The big day is here. A full calendar year has passed and we’re right back to where we were last January, with Clemson and Alabama playing for the national title. There are a few differences between last year’s rematch and this one, but you likely know the headlines for each team heading into the game. However, there are a couple of key stats that you should focus on that will likely decide the outcome of tonight’s contest.
This is a key in every football game to be clear. But, particularly for any opponent of the Tide this season. Alabama has 11 defensive touchdowns (1st in FBS) and they sport a plus-8 turnover margin on the year. Clemson’s defense has been good at forcing turnovers, actually forcing the same number of turnovers as the Tide on the season at 27. The problem has been a turnover-prone offense and more narrowly, a turnover-prone quarterback in Deshaun Watson. Watson has thrown 17 interceptions this season and he had two interceptions in the semifinal against Ohio State.
Last year, Watson played a fairly clean game against Alabama, but he did have one interception that led to an Alabama touchdown on the subsequent drive. He’ll need to be nearly perfect tonight in order to beat the Tide. That said, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts has had issues with fumbling all season, putting the ball on the ground 11 times. Only five of those fumbles have been lost, so, in the end his 14 total turnovers (5 fumbles 9 interceptions) looks low. The Tide will protect their freshman quarterback as much as possible by giving him easy reads and largely running the football, but, Clemson certainly has the talent to take advantage of Hurts’ ball security issues.
Per the Jon Solomon piece from CBS Sports.com, these two defenses are two of the best in the country at forcing opponents into three-and-out possessions. As Solomon noted in the piece, Alabama checks in at number one in the country forcing three and outs on 48 percent of opponents’ possessions. On the other side, Clemson is third nationally forcing a three and out on 43 percent of possessions.
In the semifinals, both defenses held close to their averages with Alabama forcing six three and outs on 14 Washington possessions (43%) and Clemson forcing four three-and-outs on 13 possessions (not including end of half/end of game plays) good for 31 percent. That doesn’t include two possessions on which Clemson forced a turnover after just two plays, which would make it six out of 13 Ohio State possessions that ended on three plays or fewer (46%). Which defense will be able to force its opponent off the field?
Yards Per Play
This is a stat that isn’t necessarily commonly referred to and you won’t find it in the box score. You will find it over at Football Study Hall, where the guys explore more of the advanced stats that affect college football games. If you click that link, you’ll see that these two defenses are two of the best in the nation at limiting their opponents’ yards per play while the offenses have also been pretty good (both Top 28) at picking up chunks of yards per play.
Basically, this metric gives you an idea of how well the offenses are staying ahead of the chains and how well the defenses are keeping the offenses “behind schedule.” It’s simple, but sometimes football isn’t about the over-the-top narratives.
Which Offensive Line Can Keep Their QB Clean?
Alabama doesn’t have the same dominant offensive line as in years past, but they’ve still been pretty damn good. The Tide have given up just 24 sacks all season, including three in the semifinal against the Huskies. Part of that is due to Hurts’ strength and mobility in the pocket, as he is extremely difficult to bring down. The same is true of Clemson and Watson. The Tigers have given up just 16 sacks on the year and allowed just two against a good Ohio State front.
However, the defenses for both teams have been pretty prolific at pressuring the quarterback this season. Alabama has racked up 50 sacks this year and Clemson is just one behind with 49. You’ve likely heard all about how terrifying the Tide front seven is, but the Clemson front hasn’t gotten as much publicity. It’s all the more impressive considering that the Tigers lost Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson from last year’s defense and they’re a year removed from losing Vic Beasley to the pros. The offensive line that keeps their QB’s jersey the cleanest will play a large part in winning this one.
Overall, this game, like any other is going to come down to the major key factors. Limiting turnovers and negative plays (sacks), and keeping the opponents’ offense off the field. This may seem obvious, but again, football isn’t always that complicated.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.