Hunter Renfrow

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.

Trevor Lawrence against Alabama’s secondary could be legitimate advantage for Clemson

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This Alabama team, it’s been said, is the best of all of Nick Saban‘s Alabama teams. Thanks to Tua Tagovailoa and the development of the offense, this Crimson Tide team has truly no weaknesses. It’s an impenetrable fortress, a castle surrounded by 20-foot walls, a super weapon with no weakness.

But not exactly.

This Crimson Tide Death Star does have one weakness, and in Clemson they may find the one opponent to strong enough to exploit it.

While Alabama ranks 13th nationally in total defense (307.9 yards per game) and yards per play (4.70) and fifth in scoring (16.2 points per game), the Tide defense has shown one true vulnerability — in the deep passing game. To wit, opponents have completed 104 passes of 10-or-more yards, 52nd nationally. Furthermore, Alabama has surrendered 43 completions of at least 20 yards — 73rd nationally. That isn’t just bad by Alabama standards, it’s bad by anyone’s standards.

Those who have watched this team all season will recall moments where the Alabama back end has been exploited. Ole Miss opened its game with the Tide with a 75-yard touchdown pass. Tennessee put together a pair of drives that saw its quarterbacks go 6-of-8 for 149 yards and two touchdowns — an efficiency rating of 313.95. Oklahoma connected on a 49-yard touchdown pass and averaged 16.2 yards on its 19 completions.

Problem was, those moments were just that — moments. Ole Miss got outscored 62-0 after that opening punch. Tennessee was down 28-0 when it put those drives together. OU’s long touchdown pass pulled the Sooners to within 31-20.

While those teams may have had matchup advantages against an Alabama secondary that had to replace its entire starting group from last year, the rest of the game was such a mismatch it didn’t matter.

Clemson will be different. The Tigers won’t be blitzed in every other aspect of the game, perhaps allowing Trevor LawrenceTee Higgins, Amari RodgersJustyn RossHunter Renfrow and company — a group that’s completed 32 passes of 30 yards or more, sixth nationally — the chance to strike down field.

The best parallel to Clemson is Georgia, and Jake Fromm didn’t exactly struggle through the air. The Bulldogs quarterback hit 25-of-39 passes for 301 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

If Clemson manages to play Alabama to a draw elsewhere — no easy task, obviously — the Tigers may be able to exploit the rarest of things in college football: a matchup advantage against Alabama.

CFT Previews: College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic

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WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-0)
WHAT: The 83rd Cotton Bowl Classic (and the game’s second College Football Playoff Semifinal)
WHEN: 4:00 p.m. ET on ESPN
WHERE: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
THE SKINNY: The Echoes. The Guts. The Playoff.

Clemson finds themselves right back in another semifinal to nobody’s surprise after dominating from just about start to finish this season. The Tigers check off just about every box you’re looking for, ranking in the top five in both scoring offense and scoring defense in 2018 and winning all but two of their games by 20 or more points. You can pick your poison on offense as tailback Travis Etienne averages over eight yards a carry while wideouts like Tee Higgins can stretch the field with big play after big play. Old reliable Hunter Renfrow is also a frequent target for freshman QB Trevor Lawrence, who has been stellar since taking over for Kelly Bryant four games into the season and has more than lived up to his billing as the top player in the class of 2018.

Dabo Swinney’s squad is pretty impressive on defense too. While most of the conversation leading up to the game has surrounded the suspension of defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence due to a failed drug test, Clemson is still loaded up front with potential first rounders like Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins. The Tigers only give up 13.7 points per game and sport quite the rotation at every level of their defense, from sideline-to-sideline guys like linebacker Tre Lamar to a lockdown defender in corner Trayvon Mullen.

Going up against all that is yet another undefeated Notre Dame squad who has passed every test this year with flying colors. While some might have visions of the 2012 group getting blasted by Alabama in the BCS title game, head coach Brian Kelly will be the first to tell you that this year’s edition of the Irish is a lot better on both sides of the ball and more than capable of going toe-to-toe with anybody. One reason why has been the play of quarterback Ian Book, himself a signal-caller who took over mid-year and somebody who can beat you over the top with his arm or on the ground scrambling if needed. Playing behind an excellent offensive line, he forms a pretty good tandem in the backfield with either running back Dexter Williams or Jafar Armstrong, both of whom can turn a little space into a huge gain.

ND’s defense is no slouch either, ranking No. 4 in S&P+ and rolling out veterans like DT Jerry Tillery in the middle and Thorpe Award finalist Julian Love on the back end. The entire group doesn’t give up many big plays and have a good enough two-deep to throw a lot of different looks, players and coverages  out there to stymie just about any attack.

Bottle it all up and you have the ingredients for a potentially epic semifinal matchup between two programs who are all too familiar with each other. The biggest key to the ball game will be which offense can more consistently move the chains and convert scoring opportunities, which has typically been the Tigers this season. The Irish will certainly be able to make things interesting and keep it close but eventually the ACC champs pull away and book their ticket to yet another title game.

THE PICK: Clemson 27, Notre Dame 17

Watch: Dabo and Kathleen Swinney congratulate Clemson WR son on his first career TD catch

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Unless you were family or close friends, there wasn’t really much reason to stick around and watch the end of No. 2 Clemson’s obliteration of Louisville — which actually brings us to the point of this post.

In the fourth quarter of the Tigers’ 77-16 win over the hapless Cardinals, Chase Brice tossed an eight-yard touchdown pass to Will Swinney to account for the last of Clemson’s 11 touchdowns on the day.  The catch was the first touchdown reception in his career for the 5-8, 185-pound Swinney, who began his career at Clemson as a walk-on before earning a scholarship in the spring of this year.

If the Swinney surname sounds familiar it should as Will is the son of Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney.  Following the win, dad, as well as his mom Kathleen, had a special message for their son on his career day.

For the season, the true sophomore Swinney has six receptions for 28 yards and today’s touchdown.  One of those catches was the first career completion for wide receiver Hunter Renfrow early last month.

WR Hunter Renfrow completes first career pass… to Dabo Swinney’s son

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There wasn’t much drama in No. 4 Clemson’s game with Wake Forest as the Tigers jumped out to a 28-0 halftime lead and then piled on some more in the second half in road woodshedding the Demon Deacons 63-3. The game was, though, noteworthy on a couple of fronts, especially as it pertained to wide receiver/No. 3 QB/No. 2 punter/blocker extraordinaire/cult hero/human Heisman write-in vote Hunter Renfrow.

In the week leading up to the blowout win, and given the uncertainty at the position due to a transfer and injury, Renfrow received practice reps at quarterback. Late in the fourth quarter, Renfrow, 0-1 passing for his career, entered the game under center and, with less than two minutes remaining in the game, completed the first pass of his collegiate career. His target? Will Swinney, the son of head coach Dabo Swinney.

But wait, there’s more.

Renfrow also caught a pair of passes for 21 yards; punted the ball once for 42 yards; and, for good measure and arguably best of all, threw a nice block on Lyn-J Dixon‘s 52-yard touchdown run that closed out the scoring.

As a team, the Tigers ran for 471 yards. That’s the most ever produced under Swinney and the fourth-highest total in school history. They had three 100-yard rushers — Travis Etienne (167), Dixon (163) and Adam Choice (128) — for the first time in more than a decade (2006) and for the sixth time ever.

Their 11.8 yards per carry? A school record as well, breaking the mark of 11.2 set against Georgia Tech way back in 1903.

And, finally, there’s this: