TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Nick Saban and Alabama are on the verge of leaving college football history behind.
The top-ranked Crimson Tide face Clemson on Monday night in a College Football Playoff national championship game rematch. A victory would give Alabama five national championships in eight seasons, a feat never completed at the highest level of the sport in the poll era.
The Tide (14-0) can become the first FBS program to finish 15-0 and the first to win four championships in six seasons, going back-to-back twice in that span.
A case can already be made that Alabama’s current run is the greatest in college football history. Better than Notre Dame back in the grainy black-and-white footage days of Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy. Better than Miami’s long run of dominance in the 1980s and early ’90s. Better than anything
Alabama did when Bear Bryant was leading the Tide in the 1960s and ’70s.
Another title would give Saban six during the poll era that began in 1936, including a BCS crown at LSU in 2003, matching Bryant for the most of any major college coach.
With one more championship, there will be no more college football dynasties left to compare to Saban’s.
“I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, an Alabama native who grew up worshiping Bryant and played for the national championship Tide team in 1992. “Every year is kind of that season of its own and you have your challenges, and it’s a journey of its own. But to be able to regroup and create that edge and meet those challenges, continue to manage your staff and your roster and compete at the highest level, I mean, it’s just unbelievable what has happened.”
Swinney and Saban held a joint press conference Sunday morning in downtown Tampa. The same deal as last year, just a different place.
Swinney’s team stands in the way of an Alabama championship again. The Tigers have not won a national title since 1981. As Swinney and his players have said over and over, it is the only box left for the program to check as it has taken a place among the elite in college football.
Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson said he knew when he decided to come to Clemson in 2012 that he was joining a program poised for big things.
“I felt the energy, I bought into what Coach Swinney was saying and what he thought the future was going to bring to this program, and I wanted to be a part of it,” said Watson, a junior most certainly playing his last college game.
Clemson is working on a streak of six consecutive 10-win seasons, topped only by Alabama’s 10 straight.
Watson, the quarterback from Gainesville, Georgia, has been maybe the biggest reason Clemson has become Alabama’s final and greatest challenge the last two seasons.
He was spectacular against the Tide in the title game last year with 478 total yards. Unable to stop Watson, Alabama used a surprising onside kick to swing the game its way and win 45-40.
The Crimson Tide defense enters the game ranked tops in the nation in total defense, rushing defense, yards per play allowed and points allowed. It is also responsible for 11 of the team’s stunning 15 non-offensive touchdowns.
Clemson, meanwhile, is coming off its best defensive effort for the season in a 31-0 Fiesta Bowl win against Ohio State.
The Tide have won 26 straight games. The Tigers are 27-2 the last two seasons.
“Frazier-Ali type of fight,” Alabama tight end O.J. Howard said. “Two great teams, and we’re going to go at it and it’s going to be a great game Monday night.”
Howard added: “We’re Ali.”
When Clemson has the ball
It takes more than gimmicks and scheme to put a dent in Alabama’s defense, though a wise plan is a good start. In the long run, it takes great athletes, playmakers, guys who can beat Alabama’s defenders in the open field and make plays on 50/50 balls thrown up for grabs. Clemson has those athletes. Deshaun Watson (pictured) — Heisman runner-up — is one. The rangy, tough-running quarterback makes his share of mistakes — as in interceptions — but makes up for it in derring-do and leadership. Watson benefits greatly from elite wideouts, including Mike Williams, who caught six passes for 96 yards in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, Ray-Ray McCloud, Artavis Scott and Hunter Renfrow. At running back, Wayne Gallman is excellent in the red zone once he gets his 210-pound frame rumbling. Watson dazzled against Alabama in the CFP title game last season, but this Alabama defense is better, especially at scoring its own touchdowns. The Crimson Tide defense has 11 of them after the CFP semifinal game. Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen is the best player, but the unit is really a wealth of riches with players like pass rusher Tim Williams, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and middle linebacker Reuben Foster. Coach Nick Saban, insomuch that he can have an affinity for anything, really likes this defense. There have been few like it.
