This story appears in the January 9, 2017, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
Bo Scarbrough took the ball from Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, chose his gap and punched the gas. Almost immediately the sophomore running back realized he'd made a huge mistake. Washington defensive linemen Greg Gaines and Vita Vea, 650 combined pounds of ballcarrier-annihilating beef, had plugged the hole on the left side of the line of scrimmage. If Scarbrough could avoid those behemoths, sophomore safety and designated thumper Jojo McIntosh was screaming toward him from the secondary. It seemed inevitable that second-and-nine from the Bama 32-yard line early in the Peach Bowl's fourth quarter would give way to third-and-nine and yet another punt.
Scarbrough stands 6'2". His teammates chuckle at his listed weight of 228 pounds, considering it absurdly low. A human being his size should not be able to do what Scarbrough did next. As the 318-pound Gaines and the 209-pound McIntosh hit him, Scarbrough showed off his balance and agility as he slid left, shedding Gaines's arm and wrestling his right leg from McIntosh's grasp. Then he ran through the rest of the Huskies' secondary on a winding path to the end zone 68 yards away.
Just before Scarbrough crossed the goal line for the touchdown that sealed unbeaten Alabama's 24–7 win last Saturday, he looked over his right shoulder and smiled. The grin and pose looked eerily similar to those Usain Bolt displayed in Rio in August when he realized how thoroughly he'd blown away the 100-meter field in the Olympic semifinals. Scarbrough wasn't thinking about Bolt when he grinned. Until that moment, he says, his mind was blank. Then he looked back. "I saw my whole team running down the field," Scarbrough says. "I caught the chills, because I could see they had my back and they believed in me that I could get the job done."
The Tide will play Clemson in the College Football Championship on Monday for their fifth national title in eight years, and most of that success has come courtesy of a ruthless efficiency that has earned them a reputation as grim and robotic. Yet the two most iconic images for Bama since the 2014 inception of the playoff have been smiles.
Scarbrough's came after the best play on a maddening day for the Tide offense. The first came from coach Nick Saban—the curmudgeon-in-chief—on a maddening night for the Alabama defense last January in Glendale, Ariz. With last season's national championship tied early in the fourth quarter and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson picking apart the Tide's usually impenetrable D, Saban called an onside kick. After Adam Griffith's short rainbow landed in the hands of teammate Marlon Humphrey, Saban turned and offered the slyest of grins. (Translation: You may have been surprised, but I knew that was going to work.) Bama never truly stopped Watson that night, but the onside kick kept the ball away from him for one possession—just enough to clinch a 45–40 win and the fourth national title of the Saban era in Tuscaloosa.
Back in Glendale last Saturday, Watson offered further proof that University of Phoenix Stadium is his personal playground. The junior threw for 259 yards and was out of the game with more than eight minutes remaining in a 31–0 rout of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. ESPN executives would have preferred an Alabama-Ohio State national title game for their ratings. The rest of the country wants to watch the Tide and the Tigers play four more quarters because it was so much fun the first time.
After punching a ticket to Tampa, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney once again finds himself facing his alma mater on the sport's biggest stage. While considering the rematch, Swinney paraphrased noted 20th century philosopher–retired pro wrestler Richard Morgan Fliehr, aka Ric Flair. "That's the way it ought to be," Swinney said. "Again, Alabama has been the standard. There's really no argument to that. So sooner or later if you're going to be the best, you've got to beat them."
To quote Flair further: WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
Strap in for another classic. The question surrounding the Tigers all season has been, Can they play at their peak when it matters? Could the team that messed around in a 30–24 win over Troy, that needed overtime to beat NC State and that gagged away a game against Pittsburgh flip a switch and take maximum advantage of its size, strength and speed? Saturday provided the answer: Yes. So the squad that matches up best with the Crimson Tide will get another crack at them with a title on the line.
Meanwhile, Alabama’s offensive performance in the Peach Bowl cast a tiny shadow of doubt on the Tide's invincibility. When the playoff field was set, it looked like Bama and the three dwarves. Now, even though the Tide opened as seven-point favorites, Clemson feels bigger. How will Hurts, a true freshman, handle getting chased by defensive ends Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, not to mention by 6'5", 342-pound fellow true freshman tackle Dexter Lawrence? Against the Huskies, Hurts completed 7 of 14 passes for just 57 yards. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said that was by design because Washington led the nation in takeaways, with 33. Indeed, Alabama's +3 turnover margin—including senior linebacker Ryan Anderson's 26-yard interception return for a touchdown before halftime—was the difference. But the Tide will need more from Hurts to beat the Tigers.
