Despite having a Heisman Trophy winner and a freshman receiver who was the No. 1 recruit at his position on the offensive side of the ball, the calling card of the 2015 Alabama Crimson Tide was defense.
Alabama was first in ESPN’s defensive efficiency rankings this season. Alabama led FBS teams in opponent Total QBR this season. The Tide posed a 12.1 in that stat, the best over the past 10 years.
But in the biggest game of the season, a 45-40 win over Clemson in Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game, the Tide’s defense was very un-Alabama-like.
Yards per game don’t mean much, but that was a bunch of yards
The yards-per-game statistic doesn’t necessarily tell us a lot about the relative strengths of offenses and defenses. Still, it’s hard to ignore the number that Clemson posted Monday night: 550.
In nine seasons under coach Nick Saban, Alabama has given up more than 550 yards twice: 630 yards in a 55-44 Iron Bowl win over Auburn in 2014 and 628 yards in a 49-42 win over Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in 2013.
The only other time Alabama has given up at least 500 yards was in last season’s 42-35 Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State.
Watson’s performance one for the books
The key contributor to Clemson’s offensive performance was Deshaun Watson, the Tigers’ quarterback. Watson, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting (won by Alabama’s Derrick Henry), compiled 478 yards of total offense, a record for a national championship game.
Watson completed 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. His 405 passing yards also set a record for a national championship game.
It speaks to the magnitude of Watson’s performance that the records for total offense and passing yards were set in the 2005 Rose Bowl, the Texas-USC classic in which Vince Young amassed 467 yards of offense and Matt Leinart passed for 365 yards.
If not defense, how did Alabama win?
Clemson averaged 6.5 yards per play, more than the FBS-best 4.3 yards per play Alabama’s defense allowed entering the game.
So, how did Alabama win? How did the Crimson Tide end Clemson’s streak of 51 victories in games it led in the fourth quarter? How did Alabama win a bowl game for the first time when allowing 30 or more points (had been 0-for-11)?
A big factor was special teams. Alabama entered the game 29th in the FBS in ESPN’s special-teams efficiency rankings, compared with Clemson’s 123rd, and the teams’ performances bore out those rankings.
The Tide’s successful onside kick in the fourth quarter set up a touchdown pass that gave Alabama a 31-24 lead. Onside kicks attempted before the final five minutes of the fourth quarter -- Alabama’s came with 10 minutes, 34 seconds left -- were successful 36 percent of the time this season, but the Tide pulled it off.
Kenyan Drake’s 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown halfway through the fourth quarter gave Alabama an 11-point lead. It was the sixth special-teams touchdown of the season for Alabama, tied with Tennessee for the most in the FBS.
Did you know?
In the first 12 games of its 13-game winning streak against Clemson, Alabama allowed a total of 54 points and did not allow more than 14 points in any game.