How Alabama is the same as last year
The defense remains stout against the run
Entering last season’s national title game, Alabama’s opponents gained 2.3 yards a carry. This season, Alabama’s opponents are gaining just 2.0 yards a carry. Defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne and defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson have been nearly impossible to move, and the most success opponents have had has been outside the tackles.
Not including the 14 yards Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson lost on sacks, he ran for 87 yards against the Crimson Tide last year. Tailback Wayne Gallman struggled (for him, but not for someone playing against Alabama), gaining just 45 yards on 14 carries. If Gallman and Watson combine for 132 yards on the ground—sacks not included—this time around, the Tigers would happily take it.
Alabama has another massive back who may help control the clock
Derrick Henry was far more proven at this point last season. Heck, he’d won the Heisman Trophy. But sophomore Bo Scarbrough is about the same size, has a similar running style and might be a little faster. Henry was 6’3” and 242 pounds, and his 36 carries for 158 yards with three touchdowns helped the Tide keep pace with Clemson and gave Alabama’s defense a little rest on the sideline. Scarbrough is 6’2” and listed at 228, but teammates contend he’s closer to Henry in weight. He was the only part of the offense that worked consistently in the Peach Bowl win against Washington, and the Tide will need a similar performance to keep the Tigers from pinning their ears back and attacking Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts.
How Alabama is different from last year
The quarterback, silly
Lost in Watson’s historic performance in last year’s title game was perhaps the best game of the season from Alabama fifth-year senior Jake Coker. Even with his right tackle getting whipped on nearly every play, Coker completed 16 of 25 passes for 335 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. (It helped that Clemson simply neglected to cover tight end O.J. Howard on two touchdown plays that combined for 102 yards.)
Hurts must play better than he did in the Peach Bowl (7 of 14, 57 yards), but the true freshman doesn’t have to be perfect for Alabama to win. If new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian can find a way to let Hurts make safe, high-percentage throws to receivers Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart near the line of scrimmage, then Ridley and Stewart can turn those plays into bigger gains.
Hurts also might be able to use Clemson’s aggressiveness against the Tigers. He scored the lone touchdown in a 10–0 win against LSU on a scramble, and if he gets free from a blitz, he could tuck the ball and run for a while.
Yes, we said new offensive coordinator
Alabama coach Nick Saban rolled the dice and dumped Lane Kiffin last week in favor of Steve Sarkisian, who will call plays for the first time since October 2015.
The best offense is a good defense, especially when the defense is a pretty great offense
Alabama’s defense scored four touchdowns last season, all on interception returns. The Tide have 11 defensive touchdowns (six interception returns, five fumble returns) this season. What’s crazy is that Alabama defenders intercepted more passes last year (19) than they did this year (16). This group simply has a knack for making opposing offenses pay the ultimate price for mistakes. The Peach Bowl win against Washington turned on linebacker Ryan Anderson’s pick-six just before the half. Now the Tide will face Watson, who is tied for second in the nation in interceptions with 17.