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This time, Clemson turns to elite depth to challenge Alabama

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Clemson, Alabama gearing up for big moment (1:49)

Laura Rutledge and Marty Smith share insight into Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney's mindset ahead of the Sugar Bowl. (1:49)

NEW ORLEANS -- When Clemson’s coaching staff gathers on Sundays after games, Dabo Swinney always scans the participation chart.

Unlike some head coaches, Swinney doesn’t question why the top running back didn’t log more carries or the No. 1 wide receiver wasn’t targeted more in the passing game. His eyes immediately go to the bottom of the depth chart.

“He’s always challenging us as coaches to play more players,” said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, who also coaches Clemson’s wide receivers. “He wants to play everybody that deserves the opportunity.”

This isn’t little league. It’s the highest level of college football, with the best players and the highest stakes. Coaches aren’t required to empty their benches. But Swinney’s approach, adopted by Scott and co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, is that Clemson’s strength in numbers should overwhelm opposing defenses.

The 2017 Tigers offense best reflects the program’s philosophy. Unlike last year, when Clemson had alpha dogs at all the skill positions -- wide receiver Mike Williams, tight end Jordan Leggett, running back Wayne Gallman and quarterback Deshaun Watson -- the current offense is defined by its depth and rotations.

Wide receivers Hunter Renfrow, Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud all have between 46 and 55 receptions, and five other receivers or tight ends have between 11 and 18. While quarterback Kelly Bryant leads the team with 173 rushes, running backs Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster both have 103, while Adam Choice and C.J. Fuller have combined for 120.

“We kind of look at the games as a 10-round boxing match,” Scott said. “Offensively, we’re changing our boxer every round, and they’re having to keep the same guy in there. So Round 9 and Round 10, that really becomes an advantage for us. Because overall defensively, a lot of coaches don’t want to play a lot of backups. If a defensive player makes a mistake, it can cost you a touchdown. If an offensive player makes a mistake, it’s second-and-15.

“It’s a big part of our formula.”

It’s a formula that Alabama’s defense, undermanned for much of the season, must contend with Monday night in the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Tide lost last year’s national title game partly on endurance, as their defense logged 99 plays, the last of which, a 2-yard touchdown pass to Renfrow, won the game for Clemson. Scott said Clemson’s wide receivers had logged 60 to 62 plays entering the game-winning drive, while some of Alabama’s defenders had been on the field for 85 to 90 plays.

Although Clemson hasn’t run more than 89 plays in a game this season, it will try to use tempo and numbers to wear down the Tide. In preparation for the game, Scott has talked to the receivers less about Renfrow’s game-winning catch and more about the 43-yard reception by then-backup Deon Cain that sparked Clemson’s offense after Alabama had jumped ahead 14-0.

His challenge: Who is that going to be this year?

“They go a lot of fastball to get players in and out,” Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “It definitely is hard, physically. But I think we do a really good job, going fastball and practicing, having fresh receivers going in and out every play. I can run down the field 50 yards and come back and there’s a new receiver in front of me who was just sitting on the sidelines.”

Alabama’s defenders are confident in their fitness level. They’ve only been on the field for an average of 63.8 plays per game (Clemson averages 75.2 offensive plays) and never for more than 78 snaps. Outside linebackers Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller, both injured in Week 1, are available for the game, boosting a position group hit hard by health issues all season. Mack Wilson, who had foot surgery in November, should be more effective after some time off.

But the Tide know the longer they stay on the field with Clemson’s assembly line of backs and receivers, the tougher it gets to finish better than they did a year ago. Clemson converted 7 of 18 third-down chances in last year's title game.

“If we get off on third down, we eliminate all those things where we have to play 100-plus plays,” Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “Any defense that plays that many plays, you’re going to get tired. You’re human.”

Scott thinks all nine of his receivers boast starter-level ability, and Clemson has established itself as arguably the nation’s premier wide receiver program. The difference this year, according to Elliott, is the emergence of multiple big-play running backs like Etienne (four runs of 50 yards or longer) and Feaster (four runs of 35 yards or longer). Gallman, who last year had 185 more carries than any other Tigers running back, averaged 4.9 yards per rush last season with just two runs longer than 30 yards.

“Now you've got dynamic young guys that can break big runs in the running game,” Elliott said. “So that gives you more flexibility and options.”

Those options give this year’s Clemson offense, which is a bit short on star power, the chance to repeat as the national champion. Alabama, meanwhile, must find a way to reduce the Tigers’ arsenal.

“Our goal is to play a lot of games,” Scott said, “so we want to make sure our guys are going to be fresh.”