A rematch of a classic title game offers so many narrative threads to choose from; you can pick one and drag it to any conclusion you want.
Last year, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson played the best game of his life — or most other quarterbacks’ lives, for that matter — putting up 405 passing yards and four touchdowns, plus 73 more yards rushing, and the Tigers lost anyway.
Sure, Alabama needed a fluky onside kick to win last year’s title game and suffered tremendous attrition: Seven Bama players were picked in the first two days of the NFL draft, including Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, but not including starting quarterback Jacob Coker, whose replacement is a true freshman. But Alabama has near-infinite depth. For 10 seasons, Nick Saban has cycled through dozens of linemen and linebackers who would’ve been outlawed under the Washington Naval Treaty, and one running back after another who bowls through college lines like Ron Dayne wearing a trenchcoat and sitting on Eddie George’s shoulders. Even that true freshman quarterback, Jalen Hurts, threw for 2,649 yards and led the team with 12 rushing touchdowns.
However successful the program’s been under Dabo Swinney, Clemson is still a team made up of relatively young human men, not interchangeable 99-rated Create-A-Players like Alabama. So any analysis of ways that Clemson could improve on its performance from last season has to include two stylistically different but similarly terrifying junior two receivers: Artavis Scott, whose performance in last year’s title game was relatively modest, and Mike Williams, who missed the game through injury.
Scott set up Clemson’s first touchdown with a 43-yard kick return and scored in the fourth quarter during Clemson’s ultimately fruitless comeback, but Bama held him to 52 total yards from scrimmage. That was a victory for Alabama, because if Scott gets rolling, he’s one of the most annoying players in college football to stop.
First of all, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Scott is one of those hybrid players who can line up in the backfield, or in the slot, or — on his touchdown in last year’s title game — alone on the outside. A couple of weeks ago, I caught Artavis Scott lined up in my kitchen in the middle of the night making a BLT. He’s everywhere.
With only 17 career carries, Scott isn’t technically a factor in the run game, but only because his bread-and-butter play is a variation on a handoff seen in the first play in the video above. Scott goes in motion and Watson takes the snap out of the shotgun, then chest-passes the ball to Scott as he runs by, not only eliminating the risk of a fumble (because if the pass isn’t on target or Scott drops it, it’s technically a forward pass), but allowing Scott to take the ball while he’s already at full speed and everyone else is still getting off the blocks.
Scott is quick enough to squirm through a hole here and strong enough to power through a tackle there, and before you know it he’s caught 13 passes for 125 yards against Pitt, or 10 for 162 yards against Boston College. If your defensive backs can’t tackle, he could break a 5-yard slant for a 70-yard touchdown. Scott isn’t the guy Watson uses to take the top off a defense, but he gives Clemson the option of just picking up 7 or 8 yards more or less at will.
While Scott’s lining up in unconventional places or staking out holes in the zone, Williams usually ends up in the same place: exactly one step behind a cornerback, waiting for the football.
Williams posted a 1,000-yard season as a sophomore in 2014, then caught a touchdown pass on Clemson’s first drive of the 2015 season, but ran into the goal post and broke a bone in his neck on the play. The injury forced Williams to miss the rest of 2015, including Clemson’s title game loss to Alabama. Back after a redshirt year, Williams is more dominant than ever. Watson likes to spread the ball around — six Tigers caught 30 or more passes for 400 or more yards — but Williams leads the team in receptions (90) and receiving touchdowns (10), and his 1,267 receiving yards almost double his closest teammate’s total. That production, and the physical talents that enable it, prompted ESPN’s Todd McShay to rate Williams the no. 1 wideout — and no. 10 prospect overall — in this draft class. Opposing defenses can’t load up at the line to stop Scott on screens or the Watson–Wayne Gallman zone-read game, because Williams always, always, always has one step on the cornerback.
And it’s always one step. Williams isn’t Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson, but at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, and with 4.4-second 40-yard speed, he’s able to get open just enough to get his Spider-Man hands on the football wherever Watson puts it. If Watson drops it over Williams’s shoulder, he’ll get to it. If Watson leads Williams on a post or a go, Williams will track it down. If Watson lets the air out of the football, ties it to a dumbbell, and drops it in the deep end of your swimming pool, Williams will dive in and find it.
The contrast between Scott and Williams is part of what makes Clemson’s offense so dangerous. Even if Bama’s secondary can stay in front of Williams and smother Scott, it’s got to do so without letting Deon Cain — himself absent from last year’s title game through suspension — and Ray-Ray McCloud loose on the other side, or springing tight end Jordan Leggett — who is, at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, an O.J. Howard–class battleship himself — over the middle, or letting slot receiver Hunter Renfrow loose. Jeremy Pruitt’s defense has to pressure Watson, but not so recklessly that the Tide leave open a running lane. They’ve got to stop Gallman, who scored 16 rushing touchdowns this season, but in such a way that they don’t leave themselves open to screens or the catastrophic play-action bomb to Williams.
Watson, himself one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the college game, has weapons that are terrifying not in their number, but in their diversity, and the most dangerous of all — Williams — is one that Alabama hasn’t seen yet.