Can anyone stop Clemson and Alabama this college football season?
The most important day of the upcoming college football season is Jan. 13. The venue is the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. And while there is a blank space where the names of the participating teams in the College Football Playoff championship game will ultimately be, virtually everyone has mentally filled them in already.
As a new campaign prepares for the green light this weekend, practically the only argument you will find in relation to Clemson and Alabama is which of these college powers will go into the playoff ranked No. 1, and which will occupy the spot just behind them.
Make no mistake: we are in the midst of dueling dynasties in college football, and no one has figured out a way to crash the party. Those two superpowers have met in each of the past four postseasons, with three of those matchups coming in the title game, but they head into this term seemingly even more dominant than ever.
Fans have professed boredom seeing the same two teams duke it out for the title each year and will surely complain loudly if such an outcome materializes again. That’s fine. It’s allowed. But here is a little hint: start trying to at least find a silver lining in the fact that we are seeing a historically high level of excellence. Or plan a January vacation to a destination where the locals don’t like college football.
BREAKING: Clemson ranked No. 1 in preseason AP Top 25 for first time; Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State round out the top five in the poll, presented by @askRegions: https://t.co/DWCBw9xytP pic.twitter.com/vwevmx9hfy
— AP Top 25 (@AP_Top25) August 19, 2019
“There’s no question variety would be better, but until somebody steps up and actually beats Alabama and Clemson, we should all enjoy this rivalry,” Sports Illustrated college football writer Laken Litman told me, via email. “They are the best two college programs by far and they should be celebrated like other historic rivalries (hello Lakers-Celtics).
“The sport is better when more blue bloods — like Texas, Michigan, Notre Dame and USC — are contenders. The Irish got their chance last year and blew it by getting crushed by Clemson in the semifinal. Maybe another team can compete this year. But until (then), Alabama and Clemson remain in their own class.”
Clemson will like its chance of living up to the preseason AP No. 1 ranking largely because quarterback Trevor Lawrence showed such extraordinary poise and ability last season, and it is no stretch to think that he is only going to get better.
FOX Sports’ Colin Cowherd believes that Lawrence is destined for far-reaching greatness, the first step of which is to etch Dabo Swinney’s Clemson team into the college football history books.
“I think Clemson has a chance to be an all-time great team,” Cowherd said. “In the games last year that Trevor Lawrence started, none were close. Lawrence is the best college quarterback I have seen since Andrew Luck. If they stay healthy, they have a chance to be the best college team of all time. Clemson has Alabama’s talent but with the best college quarterback of my life.”
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) August 20, 2019
Some teams would feel that a run to the national championship showdown would constitute a fine season. For Nick Saban and Alabama, last year’s result was an abject failure. That’s how high the bar is set and how much it hurt to come that close and not capture a national title. The 44-16 blowout highlighted deficiencies that no other team even noticed and gave Clemson the current edge in the biggest rivalry in the sport.
Saban brooded on it for a good few months, and only lately has he come around to giving his opponents on that night full credit … just in time for the battle for supremacy to edge into the public consciousness again.
“They were really good,” Saban told CBSsports.com recently. “When Lawrence began playing quarterback for them, they became a different type of team. He actually made some of the playmakers on their team much more effective.”
What is more than good enough to beat everyone else wasn’t good enough against Clemson, and Saban knows it, on a visceral level. Just imagine how much more his program might have accomplished if Swinney hadn’t built and developed a rival of similar ferocity and ruthlessness.
Clemson vs. Alabama vs. everyone else pic.twitter.com/fRz7GIpyWl
— Student Union Sports (@StudentUSports) August 20, 2019
In January 2016, Saban’s team got the edge in a hard-fought national championship battle between the Crimson Tide and the Tigers in Glendale, Ariz. A year later, Hunter Renfrow’s final-second catch gave Clemson the title in a finish packed with drama. Alabama assumed full control of the 2017-18 season’s playoff semifinal, knocking out the Tigers, only for Clemson to respond in kind just over seven months ago.
“The path to the playoff is a pretty simple one for Clemson,” wrote ESPN’s David M. Hale. “Show up to all 13 games.”
The toughest two games on the docket — Texas A&M and Syracuse — will be done with by mid-September, and Clemson will be a heavy favorite going into each of those. After that, the question each week is how much they will win by, not if.
Of course, Alabama sits in the talent-laden SEC, where Georgia – perhaps the most realistic shot of busting the Clemson-Alabama monopoly – also resides. But overall, the schedule shapes up nicely for the Tide, with LSU at home, South Carolina in the conference crossover, and a matchup with a Duke team lacking quarterback experience.
The No. 2 ranked recruit in the country, Myles Murphy, has committed to Clemson. The Tigers now have three five-star commitments in the class.
They also have 14 ESPN 300 commitments, which is the most of any program, one ahead of Alabama, and the No. 1 ranked class overall. pic.twitter.com/X4M4vJnN58
— Tom VanHaaren (@TomVH) May 18, 2019
“Critics always complain about Alabama and Clemson’s schedules,” Litman added. “The conferences they play in don’t play nine games, and they usually have an FCS opponent on their schedule, which really agitates the haters.
“Neither team should have any real problems making their way through the regular season, because both return Heisman Trophy candidates (Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa, the two betting favorites to win the award) and have loaded depth charts on both sides of the ball. Georgia could be a legitimate threat to Bama in the SEC title game – but we’ve seen before how two SEC teams can make the playoff depending how the season shakes out.”
Dynasties are supposed to be harder to continue in college football. There are 130 teams. One defeat can derail everything. You only get your players for four years.
Yet Saban and Swinney have defied logic and made sure that no one else is getting a look in.
“Going from good to great is the biggest challenge we all have,” Saban added.
In truth, Alabama and Clemson have been pretty darn great already, and they’re pushing each other to further greatness.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) April 27, 2019