While Clemson's offense can keep up with the fast crowd, the Tigers' D is the key to beating Bama and proving they belong among the swells
FORGET THAT they are the top-ranked team in the land, that they are one win from both a national championship and the first 15--0 season in college football history. No matter what the Clemson Tigers do, no matter how much they win, they cannot seem to shake their image as an unruly outsider. Or as their coach, Dabo Swinney, describes them, "The rednecks who moved into a nice neighborhood, and everyone's wondering who the hell they are."
It does not help that Swinney could be a cross between Gomer Pyle and Kenneth, the NBC page from 30 Rock. Or that their game-day attire—orange unis that call to mind ballpark nacho cheese—makes any traditionalist's stomach churn. Or that they insist on running plays seemingly drawn up on the palm of a backyard-ballin' 10-year-old. Take a moment from the second quarter of last Thursday's Orange Bowl: With his team trailing Oklahoma 7--3 and facing a fourth-and-four from the Oklahoma 44, Swinney called for UConn, a fake punt. The play required junior Andy Teasdall—the same punter the coach had tongue-lashed for boneheadedly (and unsuccessfully) ad-libbing a fake during the ACC title game—to float a pass to a 315-pound, Connecticut-schooled (hence the play's name) freshman defensive lineman, Christian Wilkins, who rumbled down the sideline for a 31-yard momentum-changer in Clemson's 37--17 victory over the Big 12 champs.
"We ain't no underdog," Swinney shot back in his Frank Underwood twang after his team's impressive dismantling of a Sooners squad that, despite its lower seeding, swaggered into South Florida as the consensus favorite. For a moment it looked as though Clemson would shed that interloper vibe once and for all—a moment that lasted only four hours. After Alabama pasted Michigan State 38--0 in the Cotton Bowl, the Tigers, who have been perched atop the rankings since Nov. 3, were once again underdogs for the title game on Monday in Glendale, Ariz. (By a full touchdown, according to the opening odds.)
The New Year's Eve semifinal blowouts set up what would appear to be a Southern-fried showdown between schools 300 miles apart on Interstate 20. But make no mistake, the second College Football Playoff championship will be a tasty clash of conferences and radically different football cultures: ACC versus SEC, Clemson's breathless spread offense versus the Crimson Tide's unyielding 3--4 defense, the "bring your own guts" ebullience of Swinney versus the solemnity of Alabama's Nick Saban and his Process.
While the Tigers are headlined by two bona fide stars—an effervescent Heisman finalist in sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson and a Dab-dancing celebrity coach—the Orange Bowl shined a light on the oft-overlooked reason behind their ascendance, and the biggest reason they can trip the Tide: their defense. In throttling an Oklahoma team that had averaged 52.0 points over its previous seven games and subduing dynamic junior quarterback Baker Mayfield, Clemson's D presented a complete performance. It was a statement as loud as their radioactive color scheme: The rednecks have indeed arrived. And, as junior defensive end Shaq Lawson puts it, "We're not leaving the neighborhood without the crown."
SAY THIS about the 46-year-old Swinney: The man not only knows how to channel his inner rapper, but he can put together an entourage too. A knack for surrounding himself with the right lieutenants is his most overlooked strength. In 2011 he hired a coordinator out of Tulsa, Chad Morris, who turned a middling offense into a juggernaut. (Morris left Clemson after last season to become the coach at SMU.) A year later Swinney lured longtime Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables away from Norman, at a time when Venables's role with the Sooners, coming off a disappointing season, was in limbo.
The moment Venables set foot on Clemson's campus, he began changing the reputation of a team that too often had to win games by shootout. He installed an attacking 4--3 defense, and the unit's steady improvement culminated in Venables's crowning achievement in 2014: The Tigers finished as the country's top defense by yards per game (260.8). There was, however, good reason for Venables to expect his group to take a big step backward in 2015. "[Before the season] to say we'd be in the playoff," Venables said after the Orange Bowl, "I'd have checked into an insane asylum."
Nine full- or part-time starters from the '14 unit left, including four who were drafted. But the defense, which ranks sixth in the nation in yards per game (301.6), has been nearly as good as last year's, terrorizing and perplexing opposing teams with a dizzying array of looks and schemes. While sophomore Mackensie Alexander has become one of the best cornerbacks in the country, the Tigers have been most formidable in the trenches—even more remarkable considering the line lost all four starters from a year ago. In his first season as a full-timer, Lawson, with 10½ sacks and a nation-leading 23½ tackles for a loss, blossomed into an All-America and the ACC defensive player of the year. Junior Carlos Watkins (6'3", 300 pounds) and Wilkins emerged to fill the void at tackle. "They take a lot of chances and at times make some mistakes, but they're so athletic that they cover up many of them," says Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. "They're one of the more aggressive defenses that we've played."
The unit's pugnacity comes from a coordinator who may not possess his boss's charisma but matches his energy, prowling the sidelines chewing five different flavors of gum. The Tigers love telling a story from last year's South Carolina game: After a strip-sack by a Clemson player created a loose ball a few feet from the sideline, the team's strength coach had to grab Venables to keep him from pouncing on it. In practices leading up to the Orange Bowl, Venables took on the role of Mayfield. On one play Lawson, a ferocious 6'3" 270-pounder, clocked the coach—"I was running too fast, and I couldn't stop"—only to watch the 45-year-old bounce right back up off the grass.
