GLENDALE, Ariz. — It isn’t just that No. 1 Alabama versus No. 2 Clemson will give us the first national title rematch in the BCS/playoff era. It isn’t just that we have a sequel to the dynamic Deshaun Watson again squaring off with Nick Saban, perhaps the greatest coach in college football history, and his Olympian defense.
It’s that both teams, for a second consecutive season, delivered such emphatic whippings in their respective semifinal games that we reasonably suspect we’re headed for another classic, one that might even eclipse the 45-40 heavyweight fight the Crimson Tide won last postseason.
The Tide dispatched Washington 24-7 and outgained the overmatched Huskies 326 yards to 194. The Tigers drubbed Ohio State 31-0 and outgained the Buckeyes 470 yards to 215 while handing Urban Meyer his worst defeat and the program’s first shutout loss since 1993. Last season, it was Alabama pitching the semifinal shutout 38-0 against Michigan State while Clemson merely rolled over Oklahoma 37-17.
These are clearly the top two programs in college football. For the second consecutive season, they will play for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET Jan. 9 on ESPN/ESPN App) with just one defeat between them. Last season, Clemson was trying to become the first 15-0 FBS team in college football history. This year, it’s the Tide.
“Honestly, this is the game we wanted,” said Ben Boulware, Clemson’s boisterous linebacker. “We want our revenge. We want our redemption.”
The matchup is also enriched by difference. It’s the flagging SEC, which has become Alabama and everyone else, against the surging ACC, which is 8-3 this bowl season, with wins over two of the top teams in the Big Ten.
It’s a team that hasn’t won a national title since 1981 against one that is aiming for its fifth championship in eight seasons.
It’s the chatty, avuncular Dabo Swinney versus Saban, Mr. “Ass-Chewing,” who is shooting for his sixth national title.
Alabama, by the way, leads the series 13-2, having won 13 in a row.
“Alabama has been the standard,” said Swinney, who was raised in Pelham, Alabama, and was once a receivers and assistant coach at Alabama. “There’s really no argument to that. Sooner or later, if you’re going to be the best, you’ve got to beat ‘em.”
The Tigers almost did that last season. They outgained Alabama 550 yards to 473. Clemson’s point total tripled the Alabama defense’s season average. The Tigers’ yards more than doubled the Tide’s season average. Watson piled up 478 total yards, the most ever produced in a national championship game. He passed for 405 yards and four touchdowns with 73 yards rushing.
Come Jan. 9, Watson, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, will be the best quarterback the Tide have faced this season.
After last season’s game, Swinney told reporters, “There is no doubt that we will be back. It won’t be 34 years before we’re going to be back, I promise you that.”
When asked what’s different with this season’s team, Swinney cited three things: leadership, depth and experience. What’s different about Alabama? The defense that Watson will again be eyeballing is even bigger, badder and nastier than the 2015 unit.
The quirk for Alabama: It will send out true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts against a Clemson defense that brutalized the Buckeyes and veteran QB J.T. Barrett. Hurts looked like the Tide’s only weakness against Washington, as he struggled to create any sort of passing game. The quirk for Clemson is that despite winning the turnover battle 3-2 against the Buckeyes, it is still only plus-one in turnover margin on the season. The past 21 national champions were at least plus-three in turnover margin.
Clemson has opened as a touchdown underdog.
“I definitely think the narrative has changed with our program, but it seems like we’re always the underdog when we get in these big-type games,” Swinney said.
Maybe, but every team is an underdog to Alabama these days. Still, last season, Clemson “put some ripples into the pond,” according to Tigers senior offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain.
Now the question is whether Alabama’s dynastic hold over college football will expand or whether a usurper to the throne has arrived.
As Swinney has been known to volunteer: “Bring your own guts.”