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With Trevor Lawrence At Quarterback, Clemson Is a Legitimate Threat To Alabama

More and more, Clemson is looking like the most serious threat to Alabama’s undefeated season and supremacy over college football.

This isn’t exactly breaking news.

These southern-based rivals played each other in the College Football Playoff in each of the past three seasons. Alabama beat Clemson in the 2015 championship game, Clemson won the rematch a year later, and the Crimson Tide eliminated the Tigers in last season’s national semifinals.

We seem to be headed to another Bama vs. Clemson bout.

And you might want to hold off on handing the trophy to Alabama.

Clemson was no match for Alabama last January for a number of reasons, but I’ll mention the most substantial factor: an opponent needs a helluva lot more than Kelly Bryant at quarterback to topple Alabama.

Clemson went 1-1 in the CFB Playoff with quarterback Deshaun Watson, and both games were played on even terms.

In the 2015 championship, Watson passed for 405 yards and four touchdowns (with one INT) and rushed for 73 yards. Bama had to score 24 points in the fourth quarter to overcome Watson and win 45-40. In 2016, Watson emerged as the victor, passing for 420 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 43 yards and a score. On the game’s final play from scrimmage, Watson connected with slot receiver Hunter Renfrow on a two-yard touchdown pass on fourth down , and Clemson prevailed 35-31.

Bryant — who succeeded Watson as Clemson’s starter in 2017 — posed no threat to Alabama in the 2017 semifinal. Despite firing 36 passing attempts, Bryant managed only 124 yards in the air for a puny YPA of 3.4 yards. He was intercepted twice, did not throw a touchdown, and was limited to 19 yards rushing. The Tide won easily, 24-6.

Bryant transferred early this season after losing his starting job to true freshman Trevor Lawrence.

And Lawrence, like Watson before him, has the elite-level skill that makes him a formidable weapon against any defense — Alabama’s included.

We’ll get back to Lawrence in a couple of minutes.

First, let’s look in on Alabama.

Alabama seemed vulnerable on Saturday despite defeating Mississippi State 24-0. It isn’t normal to point to a team that wins by 24 points and huff and puff about its weaknesses. And I must remind myself that the Alabama defense has pitched back-to-back shutouts over LSU and Mississippi State, holding the two offenses to an average of 182.5 yards in the two games. It’s probably time to amend the opinion that Bama’s defense wasn’t up to Nick Saban’s usual degree of scariness. The Crimson Tide is tied for first nationally with Clemson in allowing the fewest points per game, 12.7. And Alabama is ranked No. 1 against the run based on an average yield of only 2.03 yards per rush.

But for a 10-0 team that’s pretty much eviscerated every opponent in its path, Alabama isn’t without concerns. Alabama isn’t the same mighty machine without quarterback Tua Tagovailoa at the controls. Tua had to leave during Saturday’s win after taking a hit to a sprained knee that’s been a source of anxiety for more than a month now. And if super backup Jalen Hurts is unavailable to play because of an ankle injury that required minor surgery two weeks ago — and Hurts couldn’t be used  vs. Mississippi State — the Tide downshifts into an ordinary offense.

On its first two possessions against a very strong Bulldogs defense, the Tide motored downfield without much resistance on flashy touchdown drives that covered 83 and 73 yards. For Tagovailoa and Bama, the two quick touchdowns in one quarter came against a Mississippi State defense that had given up only nine TDs all season before Saturday.

Alabama stalled after the fast start, especially during the second half after the reinjured Tua left the game. After leading 21-0 at halftime, Alabama was held to three points, 89 total yards, an average of 2.9 yards per play and converted only 1-of-7 third downs in the second half. The Tide had allowed only six sacks in the first nine games before getting overrun for four sacks by Mississippi State.

With Tagovailoa and Hurts both watching from the sideline, third-team QB Mac Jones completed three of six passes for minus 1 yard. The Tide rushed for 145 yards on 45 carries, but the ground game wasn’t dominant once Tagovailoa limped off. The Bulldogs didn’t have to worry about being burned by the pass.

Alabama plays its annual Week 12 charity game on Saturday — this time against The Citadel — as a preliminary to the annual blood-rivalry matchup vs. Auburn on Nov. 24. Tagovailoa shouldn’t be exposed against Citadel. Not for one play. Rest the knee. Heal up. Get ready for War Eagle. The Alabama rushing attack should be more than enough to take care of The Citadel.

We’ve come to expect shock and awe from Alabama’s offense. So it was unsettling to see the Tide look so bland, basic and harmless once Tua went down. So much is riding on the sensational sophomore quarterback and Heisman favorite.

Alabama is still the team to beat; that hasn’t changed. But a lasting injury to Tua could change everything — especially if Hurts is limited by the ankle injury. At best Hurts is a slightly above-average passer who can break defenses with his speed and elusiveness as a runner. But if the ankle slows Hurts down, the defense has an easier challenge in keeping Alabama to a reasonable points-scored total.

