College Football Rotation
Mon, Jan 7 5:00 PM
Rotation: 151, Odds: Alabama -5.5, Total: 57.5
Game Analysis view matchup stats
Lean – Clemson (+5.5) 27 Alabama 29
Monday – 5 pm Pacific
Clemson Offense vs Alabama Defense
Clemson’s offensive numbers are among the best in the nation, as the Tigers averaged over 500 total yards per game at 7.3 yards per play (against teams that would allow 5.7 yppl to an average team) and their numbers since freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence took over as the starter in week 5 are the same (7.2 yppl against teams that would allow 5.6 yppl to an average team). However, as I mentioned last week, Clemson was relatively worse against better run defenses and their 1240 rushing yards at 11.4 yprp in 3 games against the sub-par run defenses of Wake Forest, Louisville, and Pitt skewed their rating upward. Clemson has now played 6 games against good run defenses (at least 0.5 yprp better than average) and the Tigers averaged just 164 rushing yards at 5.3 yprp in those games against Texas A&M, Georgia Tech, NC State, Florida State, Boston College, and Notre Dame. Those 6 teams would allow 4.4 yprp to an average team so Clemson was just 0.9 yprp better than average running against good run defenses, which is 1.1 yprp lower than their overall rating that was skewed by those big yardage games against worse than average run defenses. Using a regression equation to predict yards per rushing play as a function of the opposing run defense rating would yield a prediction of 5.05 yprp for Clemson in this game, which is 0.9 yprp less than what the model would predict without adjusting for the outliers by using regression.
While the rushing attack figures to be held in check by a good Alabama defensive front that may not be the case for the aerial attack with Lawrence as the trigger man. When Alabama faced Deshaun Watson in January of 2016 and 2017 I liked Clemson in those games (2-0 ATS) because Watson was relatively much better against better defensive teams, which is the sign of an elite quarterback (Tom Brady is similar in the NFL). When Alabama faced the Tigers with Kelly Bryant at quarterback I liked Alabama and bet the under in that game because Kelly was much worse relatively against better defensive teams and the result was a 24-6 Bama win. Lawrence is more like Watson, as he has been relatively better against better pass defenses. Lawrence hadn’t faced a great pass defense until last week when he averaged 7.3 yards per pass play against an elite Notre Dame stop unit that would allow just 4.5 yppp to an average quarterback. The best 5 pass defenses that Lawrence faced this season were the last 5 teams that Clemson faced (BC, Duke, S Carolina, Pitt, and ND) and he was 2.0 yards per pass play better than average in those games (7.4 yppp against teams that would allow 5.4 yppp to an average quarterback), which is considerably better than his overall rating of +1.3 yppp. A regression equation projecting Lawrence’s yards per pass play as a function of the opposing pass defense would project 6.9 yppp for Clemson’s frosh phenom in this game.
My biggest concern for Clemson’s offense is the fact that Nick Saban’s defense tends to perform better, relatively, against one-dimensional quarterbacks while struggling against quarterbacks that can run and throw the ball effectively. Lawrence is a capable runner, as he averaged 6.1 yards per rushing play, but he doesn’t run often enough (just 41 times all season) to give the Crimson Tide defense headaches as dual-threat quarterbacks have in the past. Overall, Alabama’s defense has been 1.7 yards per play better than average this season (4.6 yppl allowed to teams that would combine to average 6.3 yppl against an average defense) and that unit performed about the same against better offensive teams as they did overall. However, they may perform a bit better than projected if Lawrence only runs 3 or 4 times, as has been the norm. If Lawrence decides to scramble more often then Clemson could perform better than projected – although he ran more than 4 times only once all season. Using the straight math Clemson would be projected to gain 390 yards at 5.55 yards per play but using the regression models, which would lower the rushing numbers and enhance the passing numbers, would project 416 yards at 5.92 yppl.
Alabama’s Offense vs Clemson’s Defense
Alabama’s offense was the best of the Nick Saban era, and perhaps the best offense the Tide has ever had, and they ranked 2nd in the nation behind Oklahoma in compensated yards per play while averaging 8.0 yppl against teams that would allow 5.6 yppl to an average team. Clemson, meanwhile, has the best defensive rating in the nation, as the Tigers have allowed just 4.0 yards per play (excluding garbage time) to teams that would average 5.9 yppl against an average defense. Clemson will once again be without All-American DT Dexter Lawrence but they have great players all over the defensive line and Lawrence’s replacement, Albert Huggins, is a senior with a lot of experience and NFL talent that has played close to 400 snaps this season (Lawrence played 460 snaps) and is a better pass rusher than Lawrence. Replacing Lawrence in run defense is the issue. In my analysis for the Notre Dame game I adjusted 0.3 yards per rushing play for Lawrence being out. Notre Dame ran for slightly more yprp than I had projected and my adjustment for this game is 0.2 yprp for Lawrence being out. Overall, the Clemson defense was much better than projected, as the Tigers had a season-high with 6 sacks and held Ian Book to just 3.35 yards per pass play while the Irish scored just 3 points. Even without Lawrence the Tigers would still be the best defense in the nation and will be Alabama’s biggest test.
Prior to this game, the best defense that Alabama faced was Mississippi State’s dominating unit and the Bulldogs held the Crimson Tide starters to just 4.8 yards per play and 24 points while Tua Tagovailoa averaged only 5.1 yards per pass play. Tagovailoa also struggled against Georgia’s elite pass defense (just 5.3 yppp) while averaging a decent 6.7 yppp against LSU. Overall in the 3 games against elite pass defenses, Tua averaged only 5.9 yppp while completing just 55.6% of his passes (69.5% in all games). Miss State, Georgia, and LSU would combine to allow just 4.3 yppp to an average quarterback so Tagovailoa was 1.6 yppp better than average in those games. However, that rating is far worse than his overall rating of 4.7 yppp better than average (10.7 yppp against teams that would allow 6.0 yppp).
The Alabama rushing attack was relatively better against better run defenses this season but overall the Tide offense played at a slightly worse level (with Tagovailoa in the game) against better defensive teams. Clemson’s defense, like that of Alabama, played at the same level, relatively, regardless of the strength of the opposing offense. Using the regression analysis for Alabama’s offense against a team with Clemson’s defense ratings result in raising Alabama’s projected rushing numbers (from 4.40 yprp to 5.03 yprp) and lowering Tagovailoa’s projected pass numbers (from 7.89 yppp to 6.84 yppp) from what the straight math would project.
The straight math would project Alabama by 5.3 points with a total of 54.7 points and the adjustments I made using the regression models project Alabama by just 1.9 points with a total of 56.5 points. I certainly don’t mind leaning with Clemson as an underdog given that the Tigers are 11-2 straight up and 11-2 ATS in post-season games the last 7 years under Dabo Swinney (3-1 ACC, 8-1 bowls/playoffs), including 6-2 straight up (7-1 ATS) as an underdog. Alabama has been 12-3 straight up but just 6-9 ATS in post-season games during that same time frame, including just 1-5 ATS when favored by 7 points or less (i.e. when facing another elite team) with that one spread win being against Clemson with the pathetic Kelly Bryant at quarterback. The other 5 spread losses as a 7 point or less favorite were against good passing quarterbacks, which is the case here with Trevor Lawrence, who has proven to be better against better defensive teams thus far, which has not been the case for Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. I’ll lean with Clemson plus the points.