Sports Journalism Blog

By Tyler Fenwick | @Ty_Fenwick

Sports Capital Journalism Program

TAMPA, Fla. — No defense in college football was as dominant as Alabama’s this season. From 11 defensive touchdowns to 11.4 points allowed per game, achievements that led the nation, the Crimson Tide have been having their way with virtually every opponent.

Unfortunately for Clemson, its offensive shortfall is in perfect alignment with the strength of the Alabama defense. The Tigers turned the ball over 26 times this season, one of the worst marks in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

An opportunistic defense gave the Tigers a plus-1 turnover margin, but as Alabama has demonstrated 11 times, it may not even have to go through Clemson’s defense to get points off a turnover.

Taking care of the football on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T is the No. 1 priority for the Crimson Tide.

“We have to take care of the ball,” said redshirt sophomore running back Adam Choice, who didn’t play last season as he recovered from an anterior cruciate ligament injury. “I believe if we’re able to do that, we’ll be able to move the ball and get some points.”

Sophomore tight end Garrett Williams had a similar message.

“We can’t beat ourselves,” said Williams, who played in last year’s game as a true freshman but didn’t record a catch.

Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Trevion Thompson: Same thing.

“No turnovers.”

With almost two turnovers per game, though, including more than an interception per game from junior quarterback Deshaun Watson, Clemson is staring at a harsh reality: How often the Tigers turn the ball over has been a reliable indicator of how they have done this season.

“Whenever we have turnovers, the game is a lot tougher,” Watson said. “But whenever we control the ball and protect the ball, the game is a lot easier for us.”

Seven times Clemson turned the ball over once or not at all, and the Tigers outscored their opponents 328-72. That’s an average margin of victory of 36.5 points. Seven times Clemson has turned the ball over at least twice, and the Tigers outscored their opponents 225-167, an average margin of just 8.3 points.

Although the Tigers were still able to win six games with at least two turnovers, Alabama is not NC State. When the Alabama defense gets its hands on the ball, there’s a decent chance it’s turning into six points, with freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts and the Crimson Tide offense getting to watch all of it from the sideline.

Choice and co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott had different ideas about how to approach the Alabama defense.

“Try to stay within ourselves,” said Choice. “Try not to do anything special, just stay within our system.”

Then there’s Elliott.

“If you sit back and are timid to call certain plays because you’re worried about a turnover, you’re not going to be able to attack some of the weaknesses they possess,” he said. “If you don’t do that, you won’t have an opportunity to score points. Doesn’t matter if they score on defense, your team won’t be in the game.”

According to Thompson, who didn’t play in last year’s game, there’s no secret formula to keeping hold of the football.

“We can’t take a play off,” said Thompson. “That’s the biggest lesson that we learned.”

Williams, who had a key block on the Wayne Gallman 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of last year’s championship game, said his team gained a sense of belonging after playing with Alabama for 60 minutes in a game they felt they should have won.

“We know we can hang with them,” Williams said.

For what it’s worth, last season’s problem in this game was missed opportunities on defense. But in Round Two, going against a Crimson Tide defense that scores almost five points per game, Tiger turnovers could mean a championship may come down to opportunities Clemson simply never has.