Alabama, Clemson back in playoffs after mass talent exodus
By JOHN ZENOR
Dec. 27, 2017
Clemson was fresh from the national championship game two years ago when the coaches called a highly touted recruit already being pursued by other big-name programs.
Kansas high school safety Isaiah Simmons listened, welcomed coach Dabo Swinney's recruiting visit and ultimately signed with the Tigers. He's now a significant contributor.
"Our reach is much, much further than it has ever been," Swinney said.
Welcome to Alabama's world, Clemson. Sustaining high-level success is never easy, but being on that national stage and regularly contending for titles often facilitates entry into the living rooms of the kind of recruits who can help programs stay at the top.
That's certainly evident in the Sugar Bowl, where the top-ranked Tigers reached after replacing two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson, fellow first-round NFL draft pick Mike Williams and plenty more offensive talent after last season's national title. No. 4 Alabama lost a similar amount of defensive stars.
Perhaps the respective units haven't been quite as dominant but both teams are right back where they were last year — and the year before — in the College Football Playoffs contending for a national title. They've split the past two championships.
Nick Saban has made reloading into a science at Alabama. In his words, the process .
NFL draft picks exit. Similarly talented high school prospects enter. The machinery keeps running .
Swinney's doing it awfully well these days, too.
Alabama arrived at Louis Armstrong International New Orleans airport on damp Wednesday morning to begin their final Sugar preparations. The Tid had to replace seven defensive players drafted within the first four rounds, including first-rounders Marlon Humphrey, Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster.
The Tigers had seven offensive starters depart, including a 4,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard receiver and 1,000-yard rusher (Wayne Gallman). Only 22.7 percent of the offensive production returned from 2016, less than all but two of 130 FBS teams.
Saban praises the way Alabama players have embraced new roles, and sees similar results from Clemson's offense led by quarterback Kelly Bryant .
"They have really good players. They recruit well," Saban said. "And the guys that they've had step in on offense have done a fantastic job for them this year, starting with the quarterback. The receivers, the new running backs, those guys have all been very effective for them. They are almost as productive offensively as they were a year ago."
And that's saying something from a group that averaged 39 points and 503 yards per game. The 2017 Clemson offense averages a still-not-shabby 35.4 points and 448 yards.
Alabama's defense is still pretty darn good, even without a dominant pass rusher like Allen or Tim Williams and with a barrage of injuries, especially at linebacker. The Tide will be without linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton and almost certainly freshman Dylan Moses with injuries through the playoffs, along with starting safety Hootie Jones. Linebackers Christian Miller, Terrell Lewis and Mack Wilson figure to be healthier for the Sugar Bowl after returning from injuries in the regular-season finale against No. 7 Auburn.
Injuries aren't nearly as predictable as graduations and early departures but the same principle applies.
"I think what this place does a great job of is having the next man up, everyone knowing what to do no matter who goes down," Tide cornerback Levi Wallace said.
Replacing loads of talent is nothing new for either team. Alabama has produced more NFL draft picks (65) over the past nine years than any other program, including 22 first-rounders. Five Clemson players have been chosen in the first round over the past three drafts.
Despite the NFL departures and injuries, Alabama's defense still leads the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 11.5 points per game. That's even better than last year's nation-leading 13 points allowed, and the pass defense has been even better, too. Both units ranked second nationally in total yards allowed 9though Alabama's numbers last year are somewhat skewed after allowing 511 years to Watson and the Tigers).
Versatile defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick is a unanimous All-American who won the Chuck Bednarik and Jim Thorpe awards as the nation's top defensive player and defensive back, respectively.
Clemson offensive lineman Justin Falcinelli said Alabama's defense looks almost the same on film over the past three seasons and uses talent and technique to overpower offenses.
"It's just some different (jersey) numbers," Falcinelli said. "They are powerful."
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Associated Press Writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.