Mike Williams

Getty Images

From 2008 season opener to national title dramatics, Alabama and Clemson were made for national title stage

9 Comments

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.

ATLANTA – AUGUST 30: Quarterback John Parker Wilson #14 of the Alabama Crimson Tide scrambles and avoids a tackle attempt by cornerback Chris Chancellor #38 of the Clemson Tigers at the Georgia Dome on August 30, 2008 in Atlanta, Georgia. Alabama defeated Clemson 34-10. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

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.

GLENDALE, AZ – JANUARY 11: O.J. Howard #88 of the Alabama Crimson Tide catches a pass to run 53 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter against the Clemson Tigers during the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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.

VIDEO: Another questionable missed targeting on Alabama knocks Mike Williams out (briefly)

ESPN
Leave a comment

Clemson had a bit of an injury scare in the firsts quarter when wide receiver Mike Williams was knocked out of the game following a helmet-to-helmet hit, but a sideline report from ESPN’s broadcast says he has been cleared to return to the game.

Williams was on the receiving end of a helmet-to-helmet hit with Alabama’s Tony Brown, who came in late on a tackle effort. There was no foul called on the play for the hit, which was arguably a missed targeting call.

The hit occurred in the first quarter of the game, and was the second questionable targeting incident of the quarter by Alabama. Reuben Foster was flagged for a late hit on Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson on an earlier Tigers possession, but was not called for targeting. No review was called from the booth for targeting either.

Alabama’s keys to national championship game include trying to solve Deshaun Watson (good luck!)

11 Comments

The rematch is on in the College Football Playoff national championship game with Alabama and Clemson set to battle for the national championship for a second straight season. Both teams will have the benefit of having gone through this experience against each other last year, so there is a certain familiarity with what the other team is capable of doing. For Alabama, knowing just how dangerous Deshaun Watson can be leading the Tigers offense going in will lead Alabama to look for new ways to scheme against him.

In last year’s championship game, Watson put on a performance that drew comparisons to Vince Young in the Rose Bowl against USC, although Watson came up on the short end of the winning tally. In the epic 45-40 loss to the Tide, Watson scorched Alabama for 405 passing yards and four touchdowns and added 73 rushing yards. It was Watson’s best performance of the year, and it came against the best defense in the country. Guess what. Alabama once again has the best defense in the country, and Watson is fully capable of going off for a big game once again. You can make him make a mistake, as evidenced at times this season. Watson has been picked off 17 times this year, including twice last week by Ohio State. The key for Alabama will be converting points off turnovers. Ohio State, obviously, was unable to do that, but the only team to beat them this year managed to do that. Watson was intercepted three times against Pittsburgh in Clemson’s only loss of the season. The Panthers took advantage of two of those picks by scoring touchdowns on the ensuing possession (Pitt was forced to punt on the first, scored two touchdowns on the next two).

Disrupting Clemson’s momentum on offense will not be easy, even for a talented and stacked defense like Alabama’s, because Clemson does like to move the ball quickly. It’s not just the no-huddle style either. It is also how quickly Clemson releases the ball and gets it in movement. Take a look at how quickly Watson gets the play rolling after taking the snap. Unless he is looking to go downfield and has to wait for a man to get open, he is pulling a quick trigger on a screen pass or tossing to the running back and then Clemson is on the go. That caught up to Ohio State and wore down the defense. Wearing down Alabama’s defense should not be as easy, and if the Tide can get in the backfield on the snap to cause chaos before Clemson can get things rolling consistently, then it will apply pressure on Watson and Clemson to do something else.

When Watson does get rid of the ball, Alabama will have to find ways to cover wide receiver Mike Williams (1,297 receiving yards, 10 TDs) and tight end Jordan Leggett, who could be a wild card factor in this matchup. But Alabama’s biggest concern in this game (other than Watson) will be Clemson’s defensive line. The Tigers just pitched a shutout against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, allowing just 215 yards of offense to the Buckeyes and forcing three turnovers (including two interceptions of J.T. Barrett). Clemson’s defensive effort put everybody on notice that they are on a mission and primed to give Alabama all they can handle. The good news for Alabama is their offensive line is much better than Ohio State’s, so fending off the pressure should be more successful to the point where Jalen Hurts will get some time to think more often than not.

