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The Era-Defining Greatness of Alabama-Clemson, the Four Year (and Counting) War

Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide juggernaut finally has found a program that looks like its peer. Can Clemson topple what might be the best team of Bama’s dynastic run in the national championship game?

Trevor Lawrence, Dabo Swinney, Nick Saban, and Tua Tagovailoa Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Greatness bores us. Win one Super Bowl, and you’re America’s sweetheart. Win five Super Bowls, and we’ll root for literally anybody else to beat you while dissecting videos of your parenting techniques. Just four years ago, the Warriors were the most exciting thing in basketball. Now, that team gives us existential dread.

So I can get why many people are bored of Clemson-Alabama. For the fourth time in four years, these two programs will meet in the College Football Playoff. When the playoff was introduced in 2015, we were told that it was designed to increase access to the national championship by opening the field to a broader spectrum of teams. Instead, it just gives Alabama and Clemson the opportunity to play more games, and, when Alabama and Clemson play, they win. Monday night will bring the 15th playoff game since the format came into existence; by Tuesday morning, 11 of them will have been won by Alabama or Clemson.

However, we cannot complain about the games played between the sport’s two best programs. In 2016 they faced off for a national championship, a 45-40 thriller in which the Crimson Tide secured a title via a fourth-quarter surprise onside kick. In 2017 they played for a title again, and Clemson rallied from a 14-0 deficit to win on a last-second Hunter Renfrow touchdown. It was one of the most magnificent games I’ve ever seen: Bama tried to destroy Deshaun Watson, and instead he wore Bama down enough to complete a massive comeback. (In 2018 Alabama and Clemson squared off in a playoff semifinal, and the Tide’s 24-6 victory honestly wasn’t very interesting. Hey, two out of three ain’t bad.)

I’d be lying if I said I expect the fourth matchup between these two teams to be as good as the first two were. On paper, though, Monday’s matchup in Santa Clara looks like the most exciting college championship game ever. Both teams are 14-0. No college football team has finished 15-0 since Penn in 1897. (Suffice it to say, a whole lot has changed about the sport since the Quakers dominated Bucknell and Franklin and Marshall.) The only reason we’re not treating Monday like a national holiday is because we’ve seen these teams play before, but those games just make me more excited.

And it seems safe to assume that Alabama and Clemson will keep winning. Tua Tagovailoa—the best college quarterback I’ve ever seen—is only a sophomore and is obligated to stay on campus for at least one more year before turning pro. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson’s superstar quarterback, is a true freshman and therefore will play at least two additional seasons in college. During the 1960s and ’70s, Ohio State and Michigan took part in what is known as the Ten Year War, a stretch of highly competitive games during which the two programs repeatedly met with the Big Ten championship on the line. Nothing about the future of Alabama-Clemson is guaranteed, but it seems like one day we’ll be affixing a number in front of “Year War” when referring to this era of college football.

“This is the way it should be,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said of the matchup at Saturday’s national championship media day. “The two best teams, the two best programs, having a chance to battle it out for all the marbles.”

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Media Day
Dabo Swinney
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

It’s clear that Clemson deeply respects Alabama. “Alabama has been the best program,” Tigers co–offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “It’s Alabama one, two, three, four, and five, and then it’s everybody else, so we’re sixth,” echoed Swinney. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables talks about Alabama like it’s an incoming natural disaster. “They’re like Darth Vader, man,” he said. “They’re the standard in college football, and it’s not even close. They’ve got length, they’ve got speed, they’ve got it all.” When describing Alabama’s offense—which scores on basically every one of its opening drives—Venables used the words “frightening” and “sickening.”

Alabama is not deferential to Clemson. “I don’t know a lot about Clemson,” Tide defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi said. I’m pretty sure that’s false. Lupoi has been on Bama’s staff for all three prior playoff meetings between the programs, so it’d be stunning if he didn’t know a lot about Clemson. But he’s not allowed to say that, because deference is not part of the Process.

This is what makes Alabama Alabama. It’s essentially an NFL team playing on the collegiate level. Head coach Nick Saban has often said he cares less about his team’s results than the effort and preparation that lead to it, and as such Alabama never gets too high or too low. If the Tide win the national title, Saban is out recruiting soon after. If they lose a heartbreaker, like the one decided by the Kick Six, guess what—Saban is out recruiting soon after. The program is built on Saban’s inhuman ability to do exactly what he’s supposed to, all 365 days of the year. Everyone else follows suit.

