Teams may be the same for Alabama-Clemson IV but the names — and preparation — are a lot different in 2019

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — There have been variations over the years or in different parts of the country but most folks are familiar with the old adage of once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence and three times is a trend. 

If that’s the case though, what exactly might that make Monday’s national title game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson? It’s not just the programs’ third meeting in the final game of the season the past four years but also their fourth consecutive postseason meeting.

In short, the same… yet different.

“I think this sort of has become a little bit like someone you play in your league because we have played several years in a row now,” Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban said Saturday. “I’m sure they know a little more about us, we know a little more about them. I think that players still look at each game as a new challenge, and certainly I think that’s going to be important, because they’re a really good team that you’re playing against, which is what you should expect in a game like this.”

Saban understands each game being a unique challenge more than most involved. It’s not just new faces as players graduate or depart for the NFL, it’s quite a bit of staff turnover as well. This may be Alabama’s fourth meeting with Clemson but the Crimson Tide have done so with a different offensive coordinator/play-caller each time. 

Lane Kiffin in 2016 gave way to a brief turn by Steve Sarkisian in 2017. Brian Daboll was one-and-done in 2018 and turned things over to Mike Locksley this season, who will also be leaving after the game to take over as head coach at Maryland. 

While the turnover isn’t quite as significant on the defensive side, it’s still there. Though this is firmly Saban’s defense, the team will have gone from Kirby Smart to Jeremy Pruitt to the combination of Tosh Lupoi and Pete Golding — to say nothing of all the other assistants who have shuffled in and out of Tuscaloosa. 

“We do know what to expect but they have new coaches every year,” said receiver Hunter Renfrow, a hero in the 2017 title game and one 30 Tigers players who will have played in all four editions. “They can prepare for us a little better because we have continuity in our staff. I can go look at notes and it’s new guys but the same elite level.”

No kidding. 

Daron Payne played a huge role in last year’s Sugar Bowl in holding down Clemson’s offense. This year he’s simply been replaced in the lineup by Quinnen Williams, a unanimous All-American who won the Outland Trophy and will likely follow Payne as a top 15 draft pick in the spring. Minkah Fitzpatrick starred in the secondary during the first three meetings and has given way to the stellar play of Deionte Thompson, going from top star recruit to another without missing a step. 

“I would say they just have a bigger stable of running backs. It’s the running backs and it’s the wide receivers, man,” Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said of the biggest difference on offense he’s noticed in Alabama over the years. “(Damien Harris) and Bo (Scarborough) last year got most of the carries but now they have three running backs that could go anywhere in the country and start and have a great career. The receiving core, it’s ridiculous to see the type of receivers they have and the tight ends, too. I really feel like they are a very complete offense. They can affect you in any level of their offense.”

Calvin Ridley was Bama’s big-play threat in the passing game before going on to become a first-round pick last spring but the team has actually gotten better in the passing game, including developing Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy this season and a host of others. Five Tide wideouts have over 600 yards and at least six touchdowns receiving coming into the title game and six different players have scored rushing. 

Then there’s the difference-maker at quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa, who was in high school during the first two meetings and sat on the bench for Round 3 in the Sugar Bowl. The Heisman Trophy runner-up has helped the Tide’s offense shatter several school records and is No. 2 in a number of statistical categories nationally behind the team, Oklahoma, they just beat in the Orange Bowl. The sophomore already has an incredible track record in the national title game and is looking for that to continue against Clemson.

“We’re very familiar with Alabama, same bat channel, different bat day, I guess,” remarked Dabo Swinney. “You just turn the page, whatever year. They’re great on defense. You can pick little things here or there. They’re built in the trenches. The biggest difference for them this year is just the explosiveness on offense. This is by far the best version of them we’ve seen offensively. I mean, it’s unbelievable.

“And we’re a lot alike, dynamic quarterbacks, explosive skill, explosive run game, built through the run game in the play action and those type of things.”

The head coach is spot on with that assessment. 

Tailback Travis Etienne has been phenomenal in helping take the Tigers ground game to the next level and is playing behind a veteran offensive line that has done a great job opening holes you could drive a truck through. While Renfrow is a mainstay at receiver, the Deon Cain’s and Ray-Ray McCloud’s of recent years have been replaced (and then some) by explosive playmakers like Amari Rodgers, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. 

It’s also the deepest group Clemson has taken to the championship game, adding a top recruiting class full of several five-stars to a roster that returned 61 players with experience coming into 2018. 

“I don’t think we were intimated by them (in the first meeting), we were more intimated by the moment,” added Renfrow. “It was new to everyone and we were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, kinda nervous. Now, we know what to expect, what it takes.”

They also have their own difference maker under center in Trevor Lawrence, a freshman who is no longer a freshman and inserted into the starting lineup in September specifically to make the big throws on this stage. He sliced up a stout Notre Dame secondary in the Cotton Bowl and is just the second player ever to top 300 yards and three touchdowns in a College Football Playoff game (the other being some fella named Deshaun Watson). 

So while some may roll their eyes and claim fatigue in seeing Alabama and Clemson jerseys trot out onto the field for a fourth time, this year’s go-around is very much has a different flavor even if there’s plenty of similarities to past editions. 

Perhaps the lone thing that everybody agrees on coming into the 2019 National Championship Game is that both 14-0 squads are truly the best of the best and a fitting conclusion to a season where two elite teams rose above the rest. 

“Everybody says that they’re tired of watching us play. But year in, year out we proved that we’re the best two teams, and we play tough,” said Alabama’s Harris. “We take care of our business in the regular season. That’s why we keep meeting here.”

And so it will be — again — in Santa Clara with an undefeated season and the national championship on the line.