Kiffin will not coach in the championship game, moving on to take over as the head man at FAU, but his replacement, Steve Sarkisian, has served as an offensive analyst on Alabama's staff since September. Sarkisian hasn't been coaching at practice or in games, but he has been involved in game-planning, and he knows the offense and the personnel. Alabama can scheme plenty of short and intermediate throws to its receivers, sophomore Calvin Ridley, junior ArDarius Stewart and senior tight end O.J. Howard that can be low risk/high yield. But Hurts has to have the confidence to toss it to them on run-pass options. "He's got to make the easy plays," Kiffin said after the win over Washington. "We're not asking him to win the game by himself—to throw the ball 50 times. There are a few easy plays that he's got to make for us to win the next one."
Clemson's defense dominated the Buckeyes and junior quarterback J.T. Barrett, an excellent runner who struggled at times this season to throw downfield accurately. That description should seem scarily familiar to the Tide. Barrett gained a miserable 3.8 yards per pass attempt against the Tigers, but that isn't much worse than the 4.1 Hurts averaged against the Huskies.
The difference is that the Buckeyes don't have anyone like Scarbrough, who looked like the 2.0 version of 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry on Saturday while rushing for 180 yards, a school bowl record. Late last season the Tide leaned heavily on the 6'3", 242-pound Henry to either jump-start the offense or help run out the clock. He averaged 36.5 carries in Alabama's final four games. Scarbrough's 19 carries on Saturday were a career high. While Alabama teammates compared Henry to a cyborg—if he got hurt at all, it didn't seem to bother him—Scarbrough, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, struggled with injuries in high school and was limited late this season by a right-knee injury suffered against LSU on Nov. 5. Scarbrough also had to earn back Saban's trust after fumbling late in the fourth quarter of a 48–43 win at Ole Miss on Sept. 17. He seems to have done that, and it might not hurt that he sounds more like Saban with each passing interview. "It's not hard at all," Scarbrough says of earning a bigger role. "Once you do everything right—even the little things you don't think matter. That's the Process."
Scarbrough's emergence gives Alabama an offensive x-factor to complement the most dynamic defense of the Saban era. The Tide held the Huskies, who entered Saturday averaging 44.5 points and 7.1 yards per play, to seven points and 2.9 yards. Alabama's defense has been so dominant that the extraordinary has become boring.
Late in the second quarter senior linebacker Reuben Foster looked at Washington's formation and ordered Anderson to peel back off the line of scrimmage and float toward the left sideline in coverage. Washington's sophomore right tackle, Kaleb McGary, who had only seen Anderson coming off the edge as a pass rusher, followed Anderson outside. That left a gaping hole through which Foster blitzed, bearing down on sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, who threw earlier than junior tailback Lavon Coleman expected. Anderson caught the ball, dumped Coleman to the turf, and took off for the end zone, becoming the ninth Alabama defender to score this season.
Senior defensive end Jonathan Allen—who has scored twice—gleefully welcomed his teammate to the "touchdown club" on Twitter. Why should this scare Clemson coaches? During the first half of the Fiesta Bowl, Watson threw his 16th and 17th picks this season. Bama defenders have returned six of their 16 interceptions for touchdowns, and they have averaged 24.9 yards a return. A poor throw against the Tide could result in a crippling momentum swing.
Still, Swinney seems confident that these Tigers might be better equipped to win a national title than last year's. "I've grinded my butt off on some teams because of the makeup of the team—guys that were just exhausting to manage every day," Swinney says. "But when you have a team like this...." Then he names nearly every major contributor on offense and defense. Heck, he even names punter Andy Teasdall. "These guys are so committed," he says. "It's made my job incredibly easy." Part of the reason? The Tigers came back from Arizona last January aching to get another shot at a championship. They had come so tantalizingly close, and they knew they could improve. "My very first meeting with these guys," Swinney says, "it was like, Let's go. We're ready to freaking get to work—yesterday."
The dynamic will change for the Tigers in Tampa. After reaching the final game last season, they knew their opponents would be gunning for them this year. Their motto has been "embrace the target," but they'll be the underdogs against Alabama, just as they were in Glendale last year. The popular narrative will pit the fun-loving Swinney and his good-time Tigers against Saban's army of gridiron killbots, but the truth, is these teams aren't that different. Clemson senior middle linebacker Ben Boulware carries a cracked iPhone that displays this message: Control the input not the output. If Saban hasn't already preached that in a team meeting, he will eventually. Saban's beloved Process teaches his players to ignore the big picture and focus on the details, but on Monday both the Tide and the Tigers will stare directly at the big picture and try not to blink.
An entire season of college football has brought us back to where the last one left off. If Round 2 is anything like Round 1, that should make for a joyous start to the new year.