Clemson takes a contrasting approach, as the Tigers seem to genuinely like playing football. Swinney repeatedly tells his players and coaches to “enjoy the moment”; even now, in its fourth consecutive playoff appearance, the team understands it’s OK to look around and think, “Holy crap, we’re about to play for a national championship.” “I think these guys have truly enjoyed every second of the ride this year,” Swinney said. Saban’s motherboard would combust if he said that. Swinney doesn’t mind his guys getting emotional if the thing they get emotional about is being really good at football, because that just motivates them to stay really good at football.

On Saturday, I looked for Alabama coaches who could provide insight into the past four years of Alabama-Clemson, and couldn’t find many. Only Saban, Lupoi, and strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran have continuously been on the Crimson Tide staff since the first Bama-Clemson showdown in 2016. Saban’s other former top assistants have been hired as head coaches by other programs. Kirby Smart went to Georgia; Lane Kiffin went to Florida Atlantic; Jeremy Pruitt went to Tennessee. Next season offensive coordinator Mike Locksley will take over as the head coach at Maryland. Meanwhile, only two coaches on Clemson’s staff have joined since the first Alabama-Clemson title game. Alabama plugs in new parts to its machine; Clemson believes that its strength lies in its consistency.

The same goes for the programs’ on-field philosophies. Alabama wins by landing the top recruiting class in the country every season and building around it. The offense the team runs now, behind Tagovailoa, is totally different than the offense Alabama ran in years past with Jalen Hurts, Jacob Coker, or Blake Sims as the starting quarterback. Clemson wins by doing similar things with different players. Tigers coaches keep comparing Lawrence, the true-freshman sensation, to Watson, who has gone on to tear up the NFL—not just in how good they are, but in the plays they’re able to make. “We really have been able to get back to some of the things we had done the previous three years with Watson,” co–offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “I think the way they utilize the players is a little bit more like when Deshaun Watson was playing,” Saban said.

Bama has won five of the past nine national championships because Saban holds his team to a singular standard, and no one who has replicated his approach has been able to match his historic success. Clemson has emerged as the only program that can truly hang with Bama by stressing consistency on its own terms. Now, that consistency includes measuring itself against Alabama every year. “It almost feels like a conference opponent,” senior defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “Each year we have to play them and prepare for them and what they do.”

AllState Sugar Bowl - Clemson v Alabama
Damien Harris
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Personally, I think this rivalry is good for college football. I understand the Bama-Clemson fatigue, but I know that it’s way better than the alternative, which is just Alabama fatigue. If Clemson weren’t here, Alabama would still be a soul-crushing monster. It would still deliver scores like 51-14, 57-7, and 62-7 (their finals in weeks 1 through 3). It just turned in what might have been the best regular season in college football history, and it’s somehow only a 5.5-point favorite, according to Vegas sportsbooks, entering Monday night. We should be happy that Clemson seems like it can legitimately compete instead of just ceding a title. The other option is this, and it’s ugly.

Alabama has lost a few times over the past decade, but never to anyone resembling its equal. Saban’s squad lost to Cam Newton in 2010, and then bounced back the next season and crushed Auburn 42-14. Saban’s squad lost to Johnny Manziel in 2012, and then downed Texas A&M in all six seasons since. Saban fell twice to Ole Miss, in 2014 and 2015, in what were both weird, fluky losses. Bama has outscored Ole Miss by a combined 176-53 from 2016 to 2018. There has never been a program that seems even close to being on Alabama’s level. Never, that is, until Clemson.

Alabama will play Clemson in the national championship game, and it’s probably going to be great, just like when Alabama played Clemson in 2016 and when Alabama played Clemson in 2017. It’ll also likely be great when they face off in 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, and every subsequent year until we die. I cannot tell you not to hate this; I can just recommend revering it.

Alabama will never stop being Alabama. All we can hope for as college football fans is for Clemson to remain a powerhouse and turn the sport’s long-standing dictatorship into a duopoly.