Monday, January 4, 2016
How Alabama Can Be Beaten
All season, conventional wisdom in college football has told us that there were no truly dominant teams this year, and there wasn't one team that neutral fans would remember as one of the best of its era in 5-10 years.
After Clemson and Alabama dispatched of Oklahoma and Michigan State, respectively, in Thursday's College Football Playoff with blowout wins, it might be fair to question those previous assumptions a little bit.
I still think we won't put either this year's Tigers or Crimson Tide in a class with title-winning teams from Miami, USC, Texas, Florida or Alabama earlier this century or even Florida State two years ago. Yet, we can't at all doubt that these two teams are far and away the class of the college football season.
Furthermore, unlike last season's inaugural CFP, there was no debate about who the right four teams to play for the title were. And after a bowl slate that's been as uncompelling, non-dramatic and watered-down as any I can remember, college football deserves and needs a championship bout that will live up to the hype, as I think this one will.
Other observers don't seem to think it will be the thriller I think it will be. I almost never mention lines in this space, and that's for a reason, but I was absolutely stunned to see Alabama installed as a touchdown favorite against Clemson on Jan. 11. If there was one team that I think is going to win the game by a touchdown, it would be the team that hasn't lost yet.
What Alabama did to Michigan State shouldn't go unnoticed. It was a thoroughly dominant performance in every single possible facet of the game. However, the Spartans played into the Tide's hands by trying to beat them playing conservative, traditional Big Ten football on offense. That didn't have a prayer of working.
I do have to give Lane Kiffin and Jake Coker all the credit in the world for opening up the playbook for the Cotton Bowl. Everyone who follows the sport, and probably some who don't, knew Michigan State would be geared up for 30-40 (or more!) carries from Derrick Henry. Coker responded by essentially putting up a "Phil Simms vs. the Broncos, Super Bowl XXI" performance.
But let's take a step back and look at the teams to beat Alabama in the last five years: LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn, Oklahoma, Ole Miss (twice) and Ohio State. LSU is an obvious outlier here because Alabama destroyed them in the rematch that year in the BCS title game.
But all the other teams were spread offense teams with loads of talent on that side of the ball and/or innovative coaching. And you don't even really need to be a dominant defensive power. Some of these teams weren't that great on the defensive end.
In other words, they weren't comfortable lining everyone up and trying to play a basic brand of football. When you do that, the team with the full roster of four- and five-star recruits is going to beat you 99 percent of the time. You have to out-scheme them, out-smart them, and then execute and win at the line of scrimmage as much as possible.
As dominant as the Tide were against Michigan State, there was one fleeting moment in the Cotton Bowl where it looked like the Spartans might have some modicum of a chance.
With less than two minutes left in the second quarter and the score 10-0, Michigan State got the ball and immediately began to play hurry-up, with Connor Cook dropping back on every play. The Spartans moved the ball far better than at any other time during the game, and got all the way to the Alabama 12-yard-line before Cook threw an ill-advised pass that was picked off by Alabama CB Cyrus Jones.
Any momentum from that drive was gone near that goal line, but Michigan State could have learned from it. Put different personnel out there. Speed things up. Let Cook, who carried the team earlier in the season when the Spartans' vaunted defense was banged-up and performing badly, throw on first down. None of it happened.
Clemson is certainly going to give Alabama much, much different looks than Michigan State did, and they'll have the talent to back it up.
In the Orange Bowl, a close game through a half with missed opportunities for each team turned into a one-sided game in the third quarter after Clemson's defense stood tall without Shaq Lawson, and the Clemson offense torched Oklahoma by running tons of plays and keeping the ball mostly on the ground with Wayne Gallman and Deshaun Watson.
The Tigers probably can't give 50 carries combined to the quarterback/running back duo of Watson and Gallman again, but the Clemson front has consistently opened up running lanes all season, even against Notre Dame's possible slew of defensive NFL draft picks.
Watson will have to be great through the air against 'Bama, and better than he was against Oklahoma, when he made a few iffy decisions that cost Clemson more points and barely completed more than 50 percent of his passes. But who's to say that Watson can't find lanes to run in when pass catchers are covered the four- and five-receiver sets that the Tigers love to run? I'm not betting against him at this stage.
Clemson's defense has been lackluster at times against mid-tier ACC competition, but huge when it matters the most. In this game, it'll be prepared for Coker's arm, unlike Michigan State was.
One thing I keep coming back to is that I still can't shake the feeling like Alabama has faced a grand total of one elite offense this season as champions of an SEC that was way down in 2015: Ole Miss, its one loss.
Yes, that game was more than three months ago and was weird due to some turnover luck and the fact that Cooper Bateman started it at QB over Coker for Alabama (but played less than a half before Coker came in), but Ole Miss still had success driving against the Tide defense for much of the first three-and-a-half quarters on Sept. 19. Chad Kelly, the Ole Miss quarterback, probably wouldn't have been able to beat out a freshman Watson for Clemson's starting job in 2014 had he not been kicked off the team that spring.
Alabama is, of course, a supremely impressive team. But it's not an invincible team. And if Clemson can play as it has this year in the biggest games, and I believe Dabo Swinney's team will, it will claim the national title and become the first 15-0 team in the history of the sport.