The biggest mystery for Alabama is what happens on offense. Giving the bizarre circumstances this week of showing Lane Kiffin on the door on his way to FAU and promoting Steve Sarkisian to offensive coordinator, where he will call plays for the first time in years, there is a bit of a question as to how much of Alabama’s offense may look different compared to under Kiffin. Will Sarkisian stick to what has been working or will he throw in some new wrinkles? That could be good or bad for Alabama, could catch Clemson off guard or completely blow up in Alabama’s face. Sarkisian is taking on a huge role in this championship game, and it will responsibility to find whatever cracks he can in Clemson’s defense and open them up.

Clemson WR Mike Williams cleared, but Deon Cain still out of action

AP Photo/John Raoux
1 Comment

The defending ACC champion Clemson Tigers stepped back on the football practice field Monday afternoon ready to dig deep and put in the work needed to take the final step toward winning a national championship. The Tigers fell just shy of topping Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game last month and began putting in a year’s worth of work toward getting back to that national stage. They opened spring practice with some encouraging news regarding wide receiver Mike Williams, who was cleared to practice with the team.

He is going to do everything,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said, per TigerNet.com. “We are just not going to tackle him to the ground. He is going to do all the 1 on 1’s, all the skelly, all the team pass. He is going to do everything we do. We are just not going to tackle him so we when we go scrimmage he will not scrimmage.”

Williams is coming off a small fracture in his neck that was suffered in Clemson’s 2015 season-opener against Wofford. He crashed into a goal post as he was making a touchdown grab and the injury put him on the sideline for the remainder of the regular season. A return for Clemson’s College Football Playoff run was under consideration, but Williams made the decision it was best to hold off a comeback until the following season. Swinney and the Clemson staff will continue to proceed with caution with Williams, but Swinney is clearly optimistic about the status of Clemson’s leading receiver from 2014 for the upcoming season.

“If we were playing this spring he could play, but really we just want to kind of get his confidence back where it needs to be and when we get back in camp he will be full go.”

Swinney also provided an update on the status of another wide receiver. Deon Cain, who was suspended by the program after a failed drug test last December, will not go through spring football practices. He will, however, join in team meetings and workouts. He will attend practices, but not compete in a physical fashion.

“I really don’t need to see him run a comeback, to be honest with you,” Swinney said, again per TigerNet.com. “I am not worried about the football side of Deon Cain. The football side of Deon Cain is going to be special if I can get him dialed in on other things that really are more important.”

Clemson opens the 2016 season on the road at Auburn on September 3. Clemson’s spring game is scheduled for April 9.

Clemson WR Mike Williams out for playoffs but will return in 2016

2 Comments

The Clemson Tigers were awarded the top seed in the upcoming College Football Playoff. That playoff run will have to be done without wide receiver Mike Williams. On Sunday, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said Williams will not play in Clemson’s postseason games but does intend on returning to the team in 2016.

“I think that’s a great decision by him,” Swinney said, according to TigerNet.com. “He will be back next year.”

Williams suffered a small fracture in his neck area in Clemson’s season-opening victory over Wofford when he crashed into the goal post trying to make a touchdown catch in the back of the endzone. That injury brought a quick and premature end to the junior’s 2015 season. In 2014, as a sophomore, Williams was Clemson’s leading receiver with 1,030 yards and six touchdowns (second on the team).

Clearly, Clemson has found a way to survive without Williams on the field. The Tigers completed an undefeated season with a victory over North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game Saturday night, and Clemson has been named the number one team in the College Football Playoff. That said, having Williams healthy and ready to return to action in 2016 should be a great addition to Clemson’s offense. Had he not been injured this season, Williams could have made the jump into the NFL Draft in the spring.