When Alabama has the ball
The Tide’s offense was a mess in a 24-7 Peach Bowl win over Washington. Coordinator Lane Kiffin called a rotten game — constantly disrupting the rhythm of his run game to try some goofy, convoluted play-action pass — and came to a mutual agreement with Saban that he’d cede the job to Steve Sarkisian, the former Washington and USC coach, for the title game. Kiffin may still have some role — he’s now Florida Atlantic’s coach — but Sarkisian will call the plays. Sark’s history is to lean on the run when he has the backs, and he has a budding star in Bo Scarbrough (pictured, on at left with offensive lineman Cam Robinson), a former five-star recruit who’s been so-so this year until he ran for 180 yards and two touchdowns against Washington. Alabama still has an elite tight end in O.J. Howard and an elite wideout in Calvin Ridley, but quarterback Jalen Hurts looked shaky against Washington. Clemson played its best game on defense in a 31-0 shutout of Ohio State. Coordinator Brent Venables’ scheme, coupled with the Tigers’ speed, suffocated the Buckeyes. Clemson’s defensive line, anchored by Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins, will be the best Alabama has faced, while linebackers Kendall Joseph and Ben Boulware bring the thumper attitude to stopping the run. Balanced, diverse offenses have given Clemson trouble — Louisville and Pittsburgh among them — but Venables has figured out how to stuff the spread, no-huddle thing. Hurts had better be ready to complete some passes.
Players to Watch
O.J. Howard, Alabama tight end: He caught five passes for 208 yards against Clemson last season. It’s paramount that Hurts find Howard in the middle of the Tiger defense.
Jalen Hurts, Alabama quarterback: Maybe it was Lane Kiffin’s play-calling that sunk Hurts against Washington, but the true freshman looked lost. He took some giant shots in the running game, too. Hurts can’t complete seven passes and expect to beat Clemson.
Tim Williams, Alabama linebacker: He’s unique for Alabama. At 6-foot-4 and 237 pounds — if he weighs that much — he’s slimmer and faster than some of the guys the Tide have had in the past at outside linebacker. Don’t be surprised if Williams is a better pro — an elite pro — than he is college player. He could go get a sack or three.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama defensive back: He’ll draw Mike Williams for at least some of the game, and Williams is the toughest assignment he’ll have this year. Remember: Williams didn’t play in last year’s CFP title game. He was hurt. It’s probably too much to suggest he’s Larry Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson at the collegiate level, but he’s not far off.
Jordan Leggett, Clemson tight end: Just in case Alabama forgets this guy, he’s good. He was quiet against Ohio State — one catch for 4 yards — but he’s a weapon. Ohio State safety Malik Hooker was able to take Leggett away to some degree; Alabama may not.
2.0: Yards per carry allowed by Alabama’s defense. How does Clemson run on these guys? Probably by throwing the ball some and loosening up the Tide’s approach to stopping the run. Watson’s ability to get on the edge — and scramble against Alabama’s pass rush — should help.
17: Interceptions thrown by Watson. Great athlete, even better leader, but he trusts his ability to fit the ball into tight spaces too much. Alabama will not give him the slightest break.
505.3: Average yards allowed by Alabama’s defense in its last three postseason games against spread offenses. That’s 550 to Clemson last season, 537 to Ohio State in 2014, and 429 to Oklahoma in 2013. Here’s a hunch: Nick Saban is tiring of getting roasted by these offenses. He’ll have a plan.
The Tide have four punt returns for touchdowns, and punter J.K. Scott, from the Denver area, is among the best in the nation. Alabama has the advantage here, but its punt-return unit looked fairly clueless against Washington’s rugby-style kicker.
The Big Question
Can Clemson duplicate the elite defense it played against Ohio State? If so, the Tigers are bringing home a national title. The Tide’s offense has generally been excellent in most postseason games — until the 24-7 win over Washington.
Prediction: Clemson 19, Alabama 17
It happens. The Tigers pull off the big win in Tampa by slowing down Alabama’s offense — which is clearly in flux and run by a true freshman — and does just enough on offense to pull out the upset. Look for a low-scoring game and Saban lamenting how he wasted one of the best defenses in school history.
Alabama (14-0) vs. Clemson (13-1)
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida