This will be Nick Saban’s sixth trip to College Football’s National Championship game as a head coach. He’s won the previous five times, including last years, and will look to win his second set of back-to-back championships (the last time in 2011 and 2012.
By: Eric Galko
Clemson returns to face off Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. While both teams have some new faces, the main players remain. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson will once again need to prove he’s one of the country’s best passers against a tremendous Alabama pass-rush. His top receiver Mike Williams will need to show up in a big way against Marlon Humphrey, the next in a long-line of Alabama first-round cornerbacks. And the Alabama rushing attack, led by Bo Scarborough, will look to duplicate their semi-final performance against a stout Clemson defensive front seven.
Here are the three match-ups that are not only most intriguing to NFL teams, but they may end up being the three match-ups that decide the National Championship.
Matchup 1 – Clemson’s Deshaun Watson vs. Alabama’s Jonathan Allen
Deshaun Watson has suffered, like many multi-year starters, from over-evaluation. He’s been so heavily discussed and scrutinized that many have become to under-appreciate just how talented of a pocket passer he’s become. While he hasn’t emerged as the top-10 worthy passer some had expected, including myself, Watson has displayed pro-style reads, perimeter velocity and touch, and confidence as a mobile passer.
One area that Watson has been inconsistent is in his pocket maneuvering and decisive movement. Watson is a plus-runner and can threaten in the open-field, but at times still bails too early from the pocket. His skittishness doesn’t plague his pocket ability, but is still an area both he needs to improve and one that Alabama will once again focus on in this match-up.
Alabama’s defensive front seven can pressure in many way, including with Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson (both future top-100 draft picks) on the edge. But Jonathan Allen’s bull rush ability (along with others on this defensive line, may give Watson the most trouble in the pocket.
In the play below, Watson was able to elude the pocket pressure and turn this into a first down run, but the discomfort is obvious. He can navigate up and around edge rushers, but when a defensive lineman is able to pull rush into the backfield and shrink the pocket through or on the inside shoulder of the tackle, Watson is at his most flustered.
Watson’s able to avoid the sack here, but his immediate eye movement to the rush and skittishness when the pocket starts to truly collapse certainly were noticed by Alabama a year ago. Look for Jonathan Allen’s presence on passing downs to be even more impactful, and for the Crimson Tide to send more stunts and blitz inside the tackle box to take advantage of one of the few weaknesses Watson possesses as a pocket passer.
Matchup 2 – Clemson WR Mike Williams vs. Alabama CB Marlon Humphrey
Watson’s ability in the pocket is one thing, but no matter how long he can avoid the Alabama pass-rush, he’ll need to trust his receivers to separate and make plays. His feature receiver, Mike Williams, will be an 2017 NFL Draft first-round pick in large part thanks to his tremendous in-air skills, physicality at the catch-point, and finishing ability in traffic and the redzone.
Against Alabama, he’ll likely be targeted more than a few times in the redzone. But more importantly is his play before the Tigers get into scoring position. He’ll likely see a lot of Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey opposite him, the next great Alabama cornerback. Humphrey is physical and long, and will see his match-up include both man in the short area and Cover-3 coverage downfield.
Williams doesn’t have great stop-start ability, but he’ll need to separate come-back and short-area routes to bail out his quarterback in this match-up. What he lacks in acceleration and change of direction he makes up for in decisive routes and high football IQ in helping his quarterback. With constant pressure expected for Watson, he’ll need Mike Williams to bail him out in the short-area, as in the play below.
Humphrey is arguably the country’s best cornerback, and this won’t be an easy task for Mike Williams to not only generate separation but generate more than a few catches when matched up with Marlon Humphrey. If Williams is unable to get free on shorter routes against Humphrey, Watson could be in for a sack-heavy day against the Tide.
Matchup 3 – Clemson’s Ben Boulware/Carlos Watkins vs. Bo Scarborough/Bama’s OL
Last week, Alabama’s Ben Scarborough broke off 180 rushing yards in a landmark victory for the Tide rushing attack. It was clearly Scarborough’s best rushing performance and arguably Alabama’s offensive line’s best run blocking performance of the year.
Clemson isn’t in the same league as Alabama’s run defense (the Tide have allowed just 2.0 yards per rush), but they did finish in the top-20 in the country in rushing yards per game allowed thanks to depth on their defensive line and 110-tackle linebacker Ben Boulware.
Despite being undersized, Boulware has been phenomenal this year at absorbing and working under/around bigger blockers on the interior and finishing in the run game. He’s maximized the defensive tackles in front of him, most notably future top-100 draft pick Carlos Watkins, to take on interior blockers and delay second-level blocks as long as possible.
But last season, Boulware finished with just three total tackles. And while Alabama center Ryan Kelly graduated from the team as the clear best offensive lineman the Tide had to offer, their recent resurgence as one of the country’s best rushing units was clear against Washington.
More importantly for Alabama, Bo Scarborough has proven he can be effective even with subpar blocking. In the play below (against Washington), Scarborough turned two missed blocks on outside run into two missed tackles and a 66-yard run. Carlos Watkins and the Clemson defensive line can do their job against this good, not great, Alabama offensive line, but it’ll be up to Boulware and the Clemson linebackers to finish the job against the 6’2, 230 pound running back.
In Saban’s sixth trip to the National Championship, you can be sure the Crimson Tide will be prepared for the Clemson Tigers once against. Their defense has rattled quarterbacks all year long, their defensive backs have stifled top receivers in recent weeks (such as Washington’s John Ross), and their rushing game is hitting it’s stride right on time.
Clemson entered the 2016 match-up as nearly a touchdown underdog, and will do so again this year. Deshaun Watson will need to rise to the occasion once more against a Jonathan Allen-led defense that may be Nick Saban’s best. They’re the understandable underdogs who will need to be creative and at their best to hang close with a historically great Alabama team.