I can honestly say I saw that coming. I reviewed what we’d learned from last year’s matchup between these two teams and I did a big stat/unit breakdown on Football Outsiders where I boiled things down to:
There are three elite units in this game, two of them are Clemson’s (their O and D). Alabama’s offense was not elite and it prevented them from putting the Tigers away or being immune to the inevitability of Watson hitting some passes and getting points on the board. Some notes to that effect:
-Clemson had the ball for 34:44 to Alabama’s 25:16. You can’t beat a spread team if you don’t control the clock.
-Alabama threw for 4.8 yards per attempt. As I noted before the game, Alabama was really hamstrung by the fact that their passing game wasn’t good enough to make the most of their WRs. Jalen Hurts might get there in a few years, God help us all if he does, but for now he wasn’t ready to do what Watson did in this game.
At least they managed to shock Clemson again by throwing to TE O.J. Howard, who’s a walking example of why top TEs should question whether Alabama is their best potential destination.
-Clemson’s receiving corps was as big a component of this victory as Deshaun Watson himself. When you force brackets on the inside to handle Jordan Leggett and Hunter Renfrow but then you still have a 6-3, 220 pound target that can dominate cornerbacks on the outside there really isn’t anything else you can do schematically as a defense.
The New England Patriots have followed a similar path to championships in the past, most notably their victory over that amazing Seattle Seahawks D a few years back. Brady’s OL was able to protect him enough that their quick, precision passing game could beat the Seahawks’ good coverage with Julian Edelman (Hunter Renfrow) and Gronk (Jordan Leggett).
For Clemson it was “Watson’s legs+three elite targets=guarantee of points against any defense.” If you’re willing to be patient and build an aggressive passing game, you can beat Alabama when the pieces come together. If you try to beat them at their own game pounding the ball on the ground and playing D…you probably can’t.