No. 4 dual-threat JUCO QB in 2019 to transfer from Middle Tennessee State

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Middle Tennessee State was the landing spot for a Power Five football transfer earlier this month.  Now, the Conference USA school is on the wrong end of the portal.

According to 247Sports.com, Randall Johnson has entered his name into the NCAA transfer database.  An MTSU official has subsequently confirmed that the quarterback is indeed listed in the portal.

Now, for what’s seemingly becoming a daily disclaimer when it comes to transfers.

As we’ve stated myriad times in the past, a player can remove his name from the portal and remain at the same school. At this point, though, other programs are permitted to contact a player without receiving permission from his current football program.

NCAA bylaws also permit schools to pull a portal entrant’s scholarship at the end of the semester in which he entered it.

Johnson began his collegiate career at Reedley College in 2018.  As a true freshman, he was named as the Golden Coast Conference Offensive Player of the Year.  That year, the California native threw for 2,832 yards and 28 touchdowns.  He also ran for another 797 yards and 14 scores.

In the 2019 recruiting cycle, Johnson was a three-star prospect.  On the 247Sports.com composite, Johnson was rated as the No. 4 dual-threat junior-college quarterback.

In his only season with the Blue Raiders, Johnson played in one game.  In that lone appearance, Johnson ran for three yards on a pair of carries. He didn’t attempt a pass.

May 18, Kenneth Major committed to MTSU.  The cornerback was a starter at Purdue.  He’ll be eligible to play for the Blue Raiders in 2020.

Middle Tennessee State is coming off a 4-8 2019 football campaign.  That was the program’s worst record since going 2-10 in 2011.  MTSU also saw its school-record streak of bowl appearances end at four in a row.

Tulsa WR Malik Jackson plunges into the transfer portal

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You can officially put Tulsa on the football transfer portal tote board for the first time in a while.  And not in a good way.

According to 247Sports.com, Malik Jackson has made his way into the NCAA transfer database.  That would be the wide receiver’s first step in ultimately leaving the Tulsa football team.

Thus far, there been no word from either the program or the player on Jackson’s status moving forward.

Now, for what’s seemingly becoming a daily disclaimer when it comes to transfers.

As we’ve stated myriad times in the past, a player can remove his name from the portal and remain at the same school. At this point, though, other programs are permitted to contact a player without receiving permission from his current football program.

NCAA bylaws also permit schools to pull a portal entrant’s scholarship at the end of the semester in which he entered it.

Jackson was a two-star member of the Tulsa football Class of 2017.  The Taylor, Texas, native didn’t see the field at all during his time with the Golden Hurricane.

It’s likely Jackson will be leaving the AAC school as a graduate transfer.  That would allow him to play immediately in 2020.  He would also have another season of eligibility to use in 2021 as well.

Earlier this offseason, Tulsa had welcomed a trio of Power Five transfer into the football program.

Two are former Texas A&M football players — linebacker Brian Johnson and running back Deneric Prince — while one is from Oklahoma State — tight end Grayson Boomer.

All three of those transfers will have to sit out the 2020 season to satisfy NCAA bylaws. Johnson and Prince will have two years of eligibility remaining, Boomer three.

Western Kentucky starting TE Kyle Fourtenbary transfers to FCS Northern Iowa

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One erstwhile Western Kentucky football player has found himself a new college football home. Unofficially, of course.

Late last month, Kyle Fourtenbary opted to enter into the NCAA transfer database.  That was his first official step in leaving the Western Kentucky football team.  Three weeks later, the tight end took the next by announcing on Twitter he is headed to Northern Iowa.

The Panthers play at the FCS level.  That will allow Fourtenbary to play immediately in 2020.  He is also a WKU graduate, so that would’ve granted him immediate eligibility as well.

The upcoming season will be Fourtenbary’s final one.  At least, at the collegiate level it will.

“Excited to announce that I will be transferring to the University of Northern Iowa to finish up my last year of college football!” Fourtenbary tweeted. “Looking forward to a great season.”

A two-star 2016 signee, Fourtenbary redshirted as a true freshman.  The following year, he caught eight passes for 96 yards.  Those numbers were good for third among Hilltoppers tight ends.

The 2018 campaign turned out to be a breakout season for Fourtenbary.  That year, the 6-4, 245-pound Alabama native caught 36 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns.  He started 11 of the 12 games in which he played.

Entering the 2019 season, Fourtenbary was named as part of the Mackey Award preseason watch list.  Last year, though, he totaled just 108 yards and a touchdown on nine receptions in the first season under new head coach Tyson Helton.

Mississippi State’s Jarrian Jones switches Egg Bowl sides, announces transfer to Ole Miss

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Jarrian Jones spent the first portion of the Egg Bowl rivalry on the Mississippi State side.  Now, he’s headed to the other.

Earlier this week, Jarrian Jones became the fifth Mississippi State football player to enter the NCAA transfer database in seven weeks.  This weekend, he became the latest MSU player to find new home as the defensive back has flipped to the Ole Miss side of the Egg Bowl rivalry.

Jones was a four-star member of the Mississippi State football Class of 2019.  The Mississippi native was the No. 18 safety in the country on the 247Sports.com composite.  He was also the No. 13 prospect regardless of position in his home state.  Only three signees in the class that year for MSU were rated higher than Jones.

As a true freshman, Jones started one of the dozen games in which he played.  In those appearances, he was credited with 12 tackles, two passes defensed and one fumble recovery.

After sitting out the 2020 season, the defensive back will have three years of eligibility to use starting in 2021.

The four other Mississippi State football players who have entered the portal in nearly seven weeks?