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Can anyone else beat Bama?

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What was the lesson from Clemson’s victory and who is poised to benefit from that education?

CFP National Championship Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

In the 2017 title game, Nick Saban essentially doubled down on his 2016 strategy for containing Deshaun Watson. With the Alabama defense returning all of their tremendous pass-rushers and star DB/LBs who had been useful in beating Watson the first time, he seemed to calculate that trusting in internal improvements from “the process” was the way to go.

It was a reasonable assumption with DE/OLBs Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams back, DE/DT Jonathan Allen back, Reuben Foster 20 pounds lighter and faster, and youn athletes like Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tony Brown, and Rashaan Evans all a year older and better.

As I detailed in my breakdown of Clemson’s game-winning drive, Nick Saban’s strategy for stopping Watson that he returned to was very conservative. He played pass-rush personnel on the field but kept them aware or positioned to contain Watson in the pocket and he rolled with dime personnel to allow him to match the Tiger WR corps with both man coverage AND two-deep safety help over the top. It ultimately didn’t work, Watson threw 56 passes for 420 yards at 7.5 yards per pass with three TDs and zero INTs.

It hearkened back to New England’s Super Bowl triumph over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. All the talk after the game was centered around whether Seattle should have run the ball with Marshawn Lynch at the goal line but there were much bigger ramifications from that game on the developments of football. Seattle’s defense, anchored by their “Legion of Boom” secondary and sound linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner, was designed to make an offense beat them with precise, quick passes of the sort that no one has ever been able to execute proficiently enough to sustain multiple scoring drives.

But New England did it, and then they won the game, despite failing to run the ball for even 60 yards.

Yet despite that New England victory, it was still rather surprising to see the passing game ascendant in the college ranks so quickly. While Clemson ostensibly relied on a spread-option playbook that utilized Deshaun Watson’s arm and legs to create space to run the ball, the Tigers’ trump card was instead Watson throwing to their large, athletic, and reliable WR corps. The perfect pass beats even great defense...if you can consistently make it.

That’s gotta be the formula for beating Alabama for rival teams in upcoming seasons.

The wrong way to beat Alabama

Urban Meyer perfected the “wrong way” to beat Alabama, Gus Malzahn utilized it as well, this path is basically to beat them at their own game. The Alabama strategy for winning is to be superior in the trenches on both sides of the ball, play elite defense, and run the air out of the football.

The downside of this strategy is that it requires turning the OL and DL into revolving doors of 300+ pound athletes, the most scarce resource in the game, but Alabama’s recruiting machine has regularly pulled it off. The upside of their approach is that if you are consistently great in the trenches then you aren’t dependent on particular skill players.

Alabama nearly just won a title with a true freshman QB at the helm who’s far from a master of their passing attack. When he’s better in that regard, they’ll of course be even more dangerous on offense, but they don’t need great QB play for their formula of elite D and crushing run game to put them in title contention.

It’s obviously possible to beat the Tide at their own strategy, since both Meyer and Malzahn have done it in the past, but they both did so largely thanks to an edge they derived from utilizing spread-option concepts that Alabama has now absorbed into the process.

If you look across the SEC what school is going to be able to recruit and develop their players well enough to prove superior in playing D and running the ball over Saban’s process-oriented Tide? Who’s going to beat the SEC’s most detail-oriented and resource-rich coach at his own game? Probably no one.

The right way to beat Alabama

Alabama’s current strategy clearly leaves them vulnerable to a team that is oriented around a dominant passing attack but who can still play defense at an elite level. While Alabama’s offense has rarely been about lighting up the scoreboard they’ve also never been a group that can be shut down unless you have comparable athletes and skill opposing them.

But scoring points on Alabama is usually the main concern and that’s best accomplished with the passing game. Even most of the run-centric teams that stopped Saban’s Alabama and replaced them as title winners/contenders did so by throwing the ball off the threat of their spread-option rushing attacks:

Other than 2013 Auburn, who had a first round LT, All-American FB, and phenomenal runners at QB and RB, or 2015 Ohio State who opened up their run game with a few vertical passes, not even these teams could run the ball particularly well on Bama. The Tide are going to stop the run and look to out-rush you if it kills them. You need to make sure that it does kill them, via the passing game.

No matter how many future NFL DBs or pass-rushers they stockpile in Tuscaloosa, the perfect pass can still beat them and it’s now evident that such a passing attack can be built at the collegiate level.

The hangups with this strategy is that waiting until your QB and passing game are in tip-top shape makes it harder to be in annual contention then the run game+defense strategy which is much more “plug and play.” However, the ceiling is also higher, particularly since it allows you a lane to the title that isn’t already occupied by Alabama.

So who’s in position to pull this off in 2017?

Let’s start in the SEC, where hiring Saban assistants in an effort to out-do his efforts is a surprisingly common strategy.

Ole Miss

The Rebels have regularly given Alabama fits because the Rebels are built around a spread passing attack and have also frequently paired it with elite defense. With young QB Shea Patterson stepping in for 2017 and some great athletes back in the WR corps and along the OL, there’s a chance here. The problem is that Ole Miss is currently revamping their defense and self-imposed sanctions limit their ability to match Alabama’s loaded roster.

