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.”
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.