• The Crimson Tide and Tigers seem destined for a title-game rematch, less than a month after it seemed clear their paths to the playoff seemed more difficult than ever before.
By Chris Johnson
September 20, 2017

In immediate aftermath of Clemson’s 35–31 win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff final this January, few would have objected to the prospect of a Tigers-Crimson Tide threematch. The teams had just wrapped up a four-hour thriller capped by a last-second game-winning touchdown pass from a future first-round draft pick quarterback (Deshaun Watson) to a former walk-on wide receiver (Hunter Renfrow). One year earlier, a surprise onside kick swung the matchup the other way, and arguably the greatest coach the sport has ever seen (Nick Saban) walked away with his fourth championship in seven years, and his fifth overall.

The two title games had been so close, and the two teams competing in them so evenly matched, that a rubber match only felt proper. Anyone grousing about the lack of variety, about college football ending with the same two squads competing for the highest prize again, was missing the bigger picture: The Crimson Tide and Tigers had provided a pair of title bouts more exhilarating than what some professional sports produce in any decade. They deserved one more opportunity to settle things on the field.

Yet the desire to have Alabama and Clemson square off again was couched in skepticism that it would actually happen. Last year’s game was the first title-game rematch of the Bowl Championship Series/CFP era. Was it realistic to think that both finalists, in spite of heavy roster turnover and another offseason of rivals plumbing new schematic depths in search of creative ways to stop them, would get the chance to put on another stellar finale? It didn’t seem like a strong possibility at the time.

It does now. Entering Week 4, Alabama and Clemson sit 3–0 and in the top two of the AP poll, with the Crimson Tide coming off a 41–23 rout of Colorado State in Tuscaloosa and the Tigers a few days removed from a 47–21 romp of Louisville at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Both teams have conquered at least one of their biggest challenges of the season: Alabama prevailed in a neutral-site matchup with Florida State in Week 1 (24–7), and Clemson edged Auburn at home in Week 2 (14–6) before the aforementioned road thumping of the Cardinals.

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Dismissing the rest of both squads’ schedules as stress-free by comparison would be a mistake. The Crimson Tide will need to go into Starkville to take down a Mississippi State team that pantsed LSU 37–7 on Saturday. Plus, while Jarrett Stidham hasn’t jumpstarted Auburn’s offense the way his preseason hype implied he could, the Tigers would love nothing more than to spoil Alabama’s postseason plans by pulling an Iron Bowl upset at Jordan-Hare Stadium. And Clemson still needs to handle ACC Atlantic nemesis Florida State, though the Seminoles are essentially starting from scratch with true freshman QB James Blackman.

That said, it’s remarkable how much the path to Clemson-Alabama III has opened up in less than a month. Leading into Week 1, both the Crimson Tide and Tigers were viewed as contenders to reach the national semifinals, with the former a near-consensus pick. Since then, not only have Clemson and Alabama asserted themselves as the clear top dogs in their respective conferences, but potential challengers have either fallen short of external expectations, failed to resolve offseason questions or, in the Seminoles’ case, incurred a major injury at a key position.

For Alabama, the answer to the question posed every year since Nick Saban turned the Tide into a metronomically consistent juggernaut and began stacking national championships on autopilot—Has the SEC closed the gap?—has an obvious answer: no. 

LSU is still licking its wounds from that beatdown at Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday night while trying to fight off some early buyer’s remorse on first-year coach Ed Orgeron. Auburn is facing renewed scrutiny over how spread guru Gus Malzahn is overseeing yet another offense stuck in a 25-mph zone. At this rate, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin might not make it to the Alabama game on Oct. 7 if it’s up to the Aggies’ boosters. The one SEC coach who seemed to have Saban’s number, Hugh Freeze, was fired in disgrace by Ole Miss a couple of months ago. The East is a medley of mediocrity with no squad in the Crimson Tide’s orbit.

Mississippi State might turn out to be Alabama’s most formidable opponent. The Bulldogs worked LSU up front on Saturday, and in Nick Fitzgerald, they have a more capable dual-threat signal-caller under center than Alabama’s Jalen Hurts. Yet before wasting an hour on YouTube reliving Mississippi State’s glorious run to a No. 1 ranking in 2014, let’s see how Dan Mullen’s squad fares over the next two weeks on the road against Georgia and Auburn. Taking the Bulldogs’ victory Saturday over the Tigers into account, Football Study Hall still puts Alabama’s win probability for its game against Mississippi State at 77%.

The Crimson Tide may have lost 10 players to the draft this spring, including four in the first round (defensive back Marlon Humphrey, defensive end Jonathan Allen, tight end O.J. Howard and linebacker Reuben Foster), but their two-deep is stuffed with guys ready to follow in their footsteps over the next couple of years.

Hurts has taken well to new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s system. Three tailbacks (juniors Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough and true freshman Najee Harris) are capable of bearing the bulk of the rushing load any game, but none of them have logged as many carries as Hurts’s 36. Calvin Ridley is a nightmare assignment on the perimeter. The defense remains capable of destroying any opponent’s best-laid plans despite early injuries to linebackers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis. If there are any cracks in the fortress, they’re tough to identify right now.

Which makes it even more astonishing that Clemson has looked better so far. Program legend Watson may be throwing passes for the Texans now, but replacement Kelly Bryant defied the notion he’ll be a mere game manager by slicing up Louisville’s defense on Saturday. His arsenal of skill-position players has no equal in the ACC despite the departures of wideout Mike Williams and running back Wayne Gallman. The Tigers’ front seven won’t meet an offensive line it can’t pummel. The next model of the Clemson sports car goes 0-to-60 just as fast as the last one and gets the same gas mileage.

The Tigers’ road to the national semifinals could be more treacherous than Alabama’s. They’ll be tested in games at Virginia Tech and NC State and against Florida State. It’s also a good bet that whoever emerges from the Coastal to battle Clemson for the league title will pose a more legitimate threat to the Tigers than the SEC East winner will to Alabama. Still, aside from a few trouble spots, this is a navigable slate with only one remaining top-24 opponent (the Seminoles), according to Football Outsiders S&P + ratings, and that opponent will come to Death Valley with a newbie QB leading the first-team offense.

It would be misleading to focus on Alabama’s and Clemson’s conference schedules to the exclusion of what they’ve accomplished in the non-conference. The Crimson Tide’s win over Florida State will hold up as one of the season’s most valuable victories, and the Tigers’ 11-sack demolition of Auburn shouldn’t rank too far below it. Either squad could have a case for a playoff berth if they somehow fail to win their league championships, just like how Ohio State nabbed a bid last year on the strength of an out-of-league victory at Oklahoma even though Penn State took Big Ten East.

If Clemson and Alabama do play their way back into opposite sides of the final four bracket, one or both of the two other teams in the field conceivably could knock them out. It’s just that no squad has offered enough evidence that it’s on the same level as the Crimson Tide and Tigers right now. Maybe one of the Oklahoma schools can ride their volcanic offenses to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Or maybe USC’s Sam Darnold will cement his status as the 2018 NFL draft’s top quarterback by filleting a defense brimming with pro athletes. Neither scenario feels especially promising.

Over the next two months, as the selection committee digs deeper into its data and begins releasing the weekly rankings, college football will continue to deliver wild twists and turns and triumphs and tragedies every weekend, because college football always delivers. There will be upsets no one saw coming, players rising from benchwarmer to BMOC, mortifying mistakes, splendid scoring sequences, drama only 18-to-21-year-old males are capable of producing and, quite possibly, the same conclusion to it all we’ve seen the last two seasons.

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