Alabama and Clemson boast a combined 89 former ESPN 300 prospects, 57 for the Crimson Tide and 32 for the Tigers. But in Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game, a matchup involving just eight of those ESPN 300 prospects could be a factor.
If there is a perceived advantage for Clemson, it is probably the Tigers’ deep passing game against the Crimson Tide secondary. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has 16 touchdown passes on throws of at least 20 yards, most among Power 5 conference quarterbacks this season.
Alabama has surrendered 41 pass plays of at least 20 yards this season, second most in the SEC. Alabama ranks 57th among 65 Power 5 teams in completion percentage allowed on passes thrown 20 yards or more downfield (39.3 percent). Watson has completed 42.6 percent of such passes (Power 5 average for quarterbacks: 36.0 percent).
It’s worth looking at how recruiting built Clemson’s passing game and Alabama’s secondary.
Watson was the No. 1 quarterback and the No. 16 player overall in the 2014 ESPN 300. The only quarterback ranked higher than Watson to commit to an ACC school in the ESPN 300 era (since 2006) was Jameis Winston, who won the national championship and the Heisman Trophy and was drafted No. 1 out of Florida State.
Watson, the highest-ranked recruit the Crimson Tide will have faced at quarterback this season, is the sixth former ESPN 300 quarterback to play against Alabama. The Tide held the previous five to a combined 47.2 completion percentage and 206 passing yards per game.
Clemson’s receivers were touted out of high school. The Tigers list three starting wide receivers and two starting tight ends. Four of them were among the top 10 at their respective positions out of high school, including three ESPN 300 prospects. Hunter Renfrow was unranked at wide receiver.
The most notable recruiting trend for Clemson’s passing game is where the players are from. Since Clemson nabbed Sammy Watkins out of Florida in 2011, the Sunshine State has been a pipeline for Tigers pass-catchers. Four of Clemson’s top five in receptions this season are from Florida, including first-team All-ACC selections Artavis Scott and Jordan Leggett.
These receivers will line up against an Alabama secondary that might be the most highly acclaimed unit, in terms of recruiting rankings, in college football. The Crimson Tide list five starters in their secondary, including freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick at the “star” position. The only starter who was not in the ESPN 300 is safety Eddie Jackson, who was first-team All-SEC this season and leads the Tide with five interceptions.
Fellow starters Fitzpatrick, Geno Matias-Smith, Marlon Humphrey and Cyrus Jones were all in the top 31 of the ESPN 300 out of high school. Unlike Clemson’s starting receivers, all five members of Alabama’s secondary hail from different states.
The starting secondary’s average position ranking out of high school was 14th. That is actually one spot better than the average ranking of the vaunted Alabama starting front seven, which has one former top-50 prospect, compared with four in the secondary.