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs were far from having a defense of the caliber that could stop up the Alabama offense but with young QB Nick Fitzgerald they have a cornerstone they could build an anti-Bama strategy around. Perhaps 2018 is a more likely target year in Starkville.

Georgia

The Bulldogs have a talented young QB in Jacob Eason and a lot of returning parts from an admittedly only half-decent 2016 squad. The issue here is that with Nick Chubb and Sonny Michel returning, Georgia is unlikely to focus on their passing game and building it out into the kind of unit that can threaten Alabama until those backs have moved on. We can probably expect Saban’s pupil Kirby Smart to at least initially fall into the trap of trying to out-Saban Alabama.

Arkansas

The Hogs return signal-caller Austin Allen, who was very good in 2016, but they’re also losing nearly all of the receivers that made his life easy and have traditionally had more of a “ground and pound” formula for victory anyways. Even worse, their defense has now been atrocious for two years running.

Auburn

Malzahn is still Saban’s most fearsome rival in the SEC, particularly now that he’ll have a spring QB competition between Sean White and Jarrett Stidham. White has been solid at Auburn but has battled injuries while Stidham is a lethal passer from the pocket and even more mobile then White. They’re also returning some key pieces to a good run game (FB Chandler Cox, RB Kerryon Johnson) that could take off if paired with a better passing attack.

Their defense discovered a formula for success this past year in being more simple and fundamental and has a lot coming back as well. Auburn has perhaps the best chance of any SEC team of taking down the Tide. That said, if someone topples Alabama next year it’ll probably be a playoff opponent from outside the SEC.

Florida State

With Dalvin Cook off to the NFL, it’s time for the Seminoles’ offense to gear around the passing game again. The issue here is that Deondre Francois was inconsistent throughout the year and nearly cost the ‘Noles the game against Michigan with his inability to hit passes, convert third downs, and avoid giving the Wolverines’ repeated chances to come back.

The defense should be excellent though.

Oklahoma

The Sooners are returning a star QB who can scramble and make hay in a spread passing attack with Baker Mayfield, they will likely have a better OL in 2017 then Clemson had in either 2015 or 2016, and they’ll have a big, flex TE back in Mark Andrews. Perhaps most importantly, they have an offensive system that is designed to get after teams in the passing game.

For all those reasons, they could be a nightmare for Alabama, but defense is a problem. It wasn’t very good a year ago and now has to replace several DL and their best ILB well enough to be able to stop power run games of the sort that you find in Tuscaloosa or amongst other college football playoff teams.

Penn State

The Nittany Lions’ offense is built around the passing game and pushing opponents into shootouts of the sort that Alabama hates. QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkely are both back along with most of the best targets and OL. Stunningly, their TE Mike Gesicki is also returning.

Their defense was good, not great in 2016 and will have to replace a few key components such as star safety Marcus Allen. If they found some pieces here and made a leap, it’s likely that they’d be pairing with an elite offense in 2017.

Ohio State

The Buckeyes have been totally shaken up in the wake of their failure to win either the Big 10 title or their playoff matchup with Urban Meyer joining me in blaming “one-dimensional offense” for their defeats. Well they have another year with QB J.T. Barrett and plenty of exciting young athletes to try and involve in their passing game as well as a young OL that should improve in 2017. New offensive coach Kevin Wilson likes to put more emphasis on the passing game and made his name back in 2008 when his QB Sam Bradford threw for nearly 5k yards and 50 TDs en route to the Heisman.

Their defense will undoubtedly have to replace a half-dozen NFL players with a half-dozen future NFL players, I doubt there’s much of an issue there.

Michigan

Most are writing off the Wolverines for 2017 since they’re losing their top three WRs and nine or 10 starters from their dominant defense. But like the next team on this list, Michigan found a QB down the stretch last year in young Wilton Speight and it’s always easier to reload when you have infrastructure in place.

On defense they’ll have to reload across the board but Don Brown is used to doing so in a tougher context at Boston College and probably doesn’t need anyone’s pity or concern. If two years of Harbaugh coaching and recruiting has loaded up the underclassmen ranks then perhaps Michigan will bounce back higher than expected.

USC

Sam Darnold is the kind of guy that can allow you to beat Alabama, the redshirt freshman QB allowed the Trojan offense to take off in 2016 after he took over and he accepted the shootout challenge thrown by McSorley and Penn State in the Rose Bowl with a 453 yard, five touchdown performance.

However he’s losing his best receivers, most of his OL, and the Trojans are also losing star CB/KR Adoree Jackson. Hopes here rest in the Trojans managing to reload around the advantage of having an established QB to lead the way.

Overall it’s clear that most of the big time teams of the sort that can put athletes on the field who have a chance at hanging with Alabama have not been building their team strategies around the notion of beating opponents with a precision passing game. It’s not unlikely that this means that 2017 features Nick Saban on top of the world again, but in the long term look for some programs to start to reconfigure their strategies around what Clemson used to stop the Tide.