-- As compelling as their paths were just to reach the College Football Playoff, the four semifinal teams' respective paths to the championship are the paramount concern now.
With that in mind, this third of a four-part series covers what the Alabama Crimson Tide need to do to successfully navigate their way to the title. (The case for the No. 4-ranked Oklahoma Sooners can be found here, and the case for the No. 3-ranked Michigan State Spartans can be found here.)
(Note: Unless otherwise specified, the metrics referenced below are from games against Power 5 opponents and the rankings indicate placement among the 65 Power 5 teams or qualifying players from those teams.)
How the Crimson Tide can defeat Michigan State
The Crimson Tide opens its playoff slate by squaring off against Michigan State in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.
There is no bigger concern for Alabama than stopping Michigan State's vertical passing game (vertical being defined as aerials that travel 11 or more yards downfield).
Spartans quarterback Connor Cook ranks seventh in vertical pass total QBR (91.2) and his 12 vertical pass touchdowns place tied for sixth. Cook also has superb vertical metrics in completion percentage (52.1 percent, ranked 10th) and interceptions (three, tied for 10th).
This is just the type of strength that can beat Alabama, as the Crimson Tide rank tied for 45th in passing plays allowed of 20 or more yards (36), tied for 31st in pass plays of 30 or more yards allowed (14) and tied for 56th in pass plays allowed of 40 or more yards (10).
As bad as all of this might sound, if Alabama puts together a defensive game plan that stops the Spartans' downfield passing game, Michigan State's offense won't have a strong alternate plan to lean on.
They may not be able to rely on the short passing game (throws that travel 10 or fewer yards downfield), as Cook ranks 40th in short pass total QBR (53.9) and 48th in short pass completion percentage (61.6 percent). A main factor in these subpar numbers is that the Spartans' pass-catchers are not adept at turning short passes into longer gains. Michigan State has turned only four short passes into a gain of 20 or more yards, a total that's tied for 52nd.
Adopting this "stop the deep pass first" approach might normally cause concern that the opponent could lean more on its ground game, but Michigan State's rushing attack this season has been mediocre. The Spartans rank 46th in percentage of rushes that gain five or more yards (35.5 percent) and tied for 40th in rushes that gain 10 or more yards (44). Put this ground attack up against an Alabama defense that allowed the fewest rush yards per game (78.2) in part because of the dominant performance of its defensive line, and it means Alabama should win this particular in-game battle hands down.
The takeaway is that if the Crimson Tide shut down the Spartans' vertical passing game, they will shut down the Michigan State offense and likely win this contest.
How the Crimson Tide can defeat Clemson
Clemson has very few weaknesses, but the ones it has can be damaging enough to cause a loss.
Prime on this list is Deshaun Watson's penchant for throwing interceptions on vertical passes. He ranks 48th in vertical interception percentage (7.3), but the real key to getting turnovers here is to not blitz him. Watson has a 2.9 percent vertical interception rate when the opponent sends a blitzer, but that pace skyrockets to 9.3 percent when the other team sits back in coverage and doesn't send additional rushers.
This dovetails quite well with Alabama's defense, as the Crimson Tide have a 7.5 percent interception rate when not blitzing on vertical passes (ranks 19th), but Alabama also has a tremendous track record of picking off vertical throws when it does blitz. The Crimson Tide's 10.5 percent interception rate under these circumstances ranks sixth, so they might be able to get Watson to make some risky passes when sending an additional pass-rusher.
On defense, the Tigers' weakness is a hit-and-miss rushing defense. Clemson ranks first in percentage of rushing attempts that gain zero or negative yards (36.7 percent), but the Tigers are tied for 34th in percent of rushes that gain 10 or more yards (13.8 percent). Alabama could exploit that penchant for giving up big plays via a rushing offense that is tied for 11th nationally in rushes of 20 or more yards against FBS opponents (18), tied for seventh in rushes of 30 or more yards (10) and tied for sixth in rushes of 50 or more yards (four).
A third Clemson weakness is a special-teams platoon that may be the worst in college football. The Tigers' minus-28.5 mark in ESPN Stats & Information's special teams expected points added ( STEPA) metric ranks at the bottom among Power 5 teams. Alabama isn't elite in this category, but its 10.4 STEPA ranks 28th and indicates it could have a significant advantage in this area.
How the Crimson Tide can defeat Oklahoma
Oklahoma can go toe-to-toe with Alabama in a wide variety of areas, but there may not be a bigger potential mismatch in the College Football Playoff than the Sooners' pass blocking versus the Crimson Tide's pass rush.
Alabama's defense has the highest overall sack percentage (11.3 percent), the highest sack rate when blitzing (14.3 percent) and the highest sack rate when not sending a blitz (10.6 percent).
The Crimson Tide also rank second in pressure rate (the percentage of time where a quarterback is sacked, under duress, or hit) when not blitzing (34.0 percent) and when blitzing (46.5 percent).
This is not the kind of matchup Oklahoma's pass-blockers will want to see. The Sooners' offense ranks tied for 52nd in overall sack percentage (7.8 percent), tied for 52nd in sack percentage allowed when the opposing team doesn't blitz (7.8 percent) and tied for 55th in sack percentage when facing a blitz (12.9 percent).
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield also fares incredibly poorly when under duress or hit on a play. Mayfield's 7.8 total QBR in those situations rates 28th among Power 5 quarterbacks and is a stark contrast to his 87.0 total QBR when not under duress or hit (a total that ranks third among Power 5 quarterbacks).
This may be the only way to stop Oklahoma's powerhouse offense, so getting a win in this area is a necessity for Alabama to get a victory in this matchup.