SportsPulse: They’ve been on a collision course all year and will finally clash in Santa Clara. From Hard Rock Stadium, Trysta Krick and our college football experts preview the annual juggernaut matchup.
No matter how many times we’ve seen the rage of Alabama coach Nick Saban play out in viral video clips, neither the shock value nor the humor ever quite goes away. There he is, maybe 5 feet, 7 inches on a good day, so intimidating and so full of rage, commanding both the attention and the fear of everyone in his orbit.
“We expect him to go off like that when we do something undisciplined,” Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams said.
Even in the midst of Alabama’s comfortable 45-34 victory over Oklahoma in Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinals, Mount Saban experienced a few eruptions, sparing nobody around him. The biggest casualty may have been his headset, which was slammed to the ground near the end of the second quarter after three consecutive procedure penalties turned a likely touchdown into a field goal.
But for Saban, these aren’t just random expressions of emotion. Everything he does is purposeful. And the message was clear: If Alabama is going to win its sixth national title under Saban, last Saturday wasn’t good enough. And not just because of what Alabama did or didn’t do against Oklahoma but because of whom it plays next.
By now, Alabama knows what it’s up against next Monday night in Santa Clara, Calif. While the Crimson Tide is still the gold standard of college football and favorite to win the championship game, no opponent in the Saban era has proved more worthy of Alabama’s attention and respect than Clemson, which it will face for the fourth consecutive year in the playoff.
“It’s a dynasty they have over there,” Alabama offensive tackle Jonah Williams said. “It’s a great team with great coaches, and that’ s a pretty solid recipe for success in college football.”
That Williams applied the “d” word to Clemson is notable, if only because it’s how most people describe this era of Alabama football, a dynasty without equal.
In a sense, though, Williams is right. Over the last four years, Clemson is 54-4 with a national championship and two of those losses to Alabama. In the same span, Alabama is 55-3 with two titles and a loss to Clemson. This quadrennial, as it were, tilts toward Alabama by the thinnest of margins. If Clemson wins next Monday, you can call it a draw.
“It’s hard to beat a team that’s supremely talented and supremely well-coached, and I think both us and Clemson are great examples of that,” Williams said. “We know it comes down to execution for us, and that’s what you want. You want a challenge, you want to play the best and we’re fortunate to get an opportunity.”
More commentary: Read more columns by Dan Wolken
Though Saturday’s semifinal games were not particularly compelling on their own, they at least foreshadowed a reason to watch the championship. If anything, Clemson might have played cleaner, more forceful football in a 30-3 win over Notre Dame than Alabama, which got off to a sizzling 28-0 start but then flattened out a bit over the final three quarters.
It never felt as if the Crimson Tide were in any danger of losing to Oklahoma, even as the Sooners drew to within 11 late in the third quarter and again on two occasions in the fourth. But Alabama did play a rather untidy game by its lofty standards, committing nine penalties for 86 yards and allowing some deep opportunities in the passing game. The fact Oklahoma got traction at all after such a disastrous start was not typical for an Alabama team. Perhaps it was simply a lack of focus after getting such a big lead so quickly, or maybe there are some vulnerabilities that Oklahoma exposed and Clemson, with its speed at receiver, might also be able to exploit.
“I kept telling our players on the sidelines, we have to keep playing, we have to keep grinding. We’ve got to play for 60 minutes,” Saban said. “I thought we had one little lull in the game once we got ahead 28-0 where we had a few penalties, stopped ourselves a couple times. They took advantage of those opportunities and got themselves back in the game. But it was no surprise to me at all that they were able to make some plays that got them back in the game.”
Even as Saban was playfully tossing oranges out of the Orange Bowl Trophy in the postgame celebration, his mind was undoubtedly turning toward Clemson. Then again, it was probably there long ago.
As much as football programs talk about focusing on one game at a time, it would only be natural for Alabama to have been mentally preparing all along for Clemson to be the last hurdle. Why would the Crimson Tide expect anything else?
“During the year you’re so focused who you have on Saturday, but you kind of do have it in the back of your mind,” Williams said. “They pose a lot of challenges; they have athletes at every position, have a great defense, very well coached, disciplined and it just comes down to execution. We have to play our best game, and we know they’re going to bring their best so it comes down to who makes more plays.”
Though Alabama has the deeper pedigree, there seems to be very little actually separating Clemson from Alabama. After they split a pair of one-possession games, last year’s matchup in the semifinals was actually the most lopsided of the three, a 24-6 Crimson Tide victory. But even in that game, Alabama led just 10-6 in the third quarter with Clemson driving when Kelly Bryant threw an interception to Da’Ron Payne that unlocked a second-half avalanche.
Bryant is now gone, replaced by star freshman Trevor Lawrence, whose talent and poise has made this Clemson offense far more dangerous.
Even though we’ve seen it four years in a row, it’s still a tantalizing matchup. And if Alabama doesn’t play a cleaner game than it did Saturday, Saban’s rage could very well turn into disappointment.