Alabama-Clemson Rivalry: Top 10 performances from College Football Playoff to date
Ali-Frazer. Lakers-Celtics. Nicklaus-Palmer. Federer-Nadal or Borg-McEnroe or Navratilova-Evert. Cross-sport references to the Alabama-Clemson rivalry are necessary because college football has never seen anything quite like it: Two programs separated by 325 miles meeting in the national championship game three times in four years and linking up in the national semis for the fourth edition.
Since 2015, the road to the sport’s biggest stage has led through both Clemson and Tuscaloosa. In all other semifinal matchups to set up this national title tug-of-war, the Tigers and Crimson Tide have outscored opponents 215-61. There is zero ambiguity as to which two programs reign over the college football landscape. As the two powerhouses are set to meet for the fourth consecutive season in the College Football Playoff, here’s a look at the top 10 performances in the postseason trilogy to date.
2016 Reuben Foster
Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty has a good case for being this decade’s Linebacker U — Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Moseley, Reggie Ragland, the list goes on and on — and Reuben Foster submitted a worthy update to the claim in the 2016 title game. Although the Crimson Tide ultimately could not hold off the Tigers’ high-powered offense, Foster was everywhere for the Crimson Tide, logging 12 tackles and one sack.
2015 Jake Coker
Recent championship game exploits from quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Tua Tagovailoa are far more memorable, but Jake Coker saved his best for last. The Florida State transfer helped Saban capture championship No. 5 with a career-high 335 passing yards and two touchdowns against a top-25 Clemson defense. Along with an SEC Championship win over Florida and a semifinal blowout of Michigan State, Coker capped his collegiate career with three straight wins over ranked opponents passing for 825 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Mark J. Rebilas
2015 Shaq Lawson/Kevin Dodd
Clemson’s pass rush has thrived under defensive coordinator Brent Venables and when his group was put to the test on the championship stage for the first time it did not disappoint. Bookends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd made plays in Alabama's backfield that entire night. The eventual NFL draft picks combined for five sacks and seven tackles for loss in the 45-40 loss.
2016 Bo Scarbrough
Another entry in the “Standout Performance In A Losing Effort” category, the imposing Alabama sophomore set the early tone in the 2016 title game with touchdown runs of 25 and 37 yards to open up the game’s scoring. Scarbrough was arguably the game’s MVP at halftime and finished with a game-high 93 rushing yards.
2016 Hunter Renfrow
The former walk-on receiver has played in at least one College Football Playoff game in each of his four seasons on campus, and his postseason production quickly made him into a cult figure. Two of his three most productive games, judging by receiving yards, have come in national championship meetings with the sport’s most notorious defense.
After racking up seven catches, 88 yards and two touchdowns in the 2015 title game loss to Alabama, Renfrow put up 92 yards and two scores on 10 catches the very next year — helping the Tigers win their first title since 1981 by securing the game-winning touchdown with one second left on the clock.
John David Mercer
2017 Alabama defense
Rashaan Evans, Anfernee Jennings and a dominant Crimson Tide defense owned the 2017 semifinal meeting between the two schools.Alabama finished the day allowing just six points and 188 total yards to go along with five sacks, nine tackles for loss, two interceptions and one defensive touchdown on a pick-six — a Herculean effort against an offense averaging more than 33 points per game.
2015 Derrick Henry
Derrick Henry set the pace and closed the door in the 2015 title game. The 2015 Heisman Trophy winner rumbled 50 yards for the game’s first touchdown and punched in the final score from one yard out, handing Alabama the 45-33 lead it never relinquished.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pound running back, who rushed for 2,200 yards and 28 touchdowns during his junior season, capped his college career with 158 yards, three scores and a national title.
Mark J. Rebilas
2015 Deshaun Watson
Deshaun Watson was the best player on the field in two national championship games, twice making his case as one of the best players in college football history (and certainly placing himself on the short list of greatest players to never win a Heisman). Pitted against an Alabama defense that had allowed more than 17 points in just two games the entire season, Watson put on a show in his first national championship appearance.
The sophomore broke Vince Young’s title-game record with 478 total yards, threw for four touchdowns, completed 30 of his 47 passes … and the best was yet to come.
2015 O.J. Howard
O.J. Howard running free in Clemson’s defensive backfield remains one of the lasting images from the rivalry to date. Alabama’s tight end entered the 2015 national championship with a single-game career high of 81 receiving yards, which he reached the previous year against Ole Miss. The junior obliterated that mark at the best-possible time for Nick Saban & Co.
Howard caught five passes against the Tigers in the championship game. The catches went for 23, 53, 16, 51 and 63 yards, respectively. He was a big play machine. Howard’s night ended with 208 yards and two long touchdowns — the ultimate difference-maker for the Crimson Tide’s offense in a back-and-forth offensive showcase.
2016 Deshaun Watson
In the pantheon of all-time individual performances in college football, Deshaun Watson’s name is somewhere near the top of the list. The junior quarterback’s effort in the 2016 national championship game checked off all the boxes: Gaudy statistics, degree of difficulty, big stage, career-defining moment, team success, etc. It’s all there.
Watson led the Tigers to their first national title under Dabo Swinney with 420 yards passing, 43 yards rushing and four total touchdowns. He accounted for more than 90 percent of Clemson’s offense against the nation’s best defense, leading his team to a 35-31 victory with a game-winning touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow in the game’s closing seconds.