National championship preview: Alabama-Clemson Part IV
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I thought the introduction of the playoff meant the death of the BCS? But here we are, with Alabama facing Clemson for the fourth straight year in the CFP after a pair of title-game matchups and then a semifinal clash last season.

With that said, don't give in to fatigue when it comes to this matchup. In Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama has a legitimate superstar quarterback marshaling its up-tempo offense. In Trevor Lawrence, Clemson sports the most gifted rhythmic signal-caller to come through college football in some time. We didn't have that in years past.

Oh, and that’s before mentioning the two nastiest defensive fronts in the sport, and the fact that every game between these two sides has been worthy of the hype.

This is the pinnacle of college football - the two best teams in the nation, a pair of top young quarterbacks, legendary coaches, a gorgeous uniform matchup, and everything on the line. Enjoy it.

Players to watch

Clemson - edge rusher Clelin Ferrell

Ferrell (pronounced Fur-Ull, like referral, by the way), will need to be Clemson’s difference-maker up front with stud defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence suspended due to a failed PED test.

At 6-foot-5 with arms so long they look like they've been CGI'd onto his body, Ferrell's the prototype of a modern edge rusher - long, nimble, and with a get-off that will scare the holy bejeezus out of pretty much anyone (No. 99 below):


There aren't many humans built like that who can still win with speed, which Ferrell combines with good hands and smarts. He can win inside or outside. He can run through or around blockers.

And even on a defense noted for its vaunted line, Ferrell still monopolized production in 2018 with a patently absurd 52 quarterback pressures.

In the semifinal against Notre Dame, Clemson got by just fine without Lawrence as fellow defensive tackle Christian Wilkins saw plenty of double-teams inside.

But Bama has the rare offensive line with the physical gifts and smarts to hang with Wilkins in one-on-one matchups, which means it can devote extra resources to stopping Ferrell on the edge: double-teaming, sliding protections, chipping, moving the launch point, and optioning him on RPOs.

Clemson will need Ferrell to dominate and generate pressure regardless of those tactics. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and all that.

Alabama - quarterback Tua Tagovailoa

Tua bounced back from his nightmare SEC championship game outing with a near-perfect performance against Oklahoma in the playoff semifinal.

He looked healthy, sprightly, and, perhaps most importantly, seemed to have confidence in his injured ankle when planting and throwing.

Tagovailoa's been easily the best quarterback in the country when kept clean this season. In those situations, he's tossed 32 touchdowns, averaged close to 12 yards per attempt, and owns a passer rating above 149 (the NCAA average is 98). We should expect much of the same if Bama protects him on Monday.

Doing so would certainly put a lot of pressure on Lawrence and Co. to keep up.

Matchups to watch

Alabama OT Jonah Williams vs. Ferrell

As detailed above, Ferrell is Clemson’s star pass-rusher, but Williams is the best offensive tackle in college football and somehow conceded just 11 pressures all season.

If Williams stonewalls Ferrell, the Tide can avoid double-teaming and allocate more protection resources to the inside. And if Clemson's pass rush is eliminated, Alabama's high-flying offense could have a field day.

Clemson's linebackers vs. Alabama's vertical option plays

Clemson's front is historically great - and filled with future NFL starters - but let's show some love to the off-ball pests who zip around the field and allow the giants up front to cut loose. No linebacking unit in the country downloads, diagnoses, and attacks any kind of option element or screen game like the Tigers'.

The group rotates through a cast of studs. Seven – seven! – linebackers/hybrids make contributions. None of them are freshmen. They're talented, hyper-athletic piranhas with experience who pounce on the ball like they've seen an advance copy of the game. And all of them fill a role, even if it's just sparing the legs of one of their more talented teammates.

Out-leveraging that Clemson unit to the sidelines is tough, as the 'backers simply cover too much ground in the blink of an eye. They're a spread-option equalizer, which means opposing offenses are forced to adapt - and they usually fail.

However, Alabama used more vertical-option elements than ever before this season. The offense wants to get Tagovailoa moving straight down the field, rather than having him constantly read an unblocked edge defender.

Tua's elusive, but he's not overly elegant. He doesn't plant and explode up the field like a zone-cut running back. Give him a head of steam, though, and he’ll rumble forward like Russell Westbrook driving to the basket.

Alabama's been making this happen by using mid-line reads, which leave an interior defensive player - rather than an edge defender - unblocked on option plays. This better fits the Tide's personnel and combats the growing trend of "inside shoulder" alignments from defensive linemen.

More and more, defenses are positioning players on the inside shoulder of offensive linemen on early downs and in short-yardage situations. The highlighted defender below is doing so in a "2i" alignment (the second gap on the inside shoulder), which is meant to make it more difficult for the offensive lineman to get across the face of the defender.


Alabama wants to be a zone-run and stretch attack - get a hat on a hat and let the running back read the field and exploit spaces. But that's tricky when the front-side guard has a pre-snap advantage.

