Avoiding turnovers is important in any football game. For Clemson facing Alabama in Monday night’s national championship game, it’s imperative.
The Crimson Tide leads major-college football in non-offensive touchdowns. Alabama has scored 15 times this season without the offense being on the field. Next best in that category is Ohio State with seven.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has hammered this week on how essential ball security and precise special-teams play will be to his Tigers.
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“If they don’t score on defense or special teams, we’ve got a really good chance,” Swinney said this week of the title-game rematch with Alabama. “When they can do that, it’s a very difficult animal to deal with."
Clemson’s performance this season is a mixed bag in that regard. The Tigers are turnover-prone: They have lost nine fumbles and quarterback Deshaun Watson has thrown 17 interceptions.
However, only one Watson interception resulted in a return for a touchdown (versus N.C. State). Watson threw two interceptions against Ohio State in the national semifinal, but neither resulted in points in a 31-0 Clemson victory.
Swinney said the difference between Alabama and most defenses is how automatically they convert into offensive players.
“Guys are blocking quick. They expect it to happen. That mentality has been ingrained into them,” Swinney said. “Fifteen (turnovers returned for scores) is just unbelievable.”
Clemson allowed one long kickoff return this season, with Ohio State’s Parris Campbell advancing the kick 54 yards. But, again, that field position on Clemson’s side of the 50-yard line resulted in no points.
Clemson had many shaky moments last season on special teams. Swinney brought in consultants on special-teams play over the summer to help tighten up performance.
“We studied some new things, we spent a lot of time and got the personnel the way we needed it to be” Swinney said. “We played a lot of freshmen (on special teams) last year. We’ve just got the right people doing the right things.”
Tide QB ‘doesn’t play like freshman’
The Crimson Tide is starting a true freshman at quarterback for the first time since 1984.
Jalen Hurts made his first start in Alabama’s second game this season, and is 13-0 as a starter. Like Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, he’s a dual-threat quarterback. Hurts has thrown for 2,649 yards and 22 touchdowns. He’s rushed for 891 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett was supposed to challenge the Tigers’ defense in the national semifinal, but Clemson exposed him as mediocre as a thrower and a runner. The Tigers see Hurts as far more dangerous.
“Hurts is a lot more consistent passer and more athletic. Although he is a freshman, he doesn’t play like a freshman at all,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said.
“I don’t know if he’ll take a hit as well as Barrett, who is about 230. (Hurts is 6-foot-2 and 209 pounds). We want to get some pressure on him, get some hits on him, because he’s not near as big as Barrett.”
Speaking of Barrett, Clemson safety Jadar Johnson scoffed at Barrett’s ability before the game with the Buckeyes. Boulware said Clemson could live with Johnson’s public bravado because he backed it up with performance.
“After he said it, he probably wishes he hadn’t said it. But at the end of the day, we proved it. You can say what you want, but you better make sure you back it up,” Boulware said of Johnson.
“That (trash talk) is not going to happen this week. We have a lot of respect for Jalen Hurts and that offense.”
Alabama’s new play-caller
Alabama coach Nick Saban announced outgoing offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin (he accepted the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic) would not coach in the national championship game. Kiffin’s successor, former Southern California coach Steve Sarkisian, will call Alabama’s plays Monday night.
Sarkisian’s promotion creates a sense of mystery about Alabama’s offensive menu. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables told his players figuring out Sarkisian’s tendencies are his problem, not theirs.
“We asked Coach V and he gave us about a 30-second answer,” Boulware said. “I don’t think it really affects us. It might affect (Venables) a little bit, but he’s not going to let that get into our heads. It’s not our problem to deal with.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell