It’s going to be epic.
Alabama-Clemson: The Remake hasn’t even been played yet and it’s already an instant classic.
Ali-Frazier. The Godfather. The Star Wars series. Pick your reference point. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney picked his.
“Does it get any better than Rocky?” asked Swinney. “I’m from the ’70s and ’80s, man.”
Someone pointed out to Swinney that Rocky’s first bid for a gigantic upset of Apollo Creed fell short in their first fight, just as Clemson came up short in last year’s title game, falling 45-40 to Alabama. But Rocky won the rematch.
“Did Rocky always win or did he lose one?” Swinney asked. “He won the second one? There you go – perfect.”
There’s virtually no scenario for Monday night’s national championship rematch in Tampa to be a dud. No, not even a blowout either way.
Consider the possibilities.
A dominant win by Clemson would be the ultimate shocker. Yeah, the Tigers played arguably the best game any team in college football has played this season when they blew out Ohio State 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl. But Ohio State isn’t Alabama. Nobody is.
No other team has won four national championships since 2009. No other team has Nick Saban. No other team has a defense that has a chance to make the claim of the greatest ever.
Here’s how great Alabama’s defense is: Jonathan Allen finished sixth in the Heisman voting and received 17 first-place votes. Yet Allen might not even be the best player on the Crimson Tide defense. Alabama has eight players listed on Mel Kiper Jr.’s position-by-position draft board. In addition to Allen being the No. 2 defensive end, Reuben Foster is Kiper’s No. 1 inside linebacker. Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson are the top two outside linebackers.
So the best defensive player might be Foster. Or a case could be made for Anderson, who leads the Tide with 16.5 tackles for loss and has 7.5 sacks. His interception return for a touchdown last week against Washington was the game’s biggest turning point. Or Williams, who has nine sacks and 16 tackles for loss.
Or a case could be made for defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, who leads the team with six interceptions. But he’s not even Bama’s highest rated defensive back, according to Kiper. That would be cornerback Marlon Humphrey.
(Two others on Kiper’s big board – linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton and safety Eddie Jackson – are out for the year with injuries.)
The secondary is considered the weakness of Alabama’s defense, and they will be going against Clemson’s Mike Williams, Kiper’s No. 1 receiver. But it’s noteworthy that Nos. 2 and 4 – Washington’s John Ross and Southern Cal’s JuJu Smith-Schuster – were held in check by Alabama. Smith-Schuster was held to one catch. Ross was a little more productive with five catches for 28 yards. But one of those catches ended in a critical fumble.
If Alabama blows out Clemson, then this Crimson Tide team just might be regarded as the best team ever. To go 15-0 with wins over Southern Cal, Washington and Clemson would be impressive enough. To do so in dominating fashion would be just about unprecedented. To do so when expectations of perfection carry over year after year would be even more impressive.
Then add to all of that the unusual drama of offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s sudden departure to Florida Atlantic and his understudy Steve Sarkisian taking over the play-calling and preparation.
“You have to be able to separate what you hear me talk about a lot is the external sort of distractions that go along with something like this,” Saban said. “I use the term clutter sometimes. So you have to make the right choices, and you can’t do what you feel like doing, you have to choose to do the things that you decided to do that are important that are going to help you be successful, and that’s what we try to emphasize with our players, and I think the more maturity a player has, probably the better opportunity you have to get that done with them.”
But a blowout either way is unlikely. Chances are the game will come down to the last two or three possessions for both teams. It will Deshaun Watson – the best player in college football, whether he has a trophy to show for it or not – going against the best defense in the country.
There has been a lot of criticism about the College Football Playoff selection process, but the results have been inarguable. Just as it did last year, the system has given us the two best teams meeting in the championship game. They are a combined 54-2 over the past two seasons not counting their meeting last season.
It’s going to be a game for the ages.