How Does Clemson Match Up With Alabama? By the Numbers
The end of the college football season is upon us, and it's going to end with a bang. The Alabama Crimson Tide will take on the Clemson Tigers on January 11, one of which will earn the right to be called "College Football National Champions."
Both teams took care of business in the national semifinals: Clemson shellacking the Oklahoma Sooners to the tune of 37-17, and the Tide took down the Michigan State Spartans 38-0 in one of the most lopsided games of the season. I believe it's safe to assume that these two teams are the two best teams in college football. Hands down.
Yes, Stanford showed out in the Rose Bowl (against an overrated Iowa team), but they shouldn't have lost to Northwestern and Oregon. And yes Ohio State flexed their muscles against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, but given their porous schedule, they should have dominated throughout the season instead of only beating Northern Illinois by a touchdown, instead of only beating Indiana by a touchdown, and letting a weak Minnesota team hang around late into the fourth quarter.
But back to the topic at hand.
The reason Alabama and Clemson are the two best teams in the country is how efficient both teams have been on both sides of the ball.
We've all seen the stifling defense of the Crimson Tide, and the numbers show how dominant they've actually been. They lead the nation in scoring average (13.7 points/game), but it doesn't end there demonstrating their stout scoring defense. The Tide lead the nation in points/play as well, coming in at .213. That number isn't near the insanely low .147 points/play from the 2011 Bama defense, but it's still nothing to scoff at. Oh, and let's not forget to mention that they rank 2nd in both yards/play and yards/game (4.07 and 256.8, respectively).
That's pretty good, or so I've heard.
Clemson also boasts one of the best defenses in the country, but aren't quite as efficient as the Tide, albeit still respectable. They have given up .312 points/play this season (above the 2015 mean), but the Tigers rank #6 in the nation in total defense, giving up only 301.6 yards/game, and are tied for 16th in scoring defense, giving up only 20 points/game. This team is loaded with talent on the defensive side of the ball of players who will be drafted this April into the NFL (DE Shaq Lawson, who should be good to go from a minor injury; CB Mackensie Alexander; SS Jayron Kearse), so their solid defensive numbers should come by no surprise.
This solid Tiger defense will have their hands full with a diverse and explosive Alabama offense.
When you talk about the Tide's offense, you have to mention first the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner, Derrick Henry. He's had a season that has been nothing shy of spectacular. Henry is the first SEC running back to eclipse 2,000 yards on the ground in a season (2,061), not to mention he has broken single season records previously held by legendary running backs Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker. And in relation to the scoreboard, the most important stat that Henry now possesses is the single season record for rushing touchdowns in SEC history (25). If Clemson can contain Henry, they'll have a chance.
Well, at least that's what Michigan State thought, too, and look where that got them.
They contained Henry (75 yards and two touchdowns), but QB Jake Coker had arguably his best game of his short career at The Capstone, going 25/30 for 286 yards and two touchdowns. If Coker is able to bear the load when Henry may be "struggling" (as he's shown he can do), Alabama may not be able to lose this game.
Clemson is the 18th best team in the country when it comes to stopping the run (124.36 yards/game), so limiting the damage done by Henry is plausible, but should they manage that, can they shut down the Tide passing attack?
The Tigers have one of the most talented secondaries in college football, and if they're able to get elite defensive end Shaq Lawson back from injury, then they'll have a shot at competing with the Tide. They give up only 177 yards/game through the air, but the most impressive stat relative to their pass defense is their 6th ranked defensive passer rating (104).
All these match-ups are all great and good and whatnot, but the one match-up that will most likely decide this game is the Crimson Tide defense vs. the mobility and play-making ability of Clemson quarterback, Deshaun Watson.
Watson finished as the second runner-up in the Heisman race, and he's been playing at an elite level all season long.
The first thing you notice about Watson is his accuracy, a skill many coaches say isn't coachable: you either got it, or you don't. He's hit 68.2% of his passes this season, good enough for 4th in the nation. He also averages 8.3 yards/attempt, meaning that with his elite accuracy, he's able to move the ball down the field consistently and efficiently. Along with his ability to throw the ball with relative ease, the guy can move the ball with his feet if you're able to take away the Tiger passing game.
In five of his past six games, Watson has eclipsed the 100 yard mark for rushing, and has ran in eight (yes, eight!) touchdowns. And on the season, he's rushed for 1032 yards, good enough for 58th in the country: not just out of quarterbacks, he's 58th in the nation out of all eligible rushers.
He's been outstanding running the ball, but he usually does his damage on first down. Out of his 1032 rushing yards, 526 of them have come on first down. With this kind of production on first down, it can be asserted that Clemson is one of the top teams in the nation in first downs per game... and they sit pretty at #10 in the country, averaging 25.9. Not only that, but the short yardage situations that they face after first down should set up situations so that their third down conversion percentage will be high.
And that it is as well.
The Tigers convert 47.69% of their third downs, good enough for 13th in the nation. In essence, it's extremely difficult to get the Clemson offense off the field.
But if there is one defense that is capable of keeping the reins on this explosive and efficient offense, it's gotta be the Crimson Tide.