SHARE
Clemson players and head coach Dabo Swinney take part in a press conference at AT&T Stadium on December 24, 2018, one of the events leading up to the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. The Clemson Tigers and Notre Dame Fighting Irish will face off on December 29, 2018. Photo by Ian Halperin/CBAA

Coach Swinney classified college football teams into two categories earlier in the year: the “Bama Bus” and the “Rest of Yall Bus”.

Ten years ago, it would have made sense. 3783 days ago, Alabama upset Clemson 34-10 in the inaugural Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game.

By the end of that season, Coach Bowden was fired and Coach Swinney was named the permanent head coach. Alabama went 12-0 (losing the SEC Championship) that year, and then they won their first title under Coach Saban the next year.

Back to Swinney’s quote: although he didn’t say it (probably for motivational purposes), almost everyone else realized that the actual situation consisted of “Bama Bus”, “Clemson Bus”, and then the “ROY Bus”.

Clemson and Alabama play each other in the college football playoff for the fourth year in a row, and for the national championship for the third time in the last four years. The Tide and the Tigers are the two most successful programs of the decade without question, and this matchup seemed inevitable to most for months now.

Both teams are extremely familiar with each other, so how are the teams different and similar compared to previous years? Furthermore, what are the matchups that each team can exploit in order to win the game?

This game is a role reversal from previous matchups. Clemson usually possesses a slight edge on offense, while Alabama possesses a slight edge on defense. The opposite holds true for this year – Clemson relied on their stingy defense until their offense clicked, while the Tide relied on their explosive offense to conceal a defense that is good, but not up to typical Saban standards.

The major statistical differences between two excellent teams are few and far between, so finding them and concluding what they reveal about the game is an important task.

Clemson has the statistical advantage in the rushing game – they average 6.68 yards per rush while only allowing 2.40 yards per rush on defense. Alabama averages 5.30 yards per rush while conceding 3.47 yards per rush on defense. The Tide have an advantage on third down – they convert 54% of their third down attempts (allow 31.9%) while Clemson converts 44.4% of their third downs (allows 28.3%).

While both teams struggle on special teams, one interesting note is that Alabama has missed eight extra points this year (82/90) while Clemson has only missed one extra point this year. What is usually an afterthought could be a major factor in the game – Alabama could elect to go for two more often (neither Clemson or Alabama has gone for two this year according to cfbstats.com), or the missed extra point could be the difference in the game.

Since both teams used backup quarterbacks more than normal this year, analyzing passing statistics requires looking at Tua and Trevor individually. In contrast to the image of previous Saban teams, this is the most pass-happy and ‘modern offense’ team he has coached (even more so than 2014).

Alabama’s passing attack is more efficient and explosive than Clemson’s passing attack, and Alabama passes more than Clemson does statistically. Tua throws for more yards per attempt (11.4 v. 8.0), touchdowns (41 vs. 27), and yards (3671 vs 2933) on less attempts (321 to 365) than Trevor Lawrence.

Both quarterbacks are among the best in the nation, but Trevor is the better quarterback overall. The statistics are a result of differing offensive schemes and approaches, as well as Alabama’s reliance on the passing game.

Both teams have incredible receiving corps that will stress each other’s capable but (relatively) vulnerable secondaries. Alabama has¬†four excellent underclassmen¬†receivers – Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs, and DeVonta Smith. Clemson has a corp of nine receivers led by the legendary and ageless Hunter Renfrow. Alabama has quality defensive backs in Deionte Thompson, Shyheim Carter, and Saivion Smith that will face one of their toughest tests of the season (along with the Ole Miss game). The passing games will be directed by excellent quarterback-coordinator duos that will seek to out-wit each other in a game of chess.

Clemson’s offensive line is among the best its had this decade, while Alabama’s offensive line is not as good as previous years (albeit still formidable). Clemson’s running game is spearheaded by Etienne and supported by Feaster and Choice. If the Tiger’s offensive line can at least hold the Tide defensive line to a stalemate, the running backs can expose the thinner linebacking corps and establish a ground game to keep Tua and company off the field.

As for Alabama’s running backs, Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs are both quality running backs in a fairly even timeshare – but make no mistake, the passing game drives Alabama’s offense.

Tua Tagavolia was invited to the Heisman ceremony is an excellent quarterback – and he has five main targets to throw the ball to (35 receptions or more). Isaiah Simmons will probably match up against excellent tight end Irv Smith, and then the Tigers will have to cover the

That brings in Clemson’s defensive line. Clemson has the deepest defensive line in the nation, and their ability to rotate defensive linemen at will is a vital advantage. Defeating Ferrell, Wikins, Bryant, and Huggins is a difficult task of its own – but throwing in legions of backups that perform with little drop off makes the task almost impossible. If Clemson can give Alabama’s offensive line trouble, they should be able to compete on defense. In contrast, any mistake in the secondary like the ones found in the South Carolina game will probably result in touchdowns – the room for error is near zero.

One last note – Quinnen Williams is the next in a great line of Bama defensive linemen. He was little known heading into this year, but has exploded onto the draft scene and is widely regarded as a top five pick. He singlehandedly has the capability to disrupt an entire offense (like Oliver or Bosa).

Conclusion

While some suffer from Alabama-Clemson fatigue, this is the best college football game of the year and a series that will be remembered for generations to come. Oddshark’s current spread is that Alabama is favored by 5.5 points, Clemson will cover that spread, the over/under is 58, and that the game will reach the over. The projected score is Alabama 41.6 – Clemson 41.0.

Clemson has the best chance on paper and matchup wise this time compared to any of the other three games. This is the third meeting where both teams are roughly equal, and possibly the most important of the series with a 15-0 record at stake. The combination of Clemson’s running game and Trevor Lawrence’s unique ability will push Clemson over the top.

Prediction

Clemson 51 – Alabama 45