The semifinal games of the College Football Playoff are hallmarked by contrasting styles. No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Oklahoma have thrived with diverse spread offenses that can stretch the field and utilize tempo to make opponents uncomfortable. No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 Alabama have kept their pro-style souls, although the Crimson Tide have evolved some in recent seasons with dual-threat Jalen Hurts at quarterback.
How will Clemson and Alabama match up in the Sugar Bowl? How will Oklahoma and Georgia match up in Rose Bowl? Yahoo Sports spoke with coaches who’ve faced them this season to break down their strengths and weaknesses, trading their honesty for anonymity.
Here’s how they viewed the vulnerabilities and strengths of Clemson and Alabama.
No. 1 Clemson
“I think Clemson is going to repeat as national champions, as I really think they are the complete package. Kelly Bryant is playing lights out for them right now, and at any level of football if you have a great quarterback and a great defense you are going to win. I really think their advantage against Alabama is going to be up front, as I think Alabama’s offense is going to be stymied by those guys on the defensive line. Clemson’s best strength is defending the run and that neutralizes what Alabama does best.
“When defensive end Clelin Ferrell wants to go, he’s unblockable. The combination of his quickness and his twitch with his size is unique. One of the most unique players in the game is Christian Wilkins, as he can kick out and play on an island vs. a tackle or a guard or isolate on the nose and play one-on-one with the center. They allow him to rotate inside and out and he can do it all.
“The thing that stands out about their secondary is how physical they are. Tanner Muse will knock your tail off, as he comes downhill to stop the run or can help the corner over the top. Clemson’s corners are very physical, can line up and play press. They were the one team we played this year where we needed to manufacture guys getting open, as we knew going in we couldn’t get open on our own.
“Offensively, their line is much improved. They aren’t a finesse spread team, as their tackles play physical. Their whole deal is that they end up fatiguing people, as they can run sideline to sideline but still exploit you down the field. Once they get their offense opened up, they tire you out with all their skill. I think they’ll do that again to Alabama.”
No. 4 Alabama
“First of all, I don’t think they’ll lose to Clemson two years in a row. Nick Saban rarely loses to a team two years in a row. My trust isn’t in the team. My vote and guess is on Nick.
“But this is a different Alabama team than in past years. They don’t have the alpha guy inside on the front. It’s just a different team for them. They don’t have the same threats that they had at rush end in past years. Now he has to be a little more exotic on third down. That means the focus for Clemson should be to get three or four yards each down up the middle. Running sideways on them is hard because their defense still runs really well. But this is a different Alabama team up front, you can hit them in the mouth and get three or four yards between the tackles.
“They’ve been jumping up and down about all of their injuries at linebacker. But in all the years that I’ve played Alabama, even when someone got hurt, someone else went in and it was fine. This is the first year they were really complaining about it, which to me tells you something.
“I don’t think it’s a huge talent deficit compared to years past; Da’Shawn Hand is a good player on the defensive line, Minkah Fitzpatrick is a good player in the secondary and Raekwon Davis is a good player on the line. But up front, I just think there’s a different mentality because they are so young. On tape, they’re getting knocked back up front. And it’s just that mentality that hasn’t been developed.
“On defense against them, it’s easy. You need to double cover No. 3 [Calvin Ridley]. Everything goes through No. 3. I think Jalen Hurts is the most talented quarterback in the league, or I should say he’s the most talented athlete in the league. I don’t think he processes information well. He’s gifted. He can throw the deep ball to Ridley and Jerry Jeudy. But that’s it. Other than that, they’re running the ball.
“What Clemson needs to do is stop the run and make him a passer, because they really haven’t asked him to do it that much.
“An area of concern against Clemson is Alabama’s offensive line. They’re not that good. I don’t see them being as in sync as they’ve been in the past. They’re not maulers. They’re playing like five tailbacks, which seems better for recruiting – ‘Get the carries and save yourself for the NFL’ – than reality. They don’t have the warhorses at tailback that they’ve had in past years, like Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, because they’re going from guy to guy to guy. There’s some games you watch and wonder why they aren’t giving the ball to Bo Scarbrough more.”