Alabama is No. 1, but it must have given other contenders hope to see the champ wobbled, banged up and frazzled during Saturday’s second half.

Clemson is peaking at the right time. Saturday’s 27-7 victory at Boston College may not qualify as a brutal smackdown of an improved rival, but it was a 20-point road win against a ranked opponent in an energized setting and played in blustery weather. Clemson clinched a spot in the ACC Championship game and reinforced its status as the top contender to take  Alabama’s title.

Let’s explore the reasons why:

1. If Clemson doesn’t have the best defense in the nation, it’s tied for first. Defensive linemen Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell are monsters who will be pouncing on NFL quarterbacks a year from now. And this threesome has plenty of other friends on the defense who are just as imposing.

The average margin of victory in Clemson’s last five wins is an astonishing 44.8 points, and Tigers’ best defensive players have sat out the fourth quarter. I point that out for a reason: Clemson’s last five victims have failed to score an offensive touchdown in the first three quarters of the contest. The first-team Clemson defense hasn’t yielded an offensive touchdown since late September.

In the last five games the Tigers have outscored opponents through the first three quarters by a 215-22 margin. (Opponents had two special-teams touchdowns against Clemson.)

After averaging 37 points through its first nine games, Boston College didn’t score a single point on offense Saturday night and had only 61 yards of total offense and six first downs through three quarters. Clemson knocked starting BC quarterback Anthony Brown out of the game (knee) after one possession, but that didn’t matter. No disrespect, but Brown isn’t a game-changing quarterback.

Moreover, the Tigers (10-0) have been beaten for only two touchdown passes in the last eight games. And Clemson also leads the nation in giving up only 2.08 yards per rushing attempt.

To summarize: The Clemson defense is tied for No. 1 nationally in fewest points allowed (12.7 per game), No. 3 against the run, No. 1 in yards allowed per rush, No. 9 against the pass, tied for third with 36 sacks and is No. 2 in total defense.

2. The aforementioned Trevor Lawrence is the real deal. An immensely talented quarterback who would rival Tagovailoa for the best arm in college football. Lawrence doesn’t have Tua’s superb efficiency — no quarterback this side of Drew Brees does. But Lawrence has the size, mobility and poise. In short, Alabama hasn’t faced a quarterback as gifted as Lawrence this season. And Bama won’t face a quarterback as exceptional as Lawrence this season unless the Tide gets a chance to take him on in the CFB Playoffs.

Lawrence made a difference at Boston College. He’d never played in cold weather before. He’d never played in a game north of Virginia. He’d never thrown passes into wind gusts. No problem.

After the Eagles stung the Tigers with an early punt return for a touchdown and 7-3 lead, Lawrence went 7 for 7 on the ensuing drive, throwing the touchdown pass that put Clemson ahead for good. Lawrence finished 29 of 40 (that’s 72.5%) for 295 yards, one touchdown pass, and one rushing touchdown.

“There’s no limit on him,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, to Yahoo Sports. “He loves to prepare, he’s a brilliant guy. He’s got an unbelievable skill. He’s not even physically developed yet. That kid is 217 pounds, he’s going to be 235 and he’s a willing runner and an athletic kid.”

One ACC coach offered this Lawrence testimonial to Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports: “He’s the best prospect since Peyton Manning. He’d be the first pick in this year’s draft if he came out, even if he didn’t play another snap.”

3. With Lawrence capable of stretching the field and striking for long balls, it’s opened up huge lanes for Clemson’s powerful running game led by the Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster. After Saturday’s win at BC, Clemson is second in the nation to Oklahoma in average yards per rushing attempt (6.73) tied for fifth in rushing touchdowns (32) and ranks 12th with 251.7 yards per game.

Ettiene is underrated nationally; all he’s done so far is rush for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns. And he’s averaging a remarkable 8.4 yards per rush. Ettiene’s  per-game average of 108 yards rushing is more special than it seems because he’s getting only 12.7 runs per game. Clemson deploys an Alabama-type system that spreads rushing attempts among several backs.

4. Swinney isn’t intimidated by Nick Saban — or any coach, for that matter. He knows he can defeat a Saban-led team on the biggest stage in the sport, the national championship game. He’s already done it once (2016) after barely losing to Saban in the ‘15 championship.

5. Clemson is the only team that comes close to being Alabama’s equal. Since the start of the 2012 season, Alabama is 87-8, and Clemson is 82-11.

Clemson is highly capable of putting down any team, and that includes Alabama. Much depends on Tagovailoa’s knee. And Lawrence is the new star in this drama.

Just as Saban demoted a successful starting quarterback (Hurts) to go with Tagovailoa’s incredible skill set, Swinney sat Bryant and switched to Lawrence. There is a parallel here — a quarterback arms race — and it adds excitement to another potential matchup between Alabama and Clemson.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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