Alabama and Clemson will meet in the College Football Playoff national championship game Monday night in Santa Clara in what will be the fourth straight meeting in the postseason between the ACC and SEC champions and the third in the last four seasons to determine the national champion. For two programs who met just 13 times from 1904 through 1975, the Tigers and Crimson Tide have developed one of the most unique rivalries in the sport, and what is happening between Alabama and Clemson may be unprecedented. It has become college football’s equivalent to Lakers-Celtics in that these two programs are each individually so dominant but they have done so at a time when there is an equal force waiting to line up on the other side of the field at the end of the year to determine who is truly No. 1.
It is somewhat fitting that the rise of both of these programs can be traced back to the 2008 season when these two schools squared off in Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Nick Saban was in his second season coaching the Crimson Tide after going a mediocre 7-6 in his first season at Alabama after leaving the Miami Dolphins. His Tide started the year No. 24 in the AP Top 25 but figured to have a stuff challenge on their hands with No. 9 Clemson, who started the season with Tommy Bowden at the helm. Little did anyone truly expect at the time, but this one game should have been a preview of things to come. Alabama jumped out to a 13-0 lead in the first quarter in Atlanta with a pair of field goals and a short touchdown run by John Parker Wilson. Alabama extended their lead to 23-3 as the game reached halftime and Clemson’s C.J. Spiller opened the second half with a 96-yard touchdown to provide a much-needed spark for Clemson. But Alabama shut the Tigers down from there and tacked on a Julio Jones touchdown and went on to win 34-10.
Alabama would win their next 11 games to finish off an undefeated regular season that included a 41-30 victory at No. 3 Georgia and a 27-21 win at No. 15 LSU. But the Tide lost a No. 1 vs. No. 2 SEC title game against Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators, coached by none other than Urban Meyer, and Alabama was taken down in the Sugar Bowl by Utah. While Alabama was doing that, Clemson made a notable change at head coach in the middle of the season with Bowden giving way to assistant coach Dabo Swinney. Swinney may not have held on to the role if not for a regular season victory against rival South Carolina, but it is a good thing he did.
Over the course of the next six seasons, Saban had continued to keep Alabama as a national title contender, winning three BCS National Championships in 2009, 2011 and 2012. Swinney was slowly but surely building his own juggernaut, although the return of Florida State as a national power under Jimbo Fisher was standing in the way of the ultimate prize. But all of that changed beginning in 2015. Clemson started the season No. 12 in the AP Top 25 and methodically moved their way up the ranking. But in mid-November, Clemson took over the top ranking in the AP poll and never looked back en route to their first College Football Playoff. There was just one final hurdle that Deshaun Watson and company just could not clear.
It was Alabama.
Jan. 11, 2016: No. 2 Alabama 45, No. 1 Clemson 40
The second College Football Playoff National Championship Game was one for the ages. Alabama was the battle-tested national title contending program that had been for years, but Clemson was looking to prove they finally belonged on the big stage after years of working to get here. And although Clemson came up on the short end of the final score, they proved they were not a fluke that was about to go away.
The seeds of the first playoff battle between Alabama and Clemson were supposed to be led by defense, but this was an offensive showcase from the start. A 50-yard touchdown run by Derrick Henry offered an early suggestion that maybe Clemson wasn’t ready for this moment, but Hunter Renfrow caught two touchdown passes from Deshaun Watson before the end of the first quarter to put that idea to rest. Clemson was there to take care of business. Tied at 14-14 at halftime, a wild game was about to burst wide open. O.J. Howard hauled in a 53-yard pass from Jake Coker early in the third quarter but Clemson struck back to take a 24-21 lead into the fourth quarter, much to the joy of then Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Alabama took the lead once again with a long pass to Howard, this time a 51-yard play with 9:45 to play. Clemson made it a four-point game with a field goal but Kenyan Drake responded with a 95-yard touchdown return on the ensuing kickoff to make it 38-27 midway through the fourth quarter. The Tigers cut the lead to five points with another Watson touchdown pass with 4:40 to play, but Alabama’s offense would not yield with another touchdown run by Henry with 1:07 to play for a 45-33 lead. Watson added one more late touchdown pass to finish off an otherwise brilliant performance for Clemson with 405 passing yards and four touchdowns and 73 rushing yards against the Tide, but the loss would merely serve as motivation for unfinished business as Alabama celebrated their first national championship in the young playoff era. The win was a bit of unfinished business for Alabama too as they were upset in the semifinal the previous season by eventual national champion Ohio State.