Vertical options help against that challenge by reading an interior defender and making the quarterback the straight-line option with the running back as the perimeter threat.

This season we've seen everything from classic power reads to mid-line reads, while the Tide have even dabbled with the "toss option" made famous by Clemson:


It all works the same, philosophically: If the defender crashes to the mesh point, the quarterback will pull the ball down and keep it. If the defender sits back, the QB will hand the ball to his running back with one defender being blocked through the read - leaving the play as a 10-on-10 contest.

And while edge defenders are used to reading options, interior defenders are not. The latter group is used to being snarling menaces who only see the quarterback's eyes when they've buried him into the turf. Tease them with a free path to the ball and they’ll jump all over it.

Those vertical options give Alabama the best of both worlds, particularly when Damien Harris is in the game at running back.

Harris is a true zone-cut guy with nimble feet. He navigates creases and contorts his body as well as any back in the country. He rarely, if ever, misses the correct cutback lane.

So, using Harris as the perimeter threat with Tua as the head-on threat (rather than the traditional reverse) maximizes both of their talents while keeping up with the principles of option football - one-on-one battles across the board.

Clemson's premier linebackers will need to get used to seeing a big-bodied guard and quarterback screaming downhill together rather than zipping from hashmark to sideline. There will be some serious collisions. It's not an easy mental switch.

Whether or not those linebackers can stack and shed the head-on blockers will be decisive in determining whether they can slow down Alabama’s rushing attack. And those linebackers can't afford to overrun plays in anticipation of the ball going outside, particularly if the guys up front bite on those mid-line reads.

On the other hand, take away the option game and Alabama’s offense could become restricted.

Alabama's keys to victory

Read the jet motion: The jet motion is a great leveraging tool that offenses use to either move the defense (before countering the opposite way) or to slice defenders off with speed. Alabama must be alert and ready to stop the onslaught of Clemson's jet-motion designs - which the Tigers term "Rocket" motion.

Pressure Lawrence: You don't win big games without defensive pressure. Clemson will bring it. Can the Tide? Lawrence hasn't faced a side as deep and talented as Alabama. He hasn’t played on this kind of stage, either, but the semifinal was a nice teaser.

Still, Lawrence has been the ultimate cool customer throughout his maiden season as Clemson's starter. His passer rating drops to 25th in the country when he's pressured, but that's still astounding for a true freshman.

Meanwhile, this is the best Clemson offensive line in the Dabo Sweeney era. But the unit will have its hands full against Quinnen Williams, Anfernee Jennings, Raekwon Davis, Christian Miller, Isaiah Buggs, and a batch of funky blitz looks. That defensive group will need to get to Lawrence for Bama to claim the title.

Clemson's key to victory

Self-scout tendencies: Alabama appeared to have a great read on Clemson's rocket motions last year, which rarely saw the ball go to the motion man. And again this season, the Tigers' motion man has been little more than window dressing almost all of the time:

In fact, in the eight games I charted with Lawrence at the helm, Clemson only gave the ball to the motion man twice! And one of those plays came in garbage time during the semifinal blowout of Notre Dame.

Clemson's clear tendencies even extend to the alignment and depth of its running back pre-snap. Look, you can play along at home:

  • If the running back is 1 yard deeper than the quarterback, expect an inside-zone run attacking the A and B gaps.
  • If the back is hip to hip with the quarterback or on his heels, look for a perimeter run attacking the C-gaps - an outside zone, quarterback zone, or quarterback wrap.
  • If the running back is farther forward, in front of the quarterback or acting as a sniffer, expect a run to really stretch the field, attacking the C or D gaps - a sweep, stretch, or quarterback zone/power run.

Jot those down and see if you can impress your watch party by calling out plays before they unfold, Tony Romo style (I am no fun at parties).

Now, I know you're thinking it can't be that easy - but it can! And that's part of the beauty of Clemson's system. It's rarely, if ever, evolved. But just because you know what's coming doesn't mean you can stop it. It's a form of football schadenfreude for Dabo and Co.

Alabama presents a different challenge, however. Clemson typically gets away with being so obvious because it has better players than its opponent. And even when you know what’s coming, all the motion and movement can be discombobulating when conducted at hyper speed.

However, Bama's defense lives at that speed. It's used to facing folks who go quick in a bid to keep it off-kilter, while its athletes are just as deadly in space as Clemson's - just look at this tackle:


The Tide simply munches up athletes-in-space offenses because - just like the Tigers - their athletes are usually better than the opponent's.

So, it will be fascinating to see how much self-reflection the Clemson offense does heading into Monday night. Do the Tigers stick with their tendencies ("this is what we do best, so just try to stop it") or will they avoid tipping their cards against a rare defense that can match up man to man?

The answer could make all the difference.

Prediction: Clemson 34, Alabama 31

National championship preview: Alabama-Clemson Part IV
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