SportsPulse: They’ve been on a collision course all year and will finally clash in Santa Clara. From Hard Rock Stadium, Trysta Krick and our college football experts preview the annual juggernaut matchup.
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — When Alabama and Clemson meet in the College Football Playoff Championship it will be to the surprise of no one and as the prediction of nearly everyone, and as the culmination of a regular season that wound through surprisingly few detours in arriving at this seemingly preordained location: Crimson Tide and Tigers, again.
That’s four times in as many years, meaning these two programs meet with the same frequency as the World Bank and now represent a series that features more consecutive installments than The Lord of the Rings. Alabama won the first and third, most recently in last year’s Sugar Bowl. Clemson took the second, providing the justification for placing the Tigers alongside the Tide as the undisputed powers in college football.
“I’m sure Clemson will be a tremendous challenge for our team,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williams called Clemson a “dynasty.” Told as he was leaving the Cotton Bowl that Alabama had pulled away from Oklahoma, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney replied: “Big shocker.”
It is a rivalry unique to the sport’s history. Most rivalries, especially in this sport, are created and maintained by geography — if not in the literal sense, by competition for the same regional prize, whether a conference championship or simple bragging rights. Alabama and Clemson is a national rivalry for a national trophy. Two team across separate conference have simultaneously battled for the championship, but never like this, and certainly never this often.
But this one feels different. The first matchup was remarkable for Clemson’s first appearance on the national stage after decades of relative mediocrity and a recent reputation for inconsistency. Twelfth in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll in 2015, the Tigers slowly ascended to No. 1 in early November and stayed there until losing the final, a 45-40 thriller to Alabama that left the whole landscape of college football begging for a rematch. In comparison, the coming championship game is and has been since the summer a matter of simple expectations.
Alabama was No. 1 in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll. Clemson was No. 2. The Tide have remained in the top spot throughout; Clemson briefly dipped to No. 3 before reascending into second by the end of October. Both teams occupied the two spots in each of the five installments of the College Football Playoff rankings. Pundits spent the season picking apart the handful of secondary characters in the Playoff chase but largely shied away from the questioning the Tide and Tigers — for good reason, since even Twitter struggled to find weak spots in each team’s armor.
Every postseason format in college football’s modern era was designed to eventually settle upon a national champion, with some more successful than others but none quite as dedicated to the process as the Playoff. In a sense, that Clemson and Alabama continue to meet with so much on the line is a validation of this current format, even as the Playoff comes under the same heavy scrutiny as each of its predecessors. The Playoff vies to ensure that the nation’s two very best teams meet to decide the championship; Alabama and Clemson keep showing up. It’s not a coincidence.
And in this year in particular, the predictability of the matchup only makes sense. As defined best by the fourth matchup in the series, this college football season has been as unsurprising, explainable and tame a year imaginable from a sport largely viewed as the wacky antidote to the buttoned-up nature of the NFL.
Eleventh in the preseason Coaches Poll, Notre Dame was the closest to an interloper to the Playoff race — and Notre Dame is a storied blueblood of college sports. The top six in the preseason poll: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, Oklahoma and Washington. The top six in the final poll of the regular season: Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Georgia.
Every Power Five conference race went as expected, and many Group of Five races, too. Clemson was supposed to romp through the ACC. Alabama and Georgia were supposed to meet in the SEC championship game. While Notre Dame’s unblemished regular season gave the Bowl Subdivision three unbeaten teams heading into the postseason, a rare amount, that only made the Playoff debate less intriguing, not more.
Purdue’s win against Ohio State was one of the few major upsets during a regular season that adhered to the script. Most given seasons will feature at least a small handful of great success stories or wild disappointments; this year saw just one, woefully underachieving Southern California.
Fittingly, the Heisman Trophy race centered on two players — Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — by midseason and stayed there, even as Murray pulled ahead of Tagovailoa over the final weekend of the regular season. Even the coaching-change cycle, typically the most blatantly inane part of any year, featured no major shifts outside of Ohio State coach Urban Meyer’s retirement. Rather than conduct the sort of national search that would invariably set the coaching circuit afire, however, the Buckeyes promoted offensive coordinator Ryan Day from within.
No real volatility. No shocks. Few major surprises. No Cinderella, continuing a trend. It’s been a year of stability, a word rarely used in connection with college football. And in Alabama and Clemson, this season has a perfectly predictable ending.