Despite the perception that Alabama struggles with dual-threat quarterbacks, none have had success on the ground against the Crimson Tide all year.
In order for No. 1 Clemson to beat No. 2 Alabama and win the national title, the Tigers will likely need to change that. Deshaun Watson has rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season and has topped the 100-yard mark five of the past six games.
Alabama leads the nation in stopping the run, allowing 71 yards per contest. On the way to the title game, the Crimson Tide faced Chad Kelly (Ole Miss), Kyler Murray (Texas A&M), Josh Dobbs (Tennessee), Dak Prescott (Mississippi State), Jeremy Johnson (Auburn) and Treon Harris (Florida), all quarterbacks who are running threats.
Kelly had the most success on the ground with eight carries for 21 yards. Murray, Harris and Johnson each finished with negative yards.
“Of course in the past, I guess, we’ve shown we have trouble with mobile quarterbacks, but I think we’ve gotten much better,” Alabama defensive back Cyrus Jones said. “We’re coming into this game with full confidence that we can go out there and put on a great defensive performance and just try to put our team in the best position to win.”
While quarterbacks have been unable get much going on the ground against the Crimson Tide, that won’t stop Clemson from trying.
Tigers co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said Clemson will continue to do what it’s done all year, which includes relying heavily on Watson and second-team All-ACC performer Wayne Gallman.
“I think in order to win a championship, you’ve got to run the football,” Elliott said. “To win the game, we’re going to have to control the line of scrimmage. We’re going to have to come up with ways to run the football. They’re very solid, very stout versus the run and very deep on the defensive line. We’re going to have to use everything in our arsenal to be able to run the football.”
Watson has been more involved in the rushing game as the season has progressed. He had never rushed 20 times in a game in his career before doing so in each of the past three games.
The Heisman Trophy finalist has taken some hard hits along the way as his workload has increased, but Elliott said he hasn’t had a talk with his star about trying to avoid taking big shots.
“He’s taken ownership on his own with that. I haven’t really had much conversation since the beginning of the season on that, because he’s proven he knows when to get down,” Elliott said. “He’s maturing, he’s growing. He knows how to protect himself. We haven’t had any conversations since early in the season.”
Even though Alabama has shut down just about everybody’s rushing attack this season, if the Crimson Tide has had a weakness in recent years, it has been stopping spread offenses.
Alabama only has five losses over the past three years, but all came against teams that run the spread. The lone Crimson Tide defeat this season came at the hands of Ole Miss.
The Rebels, aided by five turnovers, put up 43 points in the six-point victory.
Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick said the loss to Ole Miss was more of an outlier instead of a trend, and he believes the notion that Alabama can’t stop spread offenses is outdated.
“They’re kind of living in the past a little bit,” he said. “It’s a new defense, new secondary, new defensive line, new linebackers; we play differently than how we played in the past. I think you have to focus on what’s happening now.”
In addition to Ole Miss, Alabama faced spread offenses from Texas A&M, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Auburn and Florida. The five teams averaged 14 points.
Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said after giving up 42 points in a loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl to end last year, more time was spent this offseason searching for ways to slow down spread offenses.
“We’ve tried to make an effort to work against that a lot more this year,” he said. “I think we’ve done a better job. We’ve got more athletic safeties and more athletic guys up front.”
Still, Smart knows Clemson’s offense presents several challenges for his unit.
“They’ve got a great back, they’ve got great wideouts, and No. 3 (Artavis Scott) is really fast. They’ve got a quarterback that is tough to defend, and their scheme creates a lot of issues for us,” Smart said. “A lot of perimeter passing game, a lot of sweeps on the perimeter, so it makes it hard to defend.”
Clemson is confident it can model the success of past teams that have knocked off Alabama. Watson said he has watched film of the Crimson Tide facing several spread teams, including Johnny Manziel’s Texas A&M squad.
Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett believes Watson and the Tigers’ offense will be able to move the ball.
“The SEC is just known for running the ball. They’re just bigger dudes. They struggle with the spread just because of all the skill and talent that the offense may have,” he said. “Basically, our gameplan is just to play to our strengths and just try to stay away from their strengths, even though they have so many.”
If Watson can do what no other quarterback has this year and run the ball for success against Alabama’s defense, it will open up the passing game and put the Tigers in position to win their first national championship since 1981.
“It opens up more things for the defense to prepare for,” Watson said. “We’ve just got to go out there and execute and continue to do the little things, and everything else will take care of itself.”
How to watch the game
ESPN: TW cable Ch. 26 with Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Heather Cox and Tom Rinaldi
ESPN2: Film Room analysis with Brian Griese, Chris Spielman and Florida coach Jim McElwain
SEC Network: Film Room analysis with Paul Finebaum, Greg McElroy, Booger McFarland and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema
How to listen
ESPN Radio: SiriusXM Channel 80 with Mike Tirico, Todd Blackledge, Holly Rowe and Joe Schad
Clemson Radio Network: 93.1 FM with Don Munson, Rodney Williams and Patrick Sapp
Who: Clemson (14-0) vs. Alabama (13-1)
When: Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Where: Glendale, Ariz.
Line: Alabama by 6 1/2