by Chad Peltier
It wouldn't be a college football playoff without Clemson vs. Alabama!
For the fourth straight year, Clemson and Alabama will meet in the Playoff, this time in the National Championship Game following definitive wins over Notre Dame and Oklahoma in the semifinals. It's the third time that the schools will meet in the championship game, with the Crimson Tide and Tigers splitting their previous two title games.
Even though there's very little parity in college football even among Power 5 schools, Alabama and Clemson have shown a remarkable level of dominance. The Tide and Tigers have sat at the top of the rankings for the entire year: Alabama (F/+: 52.7 percent) and Clemson (52.5 percent) were at the top of the preseason F/+ projections (followed by Ohio State and Georgia), and both enter the title game undefeated. The Crimson Tide had S&P+ postgame win probabilities of 100 percent in every game except the SEC title game against Georgia (73 percent). Clemson was a little shakier early before freshman Trevor Lawrence established himself as one of the country's best quarterbacks, but still didn't have an S&P+ postgame win probability lower than 92 percent after Week 3. In that time period, Clemson's average S&P+ adjusted scoring margin was +34.5 points. These are the only two teams to rank in the top ten in both offensive and defensive S&P+.
Alabama-Clemson has become almost an inevitability. Clemson is far and away more dominant than its conference opponents during the regular season (especially with a down Florida State), making it nearly an annual lock to make the playoff. Alabama has a near-peer in Georgia, but has two wins over Kirby Smart's Bulldogs despite trailing for roughly 98 percent of regulation in both games. Besides Georgia emerging as a challenger, Ohio State recruits at nearly an Alabama and Georgia level, but had head-scratching blowout losses to unranked teams in each of the last two seasons (and now is undergoing a transition to a first-time head coach).
The point is that the Tigers and Tide have met in the Playoff for four straight seasons, and despite the increased access afforded by a four-team playoff, the actual number of teams who can legitimately threaten for a national title hovers around 2.5 per year. Maybe Georgia, Ohio State, or Oklahoma could sneak in to a title game every other year, but it increasingly feels like there's less parity in college football than ever, even among the very best eight or so teams in the country.
Setting aside the crushing inevitability of Clemson vs. Alabama, fans of other teams will have to find meaning from college football in other ways -- ways that likely don't involve winning a national title in the immediate future. One surefire way is just to sit back and appreciate that this year's editions of the Tigers and Crimson Tide are not only awesome, but also awesome to watch. Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence are not only two of the best college quarterbacks to come along in years, but they also have maybe the most insane receivers to throw to (as highlight-reel catches from Clemson's Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins and Alabama's Henry Ruggs III demonstrate). They also have two of the most disruptive defensive lines in the country, headlined by the Tide's Quinnen Williams and Clemson's entire front, including Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant.
But yeah, the playoff semifinals were a little underwhelming. The Sooners actually covered the spread, losing just 45-34, but a 21-0 first quarter for Alabama nearly took the game to garbage time before Oklahoma had time to react. And Clemson beat Notre Dame 30-3 in a game that was reminiscent of the Tigers' 31-0 shutout win over Ohio State two years ago.
Alabama scored touchdowns on their first four possessions in only 17 minutes of game time. During those 17 minutes, Oklahoma punted twice and turned the ball over on downs, running a total of 13 plays for 24 yards. The Sooners were down 21-0 before Kyler Murray even completed his first pass. Lincoln Riley, Murray, and the rest of the Sooners offense are collectively too good to stay shut out for an entire game, but the 28-point deficit ended up being too much to overcome -- Alabama could essentially ride out the rest of the game.
That 28-0 start was the first of essentially three parts to the Orange Bowl. The second saw the Sooners wake up a little, scoring 13 points in four possessions, while Alabama was held to a field goal. Alabama's two punts in their three drives were the only two times that Oklahoma managed to stop the Crimson Tide offense -- they scored points on seven of nine drives, with all but one scoring drive ending in a touchdown.
The third part of the Orange Bowl saw the Sooners and Tide trade touchdowns on five straight possessions. Oklahoma cut Alabama's lead to just 11 points, 31-20, but every time the Sooners scored, the Tide would answer. Murray rebounded from a slow start with 308 passing yards (8.3 yards per attempt and a 47 percent success rate) and 109 non-sack adjusted rushing yards on 17 carries.
But even those numbers weren't enough to overcome Alabama's early lead. And that lead, and Alabama's dominance, was largely due to Tagovailoa's insanely efficient game. After being held to a 40 percent completion rate and two interceptions against Georgia, he rebounded (after a surgery in the meantime!) with four touchdown passes to just three incompletions (averaging 11.8 yards per attempt, too). Obviously touchdown passes are not a great way to measure a quarterback's performance, but the fact that he had more touchdowns than missed passes is indicative of how precise he was against an admittedly poor Sooners pass defense (that ranked 91st in passing S&P+).
Speaking of excellent quarterback play, Lawrence averaged 8.4 yards per attempt on 27-of-39 passing for 327 yards. Lawrence's night included multiple beautiful deep balls to Ross, who finished with six catches for 148 yards.
Clemson needed a little longer to get going than Alabama, but still led 23-3 at the half. The Tigers were up 9-3 when they got the ball back with just under five minutes left in the half. To that point, the Irish had slowed Clemson's offense enough that it looked like an upset was possible, if still improbable. Aside from a 52-yard touchdown pass to Ross, the Tigers had been held in check. But Ross exploded for another long touchdown, this time a 42-yarder. A quick punt from the Irish (on a drive that lasted under a minute) gave Clemson the ball back with 39 seconds -- more than enough time to complete two explosive passes for another touchdown. Notre Dame star cornerback Julian Love was injured and left for part of the game during the first half. During that time, his replacement was targeted on Ross's 52-yard touchdown and then again on Tee Higgins' touchdown at the end of the half.
Clemson's second half was designed just to run out the clock, keep guys healthy, and look forward to the winner of Alabama-Oklahoma in the championship game. Travis Etienne added a 62-yard run up the middle for another touchdown in the third quarter, but otherwise the Tigers had already started mentally preparing for the next one.
Notre Dame's offensive success rate was approximately 37 percent. That's obviously low, but negative plays and a lack of explosive plays (in comparison to Clemson) were also damaging to the Irish's chances. Clemson's defensive line was predictably dominant, and the Tigers had six sacks and eight total tackles for loss along with five hurries. They also recovered a fumble and snagged an interception. Meanwhile, Notre Dame only had one play of 20-plus yards -- a 23-yard catch by Miles Boykin -- and two total explosive plays, period. Clemson had three players with at least one explosive run (all over 23 yards), and seven explosive passes, three of which went for touchdowns.
Now the Tigers and Tide will each try to be the first team since the 1800s to go 15-0. It was almost assured that they would meet -- so let's just hope the game itself is as thrilling as the season's ending was inevitable.
- One thing I'm noticing this season, and especially in the playoff semifinals (and, strangely in Michigan vs. Florida in the Peach Bowl), is how impactful tall receivers are against man coverage. We've seen multiple instances of elite receiver-quarterback pairs take advantage of single coverage on the outside for explosive gains. That was the case in Trevor Lawrence's touchdown passes to Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. We're also seeing lots of elite teams run defenses using man coverage on the outside and only a single high safety, which allows the defense to put an extra guy in the box to stop the run. Obviously, five-star quarterbacks throwing to five-star receivers are going to beat most defenses, but sometimes an offense just needs to take enough downfield shots to have a few connect for big gains.
- Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama. Tua lost the Heisman because of one bad week against Georgia, while playing with two hurt ankles. It's incredible that he came back still not fully healthy against Oklahoma and completed all but three passes while averaging nearly 12 yards per attempt. Yes, Oklahoma's defense is poor, but that's still an excellent performance. Kyler Murray also deserves a shout-out for playing against a much, much better defense, throwing for 300, and running for 100 too, all without Marquise Brown.
- Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson. Ross was Clemson's fourth-most targeted receiver heading in to the semifinal, but second on the team in receiving yards. He leads the team in yards per catch, averaging 20.6 -- all while just a true freshman. His six catches for 148 yards were more than enough to beat Notre Dame all by himself.
- Austin Bryant, DE, Clemson. Bryant happened to be the Tigers defensive lineman to step up this week from their rotation of offensive line-mauling defenders. Bryant had two sacks and three tackles for loss as part of his team-leading six tackles.