One thing has legitimately changed in the four team playoff era, compared to the BCS Championship era that just ended prior to last year. Instead of having three weeks to prepare for the title game, teams now have three weeks to prepare for a semi-final game, with a much shorter turnaround time prior to the title game. The three previous national titles that Nick Saban won at Alabama all came under at least somewhat different circumstances than the title game they’ll play in next Monday.
When we take a look back at the national championship teams over the last decade, we can get a decent idea of the commonalities between those teams and use that to project forward for this year. Texas in 2005, Florida in 2006, LSU in 2007, Florida in 2008, Alabama in 2009, Auburn in 2010, Alabama in 2011 and 2012, Florida State in 2013 and Ohio State in 2014 combine to give us a profile worth noting.
The #1 commonality the last ten champions had is elite level talent. That may sound obvious – it is obvious – but there are metrics worthy of mention that give an advantage to Alabama over Clemson. Each of the last ten champs had a recruiting ranking among the top dozen in all of college football in their previous four seasons. Alabama ranks #1 in that regard, by a fairly wide margin, while Clemson doesn’t crack the top dozen.
But Clemson does pass two other tests that almost every recent champion has passed. Nine of the last ten title winners have featured at least one All American on the defensive line. Alabama has A’Shawn Robinson. Clemson has Shaq Lawson. But Lawson hurt his knee during the semi-final win over Oklahoma and his status for the title game isn’t clear yet. If he doesn’t suit up, it’s hard to imagine a more impactful defensive injury for the Tigers.
Eight of the last ten national champs have ranked among the Top 7 teams in the country in pass efficiency defense. Alabama finished the season ranked #5 this year while Clemson finished #7.
The high octane offenses attract the most public attention in the betting markets, but it’s likely to be the team that stands tall defensively who brings home the national title next Monday Night.
That being said, this has not been a banner bowl season for the ACC defensively. Florida State got whipped. NC State got hammered. North Carolina got destroyed, as did Pitt. Virginia Tech gave up 52 points to Tulsa. Miami lost to Washington State. Duke won and covered against Indiana, but they were most assuredly on the lucky side of that game, and they still gave up 41 points in the process.
Those ACC defenses were the primary culprit in those SU and ATS bowl failures. Louisville was lucky enough to face a third string quarterback from a reeling Texas A&M program. And Miami faced Washington State on a windy, snowy field, keeping the score low. Every other ACC defense (except Clemson) got absolutely torched by their bowl opponent. As a conference, with the exception of Clemson’s win over Oklahoma, the ACC allowed 40 points and more than 550 yards per bowl game.
When we look at those numbers, we have to view Clemson’s entire season in a different light. Perhaps all of that offensive success was a byproduct of a ‘weaker than it looked’ schedule.
The Tigers biggest regular season win – a two point victory over Notre Dame – was aided by monsoon-like conditions that resulted in a +3 turnover margin. The Tigers big ACC Championship Game win over North Carolina looks devalued after the Tar Heels allowed Baylor to hang 49 points on them despite the fact that the Bears were down to a third string quarterback. And Clemson’s big home win over Florida State must be devalued after the Seminoles two TD loss to Houston in their bowl, especially considering FSU didn’t have starting QB Everett Golson for that game either.
Upstarts like Clemson – good programs, but not elite ones, with no recent history of competing for titles – don’t reach the title game very often. Over the last 15 years, the list of title game participants looks like a who’s who of dominant, elite programs. The only teams to play for the title since 2002 have been Ohio State, Oregon, Florida State, Auburn, Alabama, LSU, Notre Dame, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and USC; a truly elite dozen programs. Clemson’s program simply hasn’t been at that same level.
Alabama has been the single best program in college football since a year or two after Nick Saban arrived on campus. They’ve won three national titles under Saban already, and based on recruiting rankings, and NFL draft projections, they’ve got the most talented team in the country once again this year. Clemson’s gaudy offensive stats must be taken with a grain of salt considering those defensive weaknesses in the ACC. ‘Bama is favored here for a reason.
But before we award the title to the Crimson Tide, it’s important to recognize that Alabama is no lock to win this game, and a SU win won’t cover the pointspread unless that win comes by more than a touchdown. The Crimson Tide lost at home to Ole Miss earlier this season, their single worst defensive showing of the year. They lost in the national championship semi-finals to Ohio State last year as well as a loss at Ole Miss. In 2013, they got whipped in the Sugar Bowl by Oklahoma on the heels of a regular season ending loss to Auburn. In 2012, Texas A&M beat ‘em.
Each and every one of those losses came against a team that plays into Alabama’s lone defensive weakness – their struggles against uptempo spread offenses with mobile quarterbacks. When you push the pace, forcing Saban to alter his substitution patterns, the Crimson Tide defensive is less effective. Every defeat that Alabama has suffered in recent seasons has come against an offense that looks a lot like Clemson’s offense.
Clemson, like Alabama, has been recruiting blue chippers and sending them to the NFL on a regular basis in recent seasons; guys like DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, CJ Spiller, Dwayne Allen, Vic Beasley, Da’Quan Bowers – I could go on, but you get my point. Alabama is truly loaded, but Dabo Sweeney’s squad isn’t short on NFL caliber talent either.
Clemson’s last four bowl games have been SU and ATS wins over Oklahoma (twice), Oho State and LSU. Clemson was the underdog in all four of those contests, and they covered the spread in each and every one of those games by a TD or more. Clemson QB DeShaun Watson has an NFL future; Alabama’s Jake Coker does not. There’s certainly a case to be made for taking a touchdown on a neutral field with the superior quarterback.
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