Dabo Swinney had an inspiration, and what was he supposed to do, keep it to himself? No, that’s just not how the man rolls.
So Clemson’s coach gathered his players on the first day of training camp in 2015 and dared them to dream like never before:
“Why don’t we be the best ever?” he said. “There’s never been a 15-0 college football team. Why not us?”
So close, that team would come, winning its first 14 games before a heartbreaking 45-40 loss to Alabama in the finale of the second College Football Playoff.
The Tigers turned the tables a year later, beating the Tide 35-31 for the title and keeping Nick Saban’s program from achieving the 15-0 milestone. And then in last season’s playoff semis — Part 3 of this glorious rivalry — the one-loss Tide took care of business 24-6 en route to the championship.
Well, guess what? They’re ba-ack. (But you knew that already.) It’s Alabama vs. Clemson again — Part 4 — with the title and, for each 14-0 team, a record never seen before in the FBS ranks on the line.
Five things to keep an eye on:
1. The world’s most famous ankle: How will Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s injured left one hold up? When he has felt good, he has been the best player in the country. But there’s always the chance the Tide will need former starter Jalen Hurts to enter the fray in a game-saving effort.
2. The pass rushes:Each defense will do whatever it has to — and send however many rushers it has to — to make the opposing QB uncomfortable.
If Clemson’s front four can get to Tagovailoa and test that ankle, the Tigers will have a great chance to win. If it takes blitzers in support of premier rushers Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, so be it.
And you’d better believe Alabama will heat up Tigers freshman Trevor Lawrence, who has all the talent in the world but has yet to play in a game of this magnitude. Quinnen Williams, Isaiah Buggs, Christian Miller (if he’s healthy enough to go) — here they come.
3. Hunter Renfrow vs. Jerry Jeudy: Clemson’s Renfrow already has 17 receptions for 180 yards and four touchdowns in two title games against the Tide. Alabama’s Jeudy is his program’s latest breakout superstar wide receiver. Which guy has the bigger night?
4. Upset alert: Think of the following before you hand this one to what might be Saban’s most talented team ever. When it comes to the run game, Clemson is truly topnotch on both sides of the ball. As in, its 6.7 yards per carry this season leads all of college football and its 2.4 yards per carry allowed leads the nation, too. Is that not ridiculously impressive?
“When you play in a game like this, you expect to play against a great team,” Saban said. “And Clemson is all of that.”
5. More, please: The last three title games, including Alabama’s overtime win over Georgia last year, have been as good as it gets. Let’s do that again, shall we?
NO. 1 ALABAMA VS. NO. 2 CLEMSON
The facts: Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN, 1000-AM, Santa Clara, California.
The records: Alabama 14-0, 8-0 SEC; Clemson 14-0, 8-0 ACC.
The storyline: Nick Saban is going for national title No. 6 at Alabama (is that good?) and his seventh overall. With Ohio State’s Urban Meyer retiring (for now, anyway), Clemson’s Dabo Swinney — who bested Saban in the 2016 season finale — is trying to become the only other active coach with more than one natty under his belt.
“I’m not going to apologize for having a great team and a great program and a bunch of committed guys, and Coach Saban is not, either,” Swinney said.
Great, so that’s settled. But forget about the boring ol’ coaches. The NFL talent will be everywhere on the Levi’s Stadium field, and nowhere more dramatically than at the quarterback positions. Before the Tide’s Tua Tagovailoa and the Tigers’ Trevor Lawrence become stars at the next level, they’ll do battle memorably as BMOCs.
The line: Tide by 5½.
Greenberg’s pick: Alabama, 27-24.
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