Just like everyone else, he saw this coming.
Clemson vs. Crimson No.4.
The Battle of the Bay.
Southern fried football in the land of sushi.
Whatever you want to call it, this is the game we all assumed would determine the national championship this year. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney started preparing for it way back in September. That’s when he benched former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant for freshman passer Trevor Lawrence and never looked back.
Clemson managed just eight offensive plays against Georgia Tech in the first quarter of the Tigers’ first conference game of the season (and fourth overall). Clemson led 7-0 when Trevor Lawrence trotted onto the field, but that was only because of a defensive touchdown. By halftime, Clemson led 28-7 and Dabo’s quarterback of the future was suddenly Dabo’s quarterback of the present.
Bryant quit the team and later transferred to Missouri where, perhaps not coincidentally, he won’t have to face Alabama until (possibly) the 2019 SEC championship game. Clemson, meanwhile, has outscored opponents 430-97 since the quarterback change. That’s an average score of 47.8-10.8.
And that might be good enough to keep pace with Alabama’s laser light show of an offense. Clemson has some serious offensive weapons, beginning with their young quarterback. He’s tall (6-5), has an NFL-quality arm and has the perfect hair for a national championship game in Santa Clara, Calif.
Clemson is stacked at receiver as well, and the Tigers have, arguably, the best running back in the country in Travis Etienne. (I say arguably because Alabama’s Josh Jacobs is playing like a runaway tank right now.) Lawrence’s ability as a passer gives Clemson a chance to beat Alabama.
They had no chance with Bryant at quarterback. Swinney learned that last season in the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal.
With Bryant at quarterback, Clemson lost to Alabama 24-6 and managed just 188 yards of total offense. Alabama had 200 yards of total offense in the first quarter of Saturday’s CFP semifinal game against Oklahoma. Dabo saw this coming before everyone else.
After all, it only took one game — Alabama 51, Louisville 14 in the season opener — to know Clemson wouldn’t have any shot against this Tua Era Alabama with Bryant at quarterback.
And, he’ll never admit this, but Clemson’s coach probably made the decision to bench Bryant for Lawrence months ago based in part on Alabama’s national championship game against Georgia. Saban waited until halftime of that game to switch to his young quarterbacking phenom. Dabo made his necessary change 12 games ahead of schedule.
Well, 11.75 games ahead of schedule, if we want to get technical about it. And we do, because this new rivalry series between Clemson and Alabama can come down to fractions of an inch, and personnel decisions made months in advance. Swinney fell behind Saban last year, but he made sure to be playing a few steps ahead for the rematch of the rematch of the rematch.
Dabo’s switch at quarterback now looks like a brilliant stroke of prescience, like a chess grandmaster setting up checkmate many moves in advance. To beat Saban, you have to think like Saban. It’s just the latest strategical play to separate Swinney from his coaching contemporaries and place him at or near the level of coaching that only Saban knows.
Make no mistake, this coaching rival between Swinney and Saban is now one for the ages. A young Joe Paterno emulated Paul Bryant in this way, but JoePa never actually beat the Bear.
Bryant was 4-0 all-time against Paterno. Swinney already bested Saban in the 2016 national championship game.
Bryant’s defense had its goal-line stand against Penn State in 1979, and Swinney’s offense had its goal-line breakthrough against Saban with quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver Hunter Renfrow.
Was it a pick play? Yes, it was. Does that matter now? Not one bit.
It’s almost lost to history now, but I still contend that Alabama would have won that game if Crimson Tide safety Eddie Jackson had been on the field instead of on the sideline. Jackson, of course, broke his leg against Texas A&M in 2016, and missed the second half of the season.
There is a safety for Alabama now who many have been comparing to Jackson. Jackson, who now plays for the Chicago Bears, was Alabama’s defensive leader in the back in 2016, and Deionte Thompson has filled that role on this year’s team. Thompson’s athletic gifts are similar to Jackson’s, and so is his intense focus to detail. On Saturday, just an hour or so after the Orange Bowl, he had already moved on to Clemson.
“Four years in a row we’re playing against these guys, and it just speaks volumes about both programs, being able to get back to the pinnacle of college football,” Thompson said. “You just got to be ready … They’re going to go fast and up tempo, and they’re going to have a good receiving core. They have that just about every year, and they have a good quarterback who can get them the ball, so that’s what we have to be prepared for.”
Dabo saw this coming. He knew, and began preparing Clemson for their new postseason rival months ago.
Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group. He’s on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr. From 10-11 a.m. every Monday morning, he runs an “All-Access” live chat in the comments section of his column.