Clemson football owes its place in a second consecutive College Football Playoff championship game to the evolution of its defense under coordinator Brent Venables.
Since Dabo Swinney drew the line after the 2012 Orange Bowl — the result of Kevin Steele’s defense giving up 70 points to West Virginia — Clemson’s consistently featured one of the most aggressive defenses in college football.
But the Tigers aren’t impenetrable. In a bit of role reversal, Alabama head coach Nick Saban can look to his former protege Jimbo Fisher for inspiration against the Clemson defense.
Fisher’s Florida State Seminoles lost an instant classic against Clemson this week, but offered a blueprint for solving Venables’ outstanding defense.
Step 1: Have a running back the caliber of Dalvin Cook in the backfield.
Step 2: Give him the touches necessary to cause damage.
Few rosters satisfy the necessary first step, but Alabama’s is one that does. Bo Scarbrough, the latest product of Saban’s 5-Star Running Back Factory, hasn’t seen a steady enough workload to draw direct comparison to Cook.
After all, Cook was a Heisman-caliber player for two consecutive years (even if voters weren’t savvy enough to make him a finalist either campaign). Scarbrough’s never carried 20-plus times in any one game during his college career, with his 19 in last week’s Peach Bowl setting a personal high.
But in that Peach Bowl performance, Scarbrough lived up to his 5-star billing. His 180 account for nearly 10 percent of all the rushing yardage the Washington defense allowed against for the entire 2016 season.
Scarbrough also got to the end zone twice, his second straight game with multiple rushing touchdowns. Both came against quality rush defenses. His two scores against Florida in the SEC Championship Game capped a robust 8.3-yard per carry afternoon.
Scarbrough said in his teleconference call on Tuesday that, after sustaining a minor injury against Auburn, he was 100 percent for Washington, and remains so headed into Tampa. It’s full steam ahead for the 6-foot-2, 230-pound back.
And that brings us back to Cook.
Florida State’s star almost singlehandedly derailed Clemson’s ACC and national championship hopes on Oct. 29. Against a Clemson defense holding ball-carriers to an average of 3.5 yards per carry, Cook rolled off a ridiculous 8.9 yards per and scored four touchdowns.
All of Clemson’s 13 other opponents for the season scored a combined 13 rushing touchdowns.
All the more impressive? Cook got minimal support from quarterback Deondre Francois, who completed fewer than 50 percent of his pass attempts in the 37-34 contest. Francois was under constant duress, as well, manifesting in six Tiger sacks.
From that game emanates a positive for Alabama. Clemson succeeded in harassing a young quarterback, yet Florida State still had an opportunity to win.
The Crimson Tide come into Monday’s championship with a freshman, Jalen Hurts, behind center. Hurts doesn’t have to be spectacular under the bright lights of a title game, so long as Scarbrough can jump-start the running game in a fashion approaching that of Dalvin Cook.
Scarbrough isn’t a carbon copy of Cook — what running back is? — but the Alabama sophomore demonstrated some comparable elusiveness against Washington. It’s not all over-powering would-be tacklers — though Scarbrough can provide plenty of that.
To that end, Scarbrough invites comparison to another running back more so than Cook: Pitt’s James Conner. Conner’s measurables are almost identical to Scarbrough’s, and there are similarities to glean from their running styles.
Conner was instrumental to Pitt’s upset of the Tigers in November, rolling off 6.6 per carry for 132 yards and scoring a touchdown. Conner added a second touchdown on one of his three receptions, which totaled 57 yards.
Herein lies a potentially game-changing wrinkle for Scarbrough and the Alabama offense.
He hasn’t been used as a pass-catcher much; in fact, Scarbrough’s received all of two passes in his college career, for gains of six and nines yards. But that doesn’t mean he can’t if called upon.
AL.com’s Andrew Gribble noted that as a prospect, the Alabama offense under Lane Kiffin could use Scarbrough at wide receiver.
Kiffin’s gone, but in his place is Steve Sarkisian. The former USC and Washington head coach has a penchant for running pass plays to his running backs.
Buck Allen — a back with size and skills comparable to Scarbrough — caught 41 passes for 458 yards in 2014. Bishop Sankey caught 28 passes at Washington in 2013, and Chris Polk was on the receiving end of 22, 25 and 31 passes three of his four seasons playing for Sarkisian.
The abrupt change in offensive play-caller could make new use of Scarbrough in a fashion with some proven success against Venables’ defense.