TAMPA, Fla.– It is hard to dispute the power of Alabama since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa. He has built his own dynasty and will try to win its fifth national championship in eight years Monday when the top-seeded Tide (14-0) plays second-seeded Clemson (13-1) in the College Football Playoff national championship game here at Raymond James Stadium.
Saban rarely loses a big game. He is 12-1 in SEC championship and national title games, beating Clemson 45-40 last January in a wide open CFP title game at the Fiesta Bowl. In the last two years, Saban has set the bar high, with 26 consecutive victories. One more win and he ties the legendary Bear Bryant with six national titles.
Ohio State, which upset the Tide, 42-35, in the 2014 semi-finals at the Sugar Bowl, temporarily looked like it might challenge the Tide under Urban Meyer, who has won two titles at Florida and one with the Buckeyes. But the Tide has shrugged off all contenders since that aberration, widening the gap in the SEC with a dangerous spread offense and a seemingly indestructible defense that only gave up an average of 11.4 points and 3.88 yards per play, winning its league games by an average of 24.9 points. Nine different Alabama have scored touchdowns so any Clemson mistakes can be devastating.
“If you’re not an Alabama fan, you probably want us to win,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said. “But Alabama doesn’t care about all that. Come game day and between the white lines, all the extra support and motivation doesn’t mean much if you don’t play well.
“It’s cool leading up to the game that a lot of the country probably wants us to dethrone them. But we respect what they’ve done. Working and grinding for however long they’ve done it and being No. 1 for so long, it’s very difficult. We’re going to do everything in our power to dethrone them and put Clemson at the top.”
The ACC champion Tigers have struggled with consistency this season. In addition to losing a high scoring game to Pitt in ACC play, the Tigers have had six wins by seven points or less throughout the season. But this game isn’t about the regular season. It’s about four quarters of head-to-head football and the Tigers have shown they are a truly elite team when they are playing their best football.
Clemson flexed its muscles against Ohio State in the national semi-finals, blowing away the Buckeyes, 31-0, last week at the Fiesta Bowl to set the stage for this epic sequel. “Movie sequel? Rocky? Does it get any better than Rocky. I’m from the 70’s and 80’s, man,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Did Rocky always win or did he lose one? He won the second one? There you go. Perfect.’.
Alabama is a 6.5 point favorite but I like Clemson in this game. .
The Tigers have lost some key players from last year’s team, but still have plenty of experience back from the team that took Alabama to the wire last season. Most importantly, quarterback Deshaun Watson– who Saban says is the best player the Tide has faced since Cam Newton of Auburn– is still there. But players like fullback Wayne Gallman, wide receiver Hunter Renfrow and Boulware also come into the game with invaluable experience.
Watson, who accounted for three touchdowns against the Buckeyes, has had success against the Alabama defense in the past, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns and running for 73 more yards in 20 carries in last year’s title game and could have the same impact on the outcome as quarterback Vince Young of Texas did in the 2006 Rose Bowl victory over defending national champion USC. True freshman Jalen Hurts was just 7-of-14 through the air with 59 yards and added 50 yards on the ground. Obviously, it didn’t hurt the Tide too much as they rolled the Washington Huskies 24-7, but it does raise the question as to how he’ll perform against a ferocious Clemson defense that is coming off of holding J.T. Barrett to 19-of-33 passing for 127 yards and two interceptions.
“We are more focused on the task at hand this year,” Watson said. “Last year was an eye-opener. We had never been there before, and it was new to all of us.”
Clemson will challenge the Alabama defense. Watson will be the best quarterback Alabama has seen all season, and Mike Williams probably will be the best receiver, but the fact remains that Watson has thrown 17 interceptions and the Tide punish quarterbacks who throw interceptions. Alabama will need to rediscover its short- and intermediate-range passing game under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. If it can, it can move the ball on Clemson. If the Tide try to drop back and throw deep as often as they did against Washington, Hurts might get buried by the Tigers’ relentless front four of Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell and a mix of blitzes.
Clemson has not won a national championship since 1980.
Perhaps that is why Swinney has a soft spot for the long suffering Chicago Cubs, who finally won a World Series after 107 years of frustration.
Swinney and two members of his staff went to Chicago for the NFL draft and received a guided tour of the club house at Wrigley Field during a rain detail and an introduction to Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon and some of the players. “They knew they had the best team and they embraced it,” Swinney said. “:Don’t run from it. It kind of resonated with me and when I returned to campus I told he guys we’re the target, but let’s embrace that, best is the standard. Our guys bought into that. Joe Maddon says, hey, if we just don’t suck, we’ve got a chance to win. So it was a pretty cool experience to see those Cubs win.”
Clemson had a huge break though in 2011 and has won at least 10 games every year since and back to back ACC titles for the first time since 1928. The Tigers look ready to take the next step
“I hope we would give a lot of people hope out there that hey national championships aren’t just for Alabama’s and the Michigans and the Notre Dames and the Ohio States,” Swinnery said. “Greatness is for all of us. It really is. I love that. The theme for this year’s game is chasing greatness and greatness is for everyone. You don’t have to have some great pedigree or DNA or you don’t have to be a certain color. Greatness is for everyone. You just got to be willing to work for it. You’ve got to have belief and you’ve got to be committed to doing the little things.
“Everyone wants to be great. Not everybody is willing to do what it takes. I always tell them, it’s pain of discipline or the pain of regret,. So it would hopefully inspire a lot of other programs. Certainly eight years ago, I don’t think anybody saw us as a national championship contender. We were a solid program. Coach (Bobby) Bowden never lost.
“And to see what we’ve ben able to do the last eight seasons has been special. It’s just been one day at a time. That’s what we always say, how do you eat an elephant? one bite at a time. You can’t get it done in one day.
“A lot of these teams that have these rich and great traditions of championships, they’re not going away. But there’s no reason why we can’t be great at Clemson as well.”