NEW ORLEANS — Since the College Football Playoff selection committee set the semifinal matchups on Dec. 3, the biggest questions have surrounded the No. 1 vs. No. 4 game in the Sugar Bowl.
Did Alabama really deserve to make the playoff?
Should Big Ten champ Ohio State have been No. 4 instead?
Lost in the questions is a statement that should excite anyone who loves college football.
We get to watch Alabama-Clemson III.
In the past two seasons, the Crimson Tide and the Tigers have given us two of the best national title games ever played. Each team won one title. Both games went down to the wire. In the aggregate, Alabama and Clemson were separated by one point. They made former Alabama tight end O.J. Howard a ton of money. They turned former walk-on Hunter Renfrow into a Clemson legend.
“I guess the stars are aligned,” said Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans, who had a bead on Deshaun Watson when he threw the game-winner to Renfrow in Tampa. “And I feel like this is a situation that is supposed to happen like this. The committee had a great chance to put us out, but they put us in. I feel like this is the reason why we're in this game together once again.”
The first game turned Alabama’s way on a brilliant onside kick call that left Alabama coach Nick Saban grinning. The second game turned Clemson’s way when Watson trotted out for the final drive—down three points following a Jalen Hurts touchdown run—and told his teammates “Let’s be legendary.” The games so dripped with drama that even the slightest reminder can bring back a perfect replay in the mind.
If Monday’s Sugar Bowl comes remotely close to either of its Alabama-Clemson predecessors, it will be the most dramatic semifinal of the playoff era. The bar here is admittedly low. Ohio State’s 42–35 Sugar Bowl win following the 2014 season is the only semifinal that has been remotely competitive. The others have been blowouts, and that also can be blamed on the 2015 and 2016 Alabama and Clemson teams. They hammered their semifinal opponents and then played classic title games. Now, they’ll play for a place in the title game.
“It’s like the NBA championship last year with Golden State and the Cavs,” Clemson left tackle Mitch Hyatt said. “It must be our turn for our third game to see who has the edge.” Like the Cavaliers, the Tigers won round two. But they probably don’t want to emulate what LeBron and company did in round three.
Hurts, a sophomore, has played in only one meeting. So he wants to taste victory in the series. “It's like if you were to beat me in a video game," Hurts said. “I want to play you again. But you probably don't want me to play again.” Hurts, aware that might sound like trash talk, quickly clarified. “I’m saying that Clemson is a really good team,” Hurts said. “I have a lot of respect for them. It’ll be a great one on Monday. That’s what I’m saying. Y’all use that.” That Hurts’s original statement is the closest thing to smack anyone has uttered all week is quite telling. The previous meetings have forged a deep respect between the players and the coaching staffs. “This just kind of shows you the type of caliber teams that are facing each other,” Alabama’s Evans said. “And to be honest with you, I'm just blessed that I get the chance to experience something like this.”
So game will recognize game for one more game.
There may be some new wrinkles, but don’t expect any huge schematic surprises. Clemson will try to run as many plays using as many different offensive skill players as possible to wear out Alabama’s defense. Late in the fourth quarter, the Tigers want a receiver playing his 60th snap to run a route against a cornerback playing his 90th snap. Alabama will try to pound the ball up the middle and force Clemson to drop one extra defender into the box. That way, a coverage bust is only one miscommunication away. “Playing them three years in a row, we know kind of everything they do inside and out,” Alabama tailback Damien Harris said. “They basically know everything we do so it’s not like there is going to be any secrets in this game or anything different. It’s just different players. But, most of the same coaches, same scheme, things like that. So it’s just kind of a game about who wants it more—who goes out there and plays with the fundamental execution. The team who wants it the most is the team that is going to come out and win.”
Asked Saturday if “Alabama fatigue” had set in, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney laughed. “‘Alabama fatigue.’ That's a good one. Man, heck no,” said Swinney, who played receiver for the Crimson Tide and helped them win a national title in the Sugar Bowl against Miami following the 1992 season. “It's awesome to compete against the best. It's a chance to compete against the best of the best. And that's what we got. If you're going to win a championship, you're probably going to have to play Alabama, whether it's one, two, three, four, whatever it is. So there's no fatigue. We just embrace the moment, embrace the opportunity that's in front of us. And we're excited about it.”
A day will come when Saban—currently 66—isn’t coaching anymore. A day will come when Clemson dips. Other powers may rise, but fate may not place them opposite one another so many times. We’re about to witness another installment of a rivalry that will define an era of college football. We should enjoy it while we can.
Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison certainly will. “This,” he said, “is history right here.”
A Random Ranking
If Alabama and Clemson play a great game Monday, their playoff games will go down as an all-time great trilogy. So let’s rank the top five movie trilogies.
1. The original Star Wars trilogy.
Episodes IV-VI were all-timers (even with the Ewoks). Episodes VII-IX may join this list depending on how good the ninth installment is.
2. The Godfather trilogy.
This would have been No. 1 if not for Godfather III. Of the 15 movies mentioned on this list, Godfather II is the best.
3. The Lord of the Rings
Peter Jackson’s epics are eminently rewatchable.
4. The Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy.
Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises make up the best continuous set of superhero movies ever made.
5. The Toy Story trilogy.
Few series will hit you harder in the feels while also making you laugh.
Three and Out
1. The Big Ten is 7–0 in bowl games heading into Monday’s Outback Bowl between Michigan and South Carolina, and Vegas favors the Wolverines to make it a clean sweep for the league. Even if Michigan doesn’t win, it’s an amazing performance for the Big Ten. But does it mean the playoff selection committee screwed up by not making Ohio State the No. 4 team? No.
