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College Football Playoff Preview: This Is Not Last Year’s Clemson-Alabama Matchup

Over the last two seasons, the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide have faced each other twice for the College Football Playoff championship. To say the rivalry has been as close as it gets would be an understatement: The teams split the national championships at one apiece and were nearly even on total points as well. (Alabama has a slim 76-75 lead in aggregate scoring.)



Like any good trilogy, we’ll get a high-stakes finale when the Tide and Tigers face off in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day. For us fans, we can only hope it’s more Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and less Godfather Part III. So what differences should we be on the lookout for this time around?

Clemson changed its game plan — and got better

As my colleague Dan Levitt and I wrote about early in the season, Clemson had to revamp the way it played this season after losing quarterback Deshaun Watson to the NFL. Watson’s replacement, Kelly Bryant, wasn’t as polished a passer as his predecessor — he averaged about 95 fewer yards per game through the air than Watson did in his final college season1 — but he was more proficient with his legs, racking up more rushing yards than Watson and scoring nearly twice as many touchdowns on the ground.

Bryant wasn’t a Watson clone — but he was almost as good

Key statistics for Clemson starting quarterbacks in 2016 and 2017

EPA/Game
Year Player Plays/Gm QBR Passing Rushing Sacks Penalty Total
2016 Deshaun Watson 51.0 82.3 +6.3 +0.5 -0.5 +0.6 +6.9
2017 Kelly Bryant 43.5 80.7 +4.5 +1.4 -0.9 +0.3 +5.3

EPA = Expected points added, a measure of offensive productivity that accounts for the value of yards gained, field position and down/distance.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

In terms of total contributions, Bryant wasn’t quite able to match Watson’s output of a year ago. But in combination with the Tigers’ other skill-position talent (specifically running backs Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster), he led a Clemson offense that compiled over 30 more rushing yards per game in 2017 than it had the year before. In turn, that improved run game helped the Tigers’ offense absorb Watson’s departure with a loss of fewer than 3 expected points added (EPA) per game.

How Clemson shifted its strengths

Expected points added per game by category for Clemson, 2016 and 2017

Offense Defense
Year Record Pass Rush Total Pass Rush Total Special Tms
2016 12-1 +10.8 +2.4 +13.7 +7.3 +1.4 +7.5 +0.4
2017 12-1 +4.8 +5.4 +10.9 +7.6 +4.8 +12.4 -0.9

All numbers are before bowl games. Total EPA on offense and defense may not equal sum of rushing plus passing because of penalties.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

More importantly, Clemson’s defense made major strides in 2017, led up front by a unit composed exclusively of first- or second-team All-ACC linemen. Tiger defenders recorded 3.4 sacks per game (third-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision), held opponents to 3.1 yards per rush (ninth-lowest in FBS), yielded the sixth-fewest total yards per game in the country and improved their overall performance by 4.9 points per game according to EPA.

Clemson wasn’t an awful defensive team the last time it faced Alabama, but this regular season the Tigers might have had the best defense in the nation. That defensive development helped Clemson post a superior point differential (adjusted for schedule strength) than the Watson-led national championship squad did a year ago. In other words: This is probably the best of the three Clemson teams that have appeared in the College Football Playoff.

Alabama isn’t the best ever anymore, but they are better on offense

Up until they faced Clemson in the championship game, the 2016 Crimson Tide were riding high. In fact, according to our Elo ratings, they’d put together the greatest peak performance of any college football team since the AP poll began2 when they defeated Florida in last year’s SEC championship (and then increased their Elo record when they beat Washington in the playoff semifinal). But we all know how that ended for them — with Nick Saban shaking his head in disbelief as Watson produced a comeback for the ages and delivered the Tigers their first national title in 35 years.

Alabama regrouped in the way Alabama usually regroups, which is to say they shot right back up to No. 1 for most of 2017 as well. But, statistically, they were not quite as dominant as a season ago: Going into the playoff, Elo considers the 2017 Tide to be 29.9 points per game better than an average FBS team, which is not only a far cry from their mark this time last year (40.2) but also ranks just fourth in the country this year, behind Clemson (32.6), Georgia (31.3) and Oklahoma (30.0). According to Sports Reference’s power ratings, this is Alabama’s worst season since 2010, a year they were relegated to the unacceptably non-prestigious Capital One Bowl. Although most programs would kill for a “down season” like the one Alabama is having, it’s still worth noting that this rendition of the Crimson Tide has been less dominant than usual.

But like their counterparts at Clemson, the Tide have also tweaked their playing style in a way that makes their continued greatness especially impressive.

How ’Bama changed its focus from defense to offense

Expected points added per game by category for Alabama, 2016 and 2017

Offense Defense
Year Record Pass Rush Total Pass Rush Total Special Tms
2016 13-0 +4.4 +6.4 +10.1 +11.8 +6.6 +18.3 +0.7
2017 11-1 +5.4 +10.1 +15.7 +7.7 +4.7 +11.2 +0.6

All numbers are before bowl games. Total EPA on offense and defense may not equal sum of rushing plus passing because of penalties.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

That dominant 2016 Alabama squad was built around a fearsome defense that ranked among the best in college football history, allowing a paltry 248 total yards per game during the regular season and holding opposing passers to a Total Quarterback Rating of 11.4 — both marks ranked No. 1 in the FBS. This season, those numbers are up to 258 and 20.9, respectively, which still count among the best in the country, but also helped contribute to a defense that was more than a touchdown worse per game by EPA than it had been in 2016.

Fortunately for Alabama, its offense nearly improved enough to offset that defensive decline. According to EPA, QB Jalen Hurts and the Tide passing game was worth a full point per game more this year than last, with Hurts rising from 41st nationally in QBR to sixth, and receiver Calvin Ridley cracking the top 40 in receiving yards per game. Moreover, the Crimson Tide rushing attack churned ahead for more than 20 extra yards per game this season, with a greater depth of contributions (eight separate Alabama rushers gained at least 100 yards) that amounted to nearly 4 extra points per game by EPA. Overall, the Alabama offense was second only to Oklahoma’s in efficiency, a year after it ranked only 24th in the country.

In other words, both Alabama and Clemson have altered their strengths since the last time we saw them face off in the College Football Playoff. Whether things will play out more like they did in 2016 (an Alabama win) or 2017 (a Clemson victory) is still up in the air — but with greater balance from both teams, the ingredients might be in place for Part 3 of the trilogy to somehow surpass the all-time classics we saw in Parts 1 and 2.

Footnotes

  1. All of the numbers referenced in this story use pre-bowl statistics.

  2. In 1936.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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