The perception nationally is that in order to have a chance to beat Alabama you have to stop Derrick Henry and make quarterback Jake Coker beat you.
The problem for Clemson is the teams that have tried that approach haven’t been any more successful than the ones which watched helplessly as Henry churned out huge yardage totals on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy.
Henry has been held to less than 100 rushing yards five times this season, including against Michigan State in the College Football Playoff Semifinal.
Alabama has won those five games by an average of 32 points, including the 38-0 win over the Spartans in the Cotton Bowl.
Michigan State held Henry to 75 yards on 20 carries, an average of 3.8 per attempt, his second-lowest of the season. But Coker had perhaps his best performance, connecting on 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
“Michigan State probably thought that if they slowed down Derrick Henry that would be the answer,” Clemson linebacker Travis Blanks said. “And, if I can recall, they torched them in the passing game. They’re not one-dimensional as people think they are.”
In addition to his stellar outing against the Spartans, Coker went 18-for-26 for 204 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the SEC Championship game against Florida, which boasts one of the best secondaries in the country.
“He’s done it this year in a number of close games,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “When he’s had to make plays, he’s done that a number of times.”
Coker threw eight interceptions in the first seven games. But over the past six games he has thrown one pick. He has not thrown an interception since Nov. 14 at Mississippi State.
“He showed that he can throw the ball against Michigan State,” Tigers linebacker Ben Boulware said. “If they can’t run the ball, they’re going to throw it. They’re obviously not one-dimensional. They proved that last week.”
When Coker throws, he has plenty of options, most notably freshman wide receiver Calvin Ridley.
The Freshman All-American has 1,031 receiving yards, topping Amari Cooper’s Alabama freshman record. He hauled in eight passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns aganst MSU.
“He’s got to be a 10.4, 10.5 100-meter guy,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “They put him in the slot, and he's getting free releases. He's a problem for safeties. He's a real problem.”
Sophomore ArDarius Stewart is second on Alabama’s team in catches with 61 and receiving yards with 637.
Stewart has four catches or more in five straight games and has averaged six receptions in Alabama’s last three contests. Junior tight end O.J. Howard has 33 receptions for 394 yards.
“It’s almost not fair to be honest with you. They can get anybody they want,” Venables said. “Alabama showed they’ve got a number of ways to beat you.”
Who: Clemson (14-0) vs. Alabama (13-1)
When: Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Where: Glendale, Ariz.
Line: Alabama by 6 1/2