NEW ORLEANS – Let’s start with the big picture, and a big statement: Alabama-Clemson III is unprecedented in college football history.
Never have two teams met in three successive postseasons with national championship implications for both sides. There was a USC-Ohio State Rose Bowl trilogy in the 1972-74 seasons, but only one of those outcomes yielded an undisputed national title (USC ’72, plus a UPI title share in ’74 for the Trojans). There have been notable two-part series – Notre Dame-Texas in 1969-70; Oklahoma-Florida State in 1980-81; Notre Dame-Colorado in 1989-90; Alabama-Florida in the SEC title games in 2008-09, de facto BCS semifinals – but not three.
You can’t even find a parallel in men’s college basketball. UNLV-Duke from the early 1990s never had a third meeting to break the tie.
Even as the College Football Playoff theoretically has widened access to the title, Clemson and Alabama have conspired to narrow it. A playoff rivalry has sprung up, with the Tigers as familiar with the Tide as they are Florida State, and the Tide knowing the Tigers the way they know Auburn. But it’s not conference affiliation pulling them together; it’s excellence.
We simply haven’t seen this before – a movable feast that has played out in Glendale, Arizona, and Tampa, and now New Orleans.
“All of a sudden you’ve got this three-game series that has just happened at the highest level,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “And this is kind of a rubber match.”
This is the rubber match, latest in a riveting three-act drama. Winner doesn’t take the national title this time, but earns the right to play for it. And the loser’s dreams are dashed.
Asking Act III to live up to Acts I and II is greedy. Lordly Alabama won the first one, needing a Nick Saban gamble to subdue insouciant newcomer Clemson. The Tigers won the second one with a former walk-on scoring the winning touchdown with one second to play in one of the most taut and dramatic games in the history of the sport.
Combined score of the first two: Alabama 76, Clemson 75.
They have both done things to the other team’s defense that are rarely seen. The 45 points the Crimson Tide put on the scoreboard two seasons ago remains the most the Tigers have surrendered in their past 69 games. Only three times in the past 42 games has ‘Bama given up more than 500 yards total offense – two of them to Clemson.
When Alabama won two years ago, Clemson was the undefeated and top-seeded team. It took some special-teams magic – including a calculated risk by Saban – to pull it off. Trailing going into the fourth quarter, the Tide erupted for 24 points, with an onside kick setting up the go-ahead touchdown and a 98-yard kickoff return TD providing a two-score cushion with 7½ minutes to go.
Flouting Alabama’s mystique, aura and tradition, the Tigers played that game like they truly believed they were the better team. They were accordingly shocked when they didn’t win, and they had abundant motivation to turn the tables the following year.
“We had a year to let that loss marinate,” said defensive end Christian Wilkins. “We thought about it.”
Last season it was Alabama undefeated and owning the top seed, rarely challenged through its first 14 games. And when the Crimson Tide took a 24-14 lead into the fourth quarter, the nation’s No. 1 defense surely would not let a repeat title get away.
But Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was better than the best defense that night. He led three long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter – the first one 72 yards and the second covering 88, giving the Tigers a 28-24 lead.
Season on the brink, Alabama regrouped and mounted its own breathtaking drive. Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts scrambled and completed a desperation, 15-yard pass on third-and-16, and Alabama converted the first down near midfield. Then ‘Bama mixed in a gadget play, with receiver ArDarius Stewart hitting tight end O.J. Howard for 24 yards, and Hurts ran the final 30 yards to score on the following snap.
And with 2:07 left, just about everyone in the stadium had the same thought: too much time left.
“I had mixed emotions,” Alabama center Bradley Bozeman said. “We scored really fast. You give Deshaun Watson time, you saw what happened.”
Before that drive started, Watson delivered his now famous words to his teammates: “Let’s be legendary.” Then they did it.
Watson completed five straight passes, moving Clemson inside the Alabama 10-yard line with 14 seconds to play. A pass interference penalty then moved the ball to the 2. That’s when Clemson called “Crush,” the play that sprung diminutive former walk-on Hunter Renfrow for the historic touchdown.
Alabama fans will insist forever that the play should have been called offensive pass interference, as Artavis Scott crashed inside into his defender and cleared space for Renfrow to the right corner. Clemson fans will insist forever that no flag equals no foul, and point at the scoreboard.
“It was defensive pass interference, in my opinion,” Renfrow said with a smile. “It might have been a designed rub play, maybe.”
On the backside of the play, left tackle Mitch Hyatt watched blitzing Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans blow past him in hot pursuit of Watson. But Watson was rolling to his right, away from the pressure. Both Hyatt and Evans got a good view of what happened.
“I could see Hunter wide open, and Deshaun about to throw to him,” Hyatt said. “I thought, ‘Everything needs to go right, right now. Deshaun needs to throw it well, and Hunter, don’t drop it.’ ”
The throw was on target. The catch was secured. There was one second on the clock. The championship was sealed.
“Worst feeling ever,” Evans said.
And now we vault forward a year to Act III. It’s Alabama who has been doing the marinating for 12 months over a bitter loss. To think what might have been if running back Bo Scarborough hadn’t gotten hurt in the third quarter, if Lane Kiffin hadn’t lost focus, if the December preparation could have been better.
Hurts embraced the hurt. He made the screensaver on his phone a picture of Clemson holding up the national championship trophy.
Although Clemson is the No. 1 seed this time and Alabama squeaked into the playoff ahead of Ohio State, the Tigers are the bigger surprise participant in this trilogy. They lost the best quarterback in school history, a 3,000-yard rusher, their top two receivers and leading tackler from the title team.
“This is a so-called rebuilding year for us,” Swinney said. “We weren’t supposed to be any good this year, and these old boys didn’t get the memo.”
Now Clemson is looking a lot like Alabama – reloading and retaining dominance, regardless of losses to graduation and the NFL. And if the Tigers win the rubber match, they can stake a stronger claim to being better than ‘Bama.
For the time being. Because maybe Act III isn’t the end of this unprecedented drama.
“To be honest with you, this is probably not going to be the last one,” Swinney said. “There will probably be more of these down the road.”
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