 on field-goal attempts this year, while Alabama's Andy Pappanastos is a much more respectable 15-19.
So, who is going to win this clash of titans? I have to give the slight edge to the defending champs on the strength of their lights-out defensive line, lead by the deadly trifecta of Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, and Christian Wilkins. The trio should make things difficult for Jalen Hurts and the potent Alabama rushing attack. If Clemson can shut down Ridley and hold the 'Bama backs in check, it's going to be tough sledding for the Tide.
The key to Alabama advancing will be their ability to well, be 'Bama, which means to methodically control the ball and the clock on the ground and take care of the football. Hurts has thrown just one interception in 224 pass attempts this season. I've said in the past, Alabama doesn't quite blow the doors off their opponents early like say, the Oklahoma Sooners. No, the Crimson Tide tend to slowly smother tough opponents, pinning their offenses for three quarters before delivering the finishing blows late.
The series is tied at one national championship apiece, and the rubber match is looking like one for the ages.