It's fitting that Clemson's defining moment from 2015 is not a play by Watson and the offense but a stand by Venables's charges. Facing No. 6 Notre Dame on a rain-drenched October night in Death Valley, the Tigers allowed a one-yard touchdown pass on a blown coverage with seven seconds to play that cut their lead to 24--22. On the two-point attempt, freshman quarterback Deshone Kizer took the snap and swept right before charging at an impenetrable wall at the two-yard line. In the Orange Bowl, the orange D was just as emphatic, surrendering only 67 rushing yards for the game and 126 total yards over the final two quarters. "The second half of the season, we hadn't had that mentality—that step-on-their-throat, taste-blood mentality—until today," said Venables. "These guys are coming together and playing their best at the right time."
As the confetti swirled last Thursday and the strains of "Tiger Rag" echoed across the stadium, the most important Clemson player not named Deshaun Watson was wearing an ice pack on his left knee. After sacking Mayfield to end the Sooners' second series, Lawson watched the rest of the game from the sideline with an injury. His absence and his expected return for his final game as a Tiger (in December he declared for the NFL draft and figures to be a top 10 pick) suggest that the Clemson defense may yet be capable of reaching even greater heights. And it will need to against Alabama.
Lawson grew up five miles from the Clemson campus. As a kid he sold popcorn at the concession stands at Memorial Stadium and climbed fences for glimpses of games. The Tigers had a middling program then, in a lull between its 1981 national championship and the first of their two ACC titles under Swinney. Much has changed since those years, and now the local boy and his unit will be front and center in a game with history-making implications: They could decide whether a team remains on the fringes of the upper echelon, or becomes one that forever endures.
THE DEFENSE'S STATEMENT WAS AS LOUD AS THE TIGERS' RADIOACTIVE COLOR SCHEME.
"THESE GUYS ARE PLAYING THEIR BEST AT THE RIGHT TIME," SAYS VENABLES.
HOW TO BEAT CLEMSON
THE TIGERS' biggest weakness is their offensive line, and I'd be surprised if they can move the line of scrimmage against Alabama. They start a true freshman at left tackle [Mitch Hyatt], and if you study them on film, a lot of teams are knocking him backward. He'll be a good player someday, but he'll be in for a long night. They have a center who isn't bad [junior Jay Guillermo] and a guard who isn't bad [senior Eric Mac Lain], but against better teams they've given up sacks.
Alabama's defensive line is deep and talented—one of the best the SEC has seen in the past decade—including pass rushing specialists in juniors Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson. Those guys have to wear Clemson down and disrupt the offense's high tempo. At the same time they must stay disciplined in their rushes and the linebackers must remain alert and active, because quarterback Deshaun Watson can scramble and often rolls out, allowing him to throw on the move or take off for a big gain.
On defense Clemson plays multiple fronts and mixes man and zone, so the Tide should abandon the plan they used against Michigan State, when senior Jake Coker threw the ball 30 times. They need to pound away on the ground with Heisman winner Derrick Henry, get after Clemson up front and turn this into a toe-to-toe heavyweight fight. If they do, there's no way that Clemson wins. The key to freeing up Henry is establishing early that receivers Calvin Ridley (above) and Richard Mullaney can beat the Tigers' two big corners—Mackensie Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley—in one-on-one matchups. Once Coker does that, it will force Clemson to take the safeties out of the box and give Henry room to run.
HOW TO BEAT ALABAMA
WAYNE GALLMAN(below) will not be able to run inside against Alabama's 315-pound noseguard [junior Darren Lake] and two ends who are more than 310 [senior Jarran Reed and junior A'Shawn Robinson]. The Tigers will have to exploit the perimeter—bubble screens and jet sweeps.
Nick Saban has struggled over the years with spread offenses because when they go into 11 personnel—one running back, one tight end and three receivers—he tends to counter with a nickel defense, which puts one less linebacker on the field and is susceptible to the run. When a team like Ole Miss plays the entire game in 11 and runs the ball a lot or a team has a running quarterback, the Tide are at a disadvantage, which is why all of their losses the last four years have come against spread teams [Texas A&M, Auburn, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Ole Miss twice]. The combination of tempo and a nontraditional offense still bothers Alabama.
With Deshaun Watson, Clemson can play with anyone—every other team in college football would trade its quarterback for him. The Tigers can't let Alabama pressure Watson rushing only four, because that will let Saban get exotic defensively with the seven other guys. Watson will need to complete some over-the-top shots.
On defense Clemson must slow down Heisman winner Derrick Henry by forcing him to run east-west. Some teams used slanted lines, which means bringing a big guy off the edge so Henry is cutting into a linebacker or an outside blitzer, who will force him to turn his shoulders so he can't run downhill. The Tigers also need to give Jake Coker a different look postsnap than they do presnap—showing a single-high safety then going to split safeties. Film reveals that if you show Coker the same thing a few times in a row, he'll take advantage.
Was having the College Football Playoff semifinals on New Year's Eve a good idea? (No.) For all the reasons why go to SI.com/cfpratings
Photograph by Al Tielemans For Sports Illustrated
AGENTS ORANGE The Tigers combined to hold Alex Ross (left) and the Sooners to 67 yards rushing, or 168 fewer than they averaged entering the Orange Bowl.
TOMMY GILLIGAN/USA TODAY SPORTS
SHAQ SAQ ATTAQ Lawson (90), who took down Mayfield before going out with a left-knee injury, believes he'll be ready for Clemson's first shot at a national title since 1981.
DARREN CARROLL FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RIDLEY)
Photograph by Al Tielemans For Sports Illustrated
BULL SESSION Ben Boulware (10) cinched the semifinal win with a late pick, but he'll need to show off his run stuffing against the Tide.
Photograph by Al Tielemans For Sports Illustrated