No. 1 Clemson (12-1) faces No. 4 Alabama (11-1) in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 (8:45 p.m., ESPN), the third installment of a trilogy that ended in the championship game the past two seasons.
Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban have built the two biggest powerhouses of the College Football Playoff era, and those similarities will unfold one more time in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Will Jalen Hurts lead the Crimson Tide to victory this time? Or will Kelly Bryant become the second Clemson quarterback to break Alabama’s heart?
It’s a matchup of the top two scoring defenses in the FBS. Alabama allowed 11.5 points per game. Clemson finished second at 12.8 points per game.
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How will that play out? Here are some numbers that could determine the matchup:
2 of 15
Go back to last year’s box score. Alabama converted only two of its 15 on third downs, while Clemson was 7 of 18. Those failed third-down conversions allowed Deshaun Watson to take over in the second half. The Tide converted only 41.5 percent of their third-down conversions this year, and Clemson’s defense ranked fifth in third-down conversion percentage (27.8). This is the biggest point of emphasis for Hurts and Alabama’s offense: They can’t be that bad on third down again and win.
That’s the number of feature backs in this game who average 5.0 yards per carry or more. Clemson can roll with Travis Etienne (7.2 yards per carry), Tavien Feaster (6.4) or Adam Choice (5.0), and C.J. Fuller (3.7) is in the rotation, too. Alabama has Damien Harris (8.2), Joshua Jacobs (6.4), Najee Harris (5.6) and Bo Scarbrough (5.1). Remember, Scarbrough was the hot hand last year before leaving the game with a leg injury. Which running backs get the hot hand in a game where yards are at a premium? That’s something to monitory closely.
Clemson averaged 7.4 yards per pass attempt in last year’s victory, and Tigers quarterbacks averaged 7.3 yards per pass attempt this season. That seems like a reasonable number for Bryant to target, considering the Tigers’ receivers average 10.9 yards a reception. Alabama, meanwhile, allowed a nation-leading 5.5 yards per pass attempt with an All-American secondary that features Minkah Fitzpatrick.
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Alabama allowed just 23 points in the first quarter all season, including just two touchdowns. Those scores, however, came in late-season games against Mississippi State and Auburn, when the Crimson Tide were depleted at linebacker. Alabama struggled against the Bulldogs and lost to the Tigers; will Clemson be able to exploit that with a fast start, or will Alabama get more confidence on defense if things return to normal? Keep in mind, Clemson isn’t bad in the first quarter either, outscoring opponents 129-41 all season.
That’s the combined rushing yards for Hurts and Bryant this season. Which quarterback makes the game-breaking plays with their legs? Hurts averages 5.6 yard per carry, and had eight touchdowns. Bryant averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, but has 11 touchdowns. That could be the difference when plays break down on other side.