You can’t doubt Clemson now. The playoff win over Oklahoma is unequivocal. The Sooners are a good football team, and the Tigers beat them, convincingly. Going into the game you can be forgiven if you were skeptical of the ACC champs.
Their resume had two or three good wins and a zero in the loss column. For many the zero was more important than anything else, but that analysis is incomplete. The strong wins were over Florida State, Notre Dame and possibly North Carolina. The Tarheels were beaten soundly by a Baylor team who didn’t have a quarterback and couldn’t throw the ball. Florida State lost to the AAC champs, badly. Notre Dame hadn’t played yet, but when they did, they were blasted by Ohio State.
Clemson’s schedule only told us so much. It told us they were consistent; it told us they were good, but it didn’t tell us how good. We found out how good on New Year’s eve: very good.
Clemson put up 37 points in a national semi-final game with a combination of spread tactics and power fundamentals. That’s really how their offense works, especially this year. The basic idea of the spread is to force the defense to defend the entire field, from sideline to sideline. Clemson spreads the field with their formations and their play calls. They often line up with four receivers and will throw hitches, screens and quick, horizontal passes. They will run jet sweeps and shovel passes to get the ball to the outside. They will put pressure on the edges of a defense.
Defenses adjust to what Clemson is doing. Oklahoma did. They adjust by defending the flats and the sidelines. When they do that Clemson usually has a numbers advantage in the box. That’s when they go to their power offense. People don’t usually think power offense when they see the Tigers line up with receivers all over the field, but that’s what they are doing.
The one factor that makes this Clemson offense special is Deshaun Watson. Although he is a good passer, he is most effective running the ball. There are essentially three plays he shreds defenses with, and they are all predicated on the defense worrying about defending the entirety of the field. Those three plays are the power, sweep and zone read. Those are the plays the Tigers ran the most against the Sooners, and as the game wore on, Oklahoma wore down.
In a nutshell, that’s the Clemson offense. Put pressure on the outside of the field. When the defense adjusts to the outside, run power plays inside. If the defense tries to pull defenders up to help defend the entire line of scrimmage, Clemson’s receivers go deep. It’s a nightmare to defend, as Oklahoma now knows.
Clemson’s defense was equally dominant allowing on 17 points. How they did that was much simpler. They dominated the line of scrimmage. All the Xs and Os in the world cannot overcome an offensive line getting handled by a defensive line. The Orange Bowl was the latest reminder that if the d line dominates, the game is over. That’s what Clemson did.
The Tigers also took away Oklahoma’s x factor, Baker Mayfield. This is the luxury of having talented players. In order to pressure the passer Clemson didn’t have to take men out of coverage to blitz. They didn’t have to sacrifice rushing lanes to get pressure, they were often able to get pressure with four defenders, and they rushed in a way that kept Mayfield in the pocket. He was rarely able to slip out of the pocket, and his game was much less effective without that ability.
We now know Clemson is one of the best teams in the nation. Next Monday we’ll know for sure if they are the best. A win over Alabama in the national championship game would be absolute. There would be no wiggle room or argument. They would be 15-0, playoff champions and the only undefeated team in the country. They certainly don’t resemble paper tigers anymore.