There was a fair amount of sentiment expressed in the comments to yesterday’s post about how Georgia comes out of the gate in a couple of weeks about pounding Clemson early and often with the running game. I understand why, but a look at last year’s stats and this year’s Tigers personnel suggests that’s not where that defense is most vulnerable.
Clemson was a really, really good football team with one terrible flaw. And this one flaw defined their season. It explains why they gave up 49 points to Florida State, were poorly matched against South Carolina, and had to like their chances against LSU…
… Clemson allowed 7.4 explosive pass plays per 100 passes, which is top 20 bad. They allowed an explosive play on 4.4% of run plays, which is top 5 bad. Adjusting for schedule, they are sandwiched between Colorado and New Mexico. Those two powerhouses combined for four wins against FBS opposition (Texas State, New Mexico State, Hawaii and Washington State). Florida State and South Carolina were both top-level explosive offenses in 2012 while LSU was not.
Bill Connelly in his Clemson preview notes much the same thing.
The problem was that, while efficiency is incredibly important, preventing big plays is even more important. And Clemson was still wretched in that regard. It’s difficult to rank 16th in Rushing Success Rate+ (efficiency) and 95th in Rushing PPP (explosiveness). That means that basically every time you let a runner get more than about four yards, you’re letting him gain 20. Clemson’s line stats were decent, but it still appears Venables has a way to go when it comes to structuring the back seven as he prefers.
Especially the back of that back seven.
When the Oklahoma defense was at its best under Venables, the Sooners had the pieces to oscillate seamlessly between a competent 4-3 and an almost even more competent nickel look. To combat the spread offense, you almost have to have a good nickel formation, which was a problem for Clemson last year: The Tigers really seemed to only have about four trustworthy (and healthy) defensive backs. Three are now gone, and while sophomore safety Travis Blanks could at some point turn into something pretty special and corner Martin Jenkins returns after missing 2012, the depth here is not what it needs to be.
So I’m not seeing a reason to start out lining up in the I-formation and pounding Gurley over and over and over. Instead, what I think stands a better chance of success is coming out in single-back formations, spreading out Clemson’s defense with a mix and match of four receivers/TEs, forcing the Tigers to keep their safeties back in pass coverage and using the pass to set up the run. Give Gurley and Marshall some space to operate in, and Bill’s “let a runner get more than about four yards, you’re letting him gain 20” observation could turn out to be prophetic.