A little rain might not be the worst thing for the College Football Playoff championship game on Monday. A slippery field might just accentuate the sort of game Clelin Ferrell is expecting.
The Clemson defensive end insists that whenever his team faces off against Alabama — usually with a title on the line — the outcome gets decided in the slop and grit and muck.
“It starts up front, the trenches,” he says. “That’s all it really is, man, because both of us are built from the inside-out.”
The top-ranked Crimson Tide and No. 2 Tigers have met in the College Football Playoffs the previous three years, a stretch marked by some of the most ferocious defensive lines in the game.
This season’s fourth installment continues that trend.
Though most fans might know these teams for their marquee quarterbacks and high-scoring offenses, both team’s defenses have been particularly effective at controlling the line of scrimmage and harassing the passer.
Clemson leads the nation with 3.71 sacks a game and Alabama isn’t far behind, ranking eighth at 3.21.
With a storm dumping rain on the Bay Area all weekend and Levi’s Stadium notorious for its treacherous footing, defense might just have an edge.
“Their defensive line is going to affect our quarterback and we’ve got to affect their quarterback,” Alabama nose guard Quinnen Williams said. “Whoever has the most dominant performance in the trenches is going to win.”
Look back over the last few seasons and you’ll find no shortage of All-Americans on the Clemson and Alabama lines. The names include Vic Beasley, Shaq Lawson and Carlos Watkins for the Tigers; A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen for the Crimson Tide.
Williams of Alabama made the list this fall. So did Ferrell and Christian Wilkins from Clemson.
Keeping the line stocked year after year can be problematic if only because it’s difficult to predict the size and athleticism that will translate from high school to the college level.
“I think it’s even more difficult now with the spread [offense] because there are more loose plays, plays in space, where it requires guys able to run,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “These guys are hard to find.”
Recruiting is only the first step. Wilkins believes the continuity that Clemson has established comes from veterans teaching newcomers about the work required not only on the practice field but also in the weight and film rooms.
“The guys on the defensive line now have such an appreciation for the guys that came before us, the other D-linemen who have done so much for the program,” the fourth-year graduate player said. “The only way we can thank them is by doing our best.”
Last season, in the CFP semifinals, Alabama dominated for 24-6 victory and Ferrell thinks he knows why: “They just whipped us up front.”
This time around, the Tigers will be missing a key starter, Dexter Lawrence, who remains suspended after testing positive for a banned substance. It speaks to their depth that Albert Huggins, a regular in the rotation, substituted capably against Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.
Alabama coaches talk about Clemson’s aggressive style, marked by blitzes and stunts, with defenders trying to shoot gaps and make plays in the backfield.
That helps to explain why the Tigers rank second nationally with an average of 9.2 tackles for loss. But the strategy has risks, leaving blockers free to get at linebackers and create lanes if the ballcarrier breaks through to the second level.
“The further you get upfield isn’t always better,” Alabama offensive lineman Jonah Williams said of aggressive rushers. “You can get yourself out of a gap, you can get trapped … there are a million things that can happen.”
On the opposite sideline, the Crimson Tide defensive line answers with the pure physicality of athletes who figure to be in the NFL soon.
“They’re unbelievably long and strong,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.
It all starts in the middle, where Williams won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best interior lineman. Though Clemson has done a good job of protecting young quarterback Trevor Lawrence this season, allowing only 1.21 sacks, things could be less comfortable in the title game.
“When you get hit, we’re going to see how you recover from that hit,” Williams said. “Or not recover.”
The Crimson Tide also has a knack for tightening in the red zone, where they rank fourth nationally in limiting scores.
So Monday night is about more than just Clemson’s No. 3 offense trying to outrace Alabama’s No. 4 attack. It’s about more than Trevor Lawrence dueling with Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Even if the teams continue scoring at a torrid pace, with both sides averaging better than 44 points, a big play on defense could swing the momentum.
The guys who do the dirty work, fighting along the line of scrimmage, welcome a chance to grab the spotlight.