Title-game berth on line in Alabama-Clemson, Part 3
NEW ORLEANS — There seems to be no alternate route to a college football championship, especially when recent GPS history indicates the road to the title, with very few detours, runs directly through either Clemson or Alabama.
For the third consecutive year, Clemson (12-1 and ranked No. 1) will face Alabama (11-1 and ranked No. 4) in the College Football Playoff, this time in the semifinals played Monday in the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The winner will play the winner of the No. 2 Oklahoma-No. 3 Georgia semifinal for the national championship on Jan. 8 in Atlanta.
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The two previous Clemson-Alabama matchups were for the title: Alabama beat Clemson 45-40 behind a pick-six and a surprise onside kick in 2016, and Clemson retaliated in 2017 by rallying from an early 14-0 deficit to win 35-31 with a touchdown engineered by quarterback Deshaun Watson in the final seconds.
The rubber match figures to be a test of steel.
“All these games are like a dogfight, so you have to be able to overcome adversity and everybody has to take ownership to do their job,” said Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, who has won four national titles in his 10 seasons at Alabama and another at LSU. “It comes down to what do you want to accomplish and what you are willing to do to do make it happen.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn’t have to be reminded what he liked about playing Alabama for the title the last two years.
“Well, I enjoyed it a lot last year — last year was great, it was wonderful, one of the best moments of my life — and it stunk the year before,” Swinney said. “The fun is in the winning, and I don’t enjoy losing, ever. It’s been great to compete against Alabama.
“As we tried to grow our program the last eight years, nine years, one of the things that was a goal of mine nine years ago was to build a program that can be consistent and to build a program that can beat the best — and Alabama has been the best.”
Even though Clemson had a superior regular-season resume and assumed the top ranking entering the playoffs, Alabama was installed as a three-point favorite. While that may have rankled the Tigers privately, in public, they have been dutifully circumspect.
“Well, that’s just a testament to Alabama and the program they’ve been,” said defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, a key member of Clemson’s stout front seven that rushes the passer and stuffs the run equally as well. “They’ve been the model program in college football since as long as I can remember. They’ve earned that. We’re not worried about being the underdog (against) Alabama. No disrespect to them, we’re just worried and focused on us and on what we need to do.”
The biggest difference this year compared with the previous two Clemson-Alabama meetings is the absence of Watson, who nearly rallied Clemson in the 2016 championship game and then engineered the winning drive last year.
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant is finishing a stellar season as a dual threat — rushing for 646 yards and 11 touchdowns and completing 244 of 362 passes for 2,678 yards and 13 touchdowns against six interceptions — but he has yet to be tested on the biggest stage.
“I am just going to embrace it and take a moment pregame and leading up to kickoff and take a deep breath and enjoy it,” Bryant said. “I am not going to do anything differently than I did early in the season. They are very physical and they are going to run and be up in your grill talking, but that is something we have seen throughout the course of the season.”
Alabama may hold an edge at the quarterback position, even though sophomore Jalen Hurts is coming off a subpar performance in the Crimson Tide’s only loss of the season, a 26-14 road defeat to Auburn in which he completed just 12 of 22 passes for a season-low 112 yards.
The Tide went scoreless in the final 28 1/2 minutes, and Hurts was the target of criticism after the game despite throwing for 15 touchdowns against one interception the entire season.
“I just have to stay true to myself, do what’s gotten me here,” said Hurts, who was Alabama’s second-leading rusher (768 yards) behind Damien Harris (906 yards). “At the end of the day, this is my team. These are my guys, and my guys believe 100 percent in me, so I have to be myself and lead. They want to see the leader in me, and that’s what I need to do.”