After the College Football Playoff matchups were announced last weekend, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was asked what it was like playing the same team three years in a row. He laughed. It’s no big deal, he offered. After all, there are seven opponents he plays each year, too. Alabama has just become a de facto rival for the Tigers.
Of course, that familiarity is only part of the story. While Alabama and Clemson have gotten to know each other intimately over the past two postseasons, Part III comes with plenty of new storylines, too.
From the Celebration Bowl to the College Football Playoff National Championship, Adam Rittenberg picks his winners for bowl season.
On the road to the College Football Playoff, one play can often determine a team’s fate. A timely kick return here or a defensive stop there can be the difference between being in the top four and being on the outside looking in.
Yes, this is still a matchup of exceptional defenses, elite head coaches and dual-threat QBs. Some things don’t change much. But a lot has changed since Hunter Renfrow’s touchdown grab with 1 second left on the clock last January, and the differences for Bama-Clemson Part III might be even more interesting than the familiarity of the matchup.
1. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts is playing smarter.
When Clemson’s defense utterly stifled Hurts in the second half of last year’s game, it was clear the Tigers had zeroed in on Hurts’ weakness as a passer. And it’s not that Hurts dramatically improved in that area this year. His completion percentage on throws beyond the line of scrimmage is essentially exactly the same now as it was a year ago. The difference is Hurts is playing smarter. Last year, on those throws, he tossed eight interceptions and had a passer rating of 148. This year, he’s thrown just one pick, and his passer rating is up to 171.
2. Clemson has a run game.
In the previous two meetings, Clemson tailback Wayne Gallman averaged just 2.8 yards per rush, and of the Tigers’ eight runs longer than 10 yards, five came from QB Deshaun Watson. This year, the Tigers’ ground game should be a bit more dynamic, with Tavien Feaster, Travis Etienne and Kelly Bryant leading the charge. Clemson has made big gains entering bowl season in yards per rush (5.44 this season; 4.77 last), yards after contact (2.47 per carry this season; 1.91 last) and rushing touchdowns (40 this season; 25 last).
3. Alabama is the team with something to prove.
OK, the Crimson Tide are still the favorite to win, and Clemson has its share of players with a sizable chip on their shoulder, too, but the fact that Alabama is coming off a loss, failed to win the SEC title and had to lobby for the fourth spot in the playoff certainly changes the power dynamic a bit. No one is going to second-guess the Tide’s talent, but Alabama hasn’t beaten a top-15 team this season, and while the committee showed faith in them anyway, the Tide still have to show that wasn’t a mistake.
4. No Watson, more swagger for Clemson.
There’s no replacing Watson’s talent, but Bryant hasn’t even tried. Clemson has found success this season largely because Bryant has been himself rather than working to emulate Watson, and it’s shown up in the personality of the team — particularly on offense. Watson was the stoic professional. He was all business, all the time. Bryant has a lot more swagger to him, confidence and personality that fit well with a team that has had to fight for respect all season. Does that mean Bryant can lead a final-minute drive to win the game as Watson did? That’s to be determined. But what’s certain is Bryant believes he can.
5. No more O.J. Howard for Alabama.
The talk leading up to this game is likely to be more about Clemson’s departed stars, but the Tide will be missing a key player, too. Howard was the centerpiece of Alabama’s passing game in each of the previous two matchups, accounting for 314 of the Tide’s 490 receiving yards — a whopping 64 percent. So, who fills that void for Alabama?
6. You can’t beat Clemson with short throws.
Speaking of Howard, he killed Clemson with nearly 200 yards after the catch the past two years. It was a symptom of larger issues with Clemson’s defensive scheme and personnel. This year, however, the Tigers haven’t looked nearly so susceptible. Clemson’s secondary is allowing 1 yard less after the catch per reception entering bowl season, and on short throws (fewer than 5 air yards), the Tigers’ defense has cut its yards after catch almost in half.
7. The Tigers are one-dimensional in the red zone.
If there’s one area where the difference between Watson and Bryant is clear, it’s in the red zone. Watson had 37 touchdown passes in the red zone in 2015 and 2016. This year, Bryant has five — and two came against FCS opponent The Citadel. Last year, Clemson threw 44 percent of the time in the red zone. This year, just 29 percent.
8. The stakes have shifted.
We’re stating the obvious here, but playing in a semifinal is a little different from playing in the national championship game. Can you imagine if, after that final drive to win the game last year, Clemson still had another to play? What would’ve been left in the tank? The first two installments of Bama-Clemson have been heavyweight fights, and that’s certainly a reasonable expectation for Part III, as well. But this time, there will be a next game for the winner, and that makes for an interesting contextual difference this time around.