On one hand it’s rather disappointing that neither Washington nor Ohio State were able to provide Clemson or Alabama with enough of a challenge to give us a good game. On the other hand, I was exhausted from traveling with an 18-month old anyways so I can’t complain that I was able to fall asleep before the second game ended without feeling like I’d missed something important.
Looks like we’ll be getting the rematch many anticipated when Clemson fell just short last year but returned Watson plus some skill talent that didn’t even get to play last year. More on that later, first here were my initial takeaways from the opening games.
1. The Huskies are who USC revealed them to be
Namely, a strong and emerging young team that still lacks the size and talent up front to hang with Alabama or the kind of QB to level the playing field. Jake Browning is a great kid who’s put up huge numbers but the Peterson offensive system is run-centric and the plays to be made in the passing game (or with the trick plays that were largely absent) largely work off the threat of the run.
Washington unsurprisingly could not run the ball effectively on Alabama, so there wasn’t a great deal they could do to win that game. If you wanna beat Alabama you have to be able to overwhelm them somewhere and it doesn’t have to be up front in the run game but Washington couldn’t do nothing.
The Washington D was really quite solid, but as I noted in my preview, they had some difficult personnel questions to answer in achieving the goal of hanging with the Tide. In particular, Alabama was overwhelming on the edges and pushed the Huskies to staff their 2-4-5 nickel front with 6-1, 321 pound Elijah Qualls at one of the OLB spots. Center Bradley Bozeman for Bama is a true stud but they can make a lot of hay just running off Cameron Robinson at left tackle. Particularly if you put a guy like 6-4, 231 pound Psalm Wooching across from him. Meanwhile, the advantages Bama got from Bozeman’s excellence allowed them to pick on U-Dub’s inexperience and lack of size at ILB with Azeem Victor out.
Bo Scarborough running for 180 yards and 2 TDs on 19 carries is largely symptomatic of those advantages, although he was sure running hard and smart.
2. Clemson’s run defense was shockingly good
I’ve had my doubts for a while now about whether Ohio State had a championship caliber team due to the limits of their passing game. However, the formula they’d settled on of running Barrett heavily between the tackles while playing elite defense seemed like one that’d be hard to top, even for the playoff teams.
Well it wasn’t a problem for Clemson.
If you’ve watched Ohio State this year you’ve seen them find answers in their run game for tons of different defenses, and Urban Meyer always seems to be able to scheme up some new tweaks to zone, power, or counter that allows him to run them down people’s throats in the 4th quarter. Not this time.
One of the big additions that Ohio State evidently prepared for Clemson was to bring back the power-option/shovel play that Pittsburgh used to devastate the Tigers in the Panthers’ upset victory earlier this year. They tried to use it to get Curtis Samuel going up the seam of the Tigers’ defense and it didn’t amount to much of anything, certainly not something that allowed them to build drives on like it did with Pitt. I’ll try and suss out what adjustment Clemson made to snuff it out later but suffice to say they were prepared for it.
Frankly that was pretty predictable, you weren’t going to catch Brent Venables by surprise running something that burned him badly earlier in the year and was also something that you originated.
Ohio State’s offensive staff is sure to take a lot of abuse for this game but once again Brent Venables’ reputation was cemented as one of the very best defensive coaches in the country.
3. The Clemson passing attack vs Alabama pass defense is going to be a true clash of the titans.
So much more so then that crappy remake that was made back when people thought Sam Worthington was going to be the next big thing in Hollywood. What a mess that was.
Last year Clemson was really nasty because they could go five-wide and shred you in the slots with either Hunter Renfrow (small, shifty slot) or Jordan Leggett (big, athletic, overpowering TE) while leaning on Watson to make something happen with his legs if protection broke down or the coverage was good. The Tigers are ostensibly a smashmouth team but they’re really at their best in the spread passing game with the QB-read run game as something that allows them to help keep defenses honest or to blow away worn down or inferior fronts.
This year all of that is true but the OL is a year older and better in protection and they’ve added Mike Williams and Deon Cain outside. Clemson can now get in four/five WR sets where you might be athletically outmatched at every position.
Against that, Alabama has their very good but still young secondary and their devastatingly good pass rush. This is going to be very fun to watch because both sides are legitimately great. I’m expecting a typical Watson game where he makes a ton of plays and is horrifying down the stretch but also throws a few picks in the process, kinda like what you see from Tom Brady every Super Bowl.
4. Venables vs Kiffin/Hurts might actually be advantage Clemson
The story of this game could be what happens if Venables shuts down the Alabama offense like he shut down the Buckeyes’ attack.
Technically Alabama has more weapons than Ohio State boasted this year, and an OL that is very good and difficult to account for up front, so they probably won’t be “shut down.” But with as good as this Clemson offense is, Alabama may need to score 25-35 points to guarantee victory and that could be a tall order against Venables’ crew.
Almost every Clemson gameplan under Venables is oriented around attacking the opponent with pressure while trying to keep things under wraps and contained in the middle of the field. Alabama likes to pound the middle and venture to the edges if and when you finally overload the middle enough to deny them access. Last year Clemson wasn’t quite good enough up front to win that showdown but this year they have some young DL that might allow them to handle that task.
I’ll have to dive into that matchup this week after studying how exactly the Tigers shut down Ohio State’s run game. Be on the lookout for that here in the coming days.