Jan. 9, 2017: No. 2 Clemson 35, No. 1 Alabama 31
The 2016 season was given a landscape that looked like it would be a season-long journey to get to the rematch between Alabama and Clemson. The Tide were given a preseason No. 1 ranking in the AP top 25 and the Tide never relinquished that ranking all year. Clemson, despite being the defending national champions and having Watson back at quarterback, started the year at No. 2 and floated within the top five all season long and headed to the playoff ranked No. 3 in the AP poll. Both teams easily took care of their semifinal opponents in the College Football Playoff, with Clemson blanking Ohio State 31-0 and Alabama dispatching of Washington 24-7 to set the stage for the rare college football national championship game rematch. Once again, we were in for a show.
Alabama took a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter on the strength of a second touchdown run by running back Bo Scarbrough, but a touchdown run by Watson provided a much-needed spark for Clemson midway through the second quarter against a stingy Alabama defensive presence. With Alabama leading the Tigers 17-7 midway through the third quarter, Watson connected with Renfrow to bring Clemson to within three points. But later in the third quarter, a long pass play to Howard would bring up some horrible flashbacks to a season ago. A 68-yard pass to Howard from Jalen Hurts gave Alabama a 24-14 lead late in the third quarter. But Clemson would not give in. The Tigers cut into the lead in the first minute of the fourth quarter with a touchdown pass from Watson to Mike Williams and nearly 10 minutes later, Clemson had their first lead of the game when Wayne Gallman scored a short touchdown run. Down for the first time all game, Hurts responded and gave Alabama the lead with his own 30-yard touchdown run with 2:07 to play.
Too much time.
Clemson executed a two-minute drive to perfection and capped the drive and the game with a Watson touchdown pass to Renfrow from two yards out with one second to play. A field goal would have tied the game, but Watson delivered the long-awaited national championship to Clemson in arguably as dramatic fashion as Vince Young did for Texas against USC in the Rose Bowl. For the second year in a row, Alabama-Clemson delivered the dramatics with flair, this one more enticing than the previous.
Jan. 1, 2018: No. 4 Alabama 24, No. 1 Clemson 6
The third meeting in the playoff era between Alabama and Clemson was not at all close to living up to the high bar the previous two meetings had set. For starters, the third meeting took place in the semifinal round instead of the national championship. Watson had moved on to the NFL, with Kelly Bryant stepping in as the new starter for the Tigers. Clemson was still incredibly good, but Bryant was no magician like Watson. Alabama had suffered just one loss all season long, the regular season finale against Auburn that knocked Alabama out of the SEC Championship Game picture and left Alabama hoping the selection committee would allow them an opportunity to wiggle into the playoff. They did, placing Alabama as the fourth seed, unfortunately for Clemson.
Just as Ohio State had done to them in the first year of the playoff, Alabama used the four-seed to take advantage of their playoff opportunity by dominating Clemson defensively. The Tigers managed just six points in the Sugar Bowl semifinal, both by way of field goals in the second and third quarters. Alabama took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and that was all they needed. There would be no magical fourth quarter for the ages and the highlight reels this time. Neither team scored a point in the fourth quarter. Perhaps the previous two meetings led to the coaching staffs of both programs to tighten things up in the fourth quarter. Or, perhaps, Clemson just did not have the same firepower on offense they needed to make a game of it this time.
Alabama would go on to top SEC champion Georgia in overtime in the national championship game in Atlanta the following week, with Tua Tagovailoa coming to the rescue after a rough showing by Hurts. Tagovailoa would keep the job for the 2018 season as Alabama once again has strung together a No. 1 ranking from the start of the season to the national title game. Clemson, who started the season No. 2 and made their own quarterback change with the departure of Bryant and the rise of freshman Trevor Lawrence, now has the offense that may be needed.
Will this year’s fourth consecutive meeting between Alabama and Clemson go down in the memory banks of college football fans as an all-time classic like the 2017 meeting? We’ll have to wait until Monday to find out.