PHOENIX -- If Alabama does a better job slowing down Clemson's fast-paced, high-scoring offense in Monday night's College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, the Crimson Tide can thank Houston coach Tom Herman for his help.
A year ago, then-No. 1 Alabama's defense was shredded by eventual national champion Ohio State's high-tempo offense in a 42-35 loss in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Allstate Sugar Bowl. With Herman directing OSU's offense, the Buckeyes piled up 537 total yards in quarterback Cardale Jones' second career start.
The Buckeyes then routed Oregon 42-20 in the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship. A few days after the Buckeyes upset the Crimson Tide, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart called Herman and talked to him for about two hours. Smart asked Herman how the Buckeyes were able to move the ball so effectively and what tendencies and deficiencies he noticed while scouting the Crimson Tide on film. Smart asked Herman what the Alabama defense might do in the future to become more adept at defending fast-tempo offenses.
"That's what you do as coaches," Smart said. "If you can't look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'I got my butt beat,' you're not going to get better."
Shortly after Herman was named Houston's coach, Alabama coach Nick Saban invited him and a few of his assistants to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to spend a day with the Crimson Tide's coaches. Herman told Saban and the others that the Buckeyes tried to play at a faster tempo at the start of the game to wear down Alabama's mammoth defensive linemen. The Buckeyes rarely huddled in the first half, as to not allow the Crimson Tide to substitute on defense. He said OSU also tried to get its offensive playmakers in space to make Alabama's linebackers and safeties run from sideline to sideline to make plays in the open field.
"He talked about going fast early to wear down our big guys," Smart said. "They were going sideline to sideline, throwing the bubble [screens] and wide screens to get people running sideline to sideline. At the end, they kind of stuck it in our hearts. They ran the ball down our throats at the end because we'd played so many snaps."
More than anything else, Smart said Alabama's defense wore down because it couldn't get the Buckeyes off the field. Ohio State went 10-for-18 on third down in the Sugar Bowl, converting six third-down plays that were 8 yards or longer. In fact, the Buckeyes averaged 20.1 yards on their third-down conversions.
Jones, who took over as the starting quarterback after J.T. Barrett was injured in the regular-season finale against Michigan, ran for three first downs on third-down plays and completed four passes of 25 yards or longer.
"Ultimately, we didn't play very well on third down that game," Smart said. "That created a lot of other issues. When you don't get off the field on third down and make stops, kids get tired. If we get off the field on third down, then we're over there resting and drinking Gatorade. If our offense is sustaining drives, we're over there resting and drinking Gatorade. If we don't get off the field on third down, we get tired because they're going fast."
Smart said the Crimson Tide didn't make any seismic tactical adjustments and didn't change their philosophy on defense after consulting with Herman. But Alabama's defense made more subtle changes, like rotating more defensive linemen in games.
"I think the defensive front has made a huge difference," Saban said. "I do think we played a little better in the back end, which has minimized the big plays. I'm not satisfied with where our defense is, but they certainly make every acknowledgment that they've played pretty well this season."
The Tide also has more athletic players starting at linebacker and safety. In the past, Alabama's safeties, such as Landon Collins and Mark Barron, were bigger and more physical to help in run support. The starting safeties this season, Eddie Jackson and Geno Matias-Smith, are converted cornerbacks. They're leaner (both weigh less than 200 pounds), faster and better players in pass coverage.
"We've tried to make an effort to work against that stuff a lot more this year," Smart said. "We're better equipped. We have more athletic personnel in the secondary. We're got a little better athletes in the linebacker corps. Up front, we've got more guys who can play winning football. We had good players last year -- the same guys -- but we didn't play as many of them and didn't execute as well. We've got more depth and we're playing a little better."
On Monday night, the Crimson Tide's new look on defense will get the ultimate test from Clemson. Like Ohio State, the Tigers play up-tempo on offense and score quickly. Clemson is 15th nationally in scoring with 38.5 points per game, and it ranks in the top 25 in the FBS in passing (288.5 yards) and in rushing (222.2).
Like Jones, Clemson's Deshaun Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist, is a dual threat who can hurt the Tide with his arm and his legs.
"We've got to play more guys and play well in space," Smart said. "When we give up explosive plays, it makes the team tired. It demoralizes you, and that's what Ohio State did. I'm sure Clemson is watching that game, but we've tried to correct that game all year."
And just think, it started with a telephone call to Herman.