The Big Ten’s best non-conference win this season was Iowa’s win against Iowa State. Its champ (Ohio State) got housed at home by eventual Big 12 champ Oklahoma. Just as we said when the SEC was winning a bunch of bowl games and the Big Ten wasn’t, bowl records aren’t nearly as demonstrative of conference quality as regular-season non-conference records. That’s especially true in the playoff era. The committee couldn’t have known the Big Ten would perform like this in the bowl season because there was no evidence to suggest it would. Meanwhile, Ohio State made the playoff last year—despite not winning its own division—because it went to Norman and crushed Oklahoma.
The good news for the Big Ten is that this bowl season portends a very exciting 2018. Michigan will be older and better. Ohio State is always loaded. Penn State isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Wisconsin might be even better. Michigan State looks ready to contend for conference titles again. We may be looking at the next conference to get two teams into the playoff.
It’s quite possible, especially if Big Ten teams win the biggest non-conference games. Ohio State faces TCU and Michigan faces Notre Dame. It would help if Michigan State (Arizona State), Penn State (Pittsburgh) and Wisconsin (BYU) played better marquee non-conference opponents, but wins at the top would help the Big Ten just as it helped the Big 12 this year.
2. Meanwhile, the Pac-12 went 1–8 this bowl season. Jon Wilner, the San Jose Mercury News writer who covers the league better than anyone, correctly points out that the bowl record is not the problem but a symptom of a much deeper set of problems. The Pac-12 looks like the fifth-best Power 5 league, and it feels like the gap between it and the other four leagues could be growing. Wilner provides a laundry list of issues facing the Pac-12’s football product. It will be up to commissioner Larry Scott to try to find a way to help the league’s programs compete better with their Power 5 peers.
3. We took a deep dive on Friday on the Clemson receiver Saban lovingly calls “a pain in the you-know-what.”
For Your Ears
I caught up with ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg to discuss the playoff matchups and the odd situation at LSU, where Matt Canada is out as offensive coordinator after one year.
What’s Eating Andy?
I interviewed the nation’s first 305-pound cornerback* on Saturday, and I hope the rest of the country will soon realize that husky people can cover receivers, too.
*Justin Falcinelli is actually Clemson’s starting center. Someone at the Sugar Bowl saw the “C” next to his name and assumed he was a corner. If the whole snapping and blocking thing doesn’t work out, Falcinelli may have a career in improv comedy.
What’s Andy Eating?
The problem—if such a word can be used in this circumstance—with eating in New Orleans is the visitor’s desire to eat only the foods considered native to the area. Creole and Cajun cuisine are so good that it’s difficult to imagine eating anything else on a trip to the city. But limiting the options to gumbo, crawfish etouffee, barbecued shrimp and boudin gives short shrift to the other offerings in a town full of excellent cooks of every culinary stripe.
When I wrote about Oakland A’s outfielder Mark Canha’s delectable Instagram feed, Canha explained that when he played for the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs, he tried to eat more like a local. While his teammates gorged on red beans and rice, Canha and his wife compiled a list of restaurants for every occasion. After that conversation, I resolved that on my next trip to New Orleans, I’d try to eat less like a tourist.
When I arrived this week to cover the Sugar Bowl, ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg suggested we find a Vietnamese restaurant. New Orleans has a thriving Vietnamese community, and the city has no shortage of southeast Asian spots. We looked over a list of recommendations and wound up choosing Mint because it was still open that night. Mint is dressed a little fancier than the other popular Vietnamese spots in town. It’s not in a strip mall. Instead, it’s in a bright space in the Uptown neighborhood near Tulane. The sleek, hip decor belies the authenticity—and the low prices—of the menu.
When you arrive, you will want to order every appetizer. I’m not going to try to talk you out of that. Our party of five sampled seven items on the top of the menu, and everything tasted great. But if you’re dining alone, focus only on two. In fact, don’t even worry about ordering an entree. Just double up on the the pork belly steamed buns ($6 for two) and the sticky wings ($6 for four).
The buns come out soft and hot and provide the ideal backbone for the slightly spicy, crispy-on-the-outside-but-melting-on-the-inside pork belly. Think of the best taco you ever had. Now imagine if it was 50% more satisfying. That’s a pork belly bun.
The sticky wings, meanwhile, proved that breaded wings can hold up with the best of the non-breaded division. Our server explained that the cooks spend each morning mixing the batter for the breading, which is alternately honey sweet and pepper spicy. Once fried, this mixture creates a crisp crust that encases juicy chicken. Each wing is served atop a dollop of a spicy, yogurt-based sauce that simultaneously cools and heats up the taste buds. I realize I just declared a new favorite wing at Atlanta’s Minero, but these could provide some stiff competition to Minero’s wings and to the gold-standard fish sauce wings at Portland’s Pok Pok.
If you’re still hungry after all that, get the lemongrass chicken either in a bowl of pho or mixed with vermicelli. I went the vermicelli route, and the fresh zip of the lemongrass mixed beautifully with the noodles and grilled chicken.
Also, save room for dessert. Specifically, save space for the Pandan waffle with green tea ice cream ($6). The waffle batter uses coconut milk and creates a soft, creamy, sweet version of a breakfast staple. (These waffles are also available as an entree with fried chicken.) The flavor marries well with the palate-cleansing green tea ice cream. Given the sheer amount we consumed, it was amazing to finish with a dessert that satisfied our sweet teeth but didn’t end the meal on a heavy note.
Afterward, we didn’t have to part with many federal reserve notes. Even with drinks, a table full of appetizers, an entree for every diner and two desserts, the bill was only $31 a person before the tip. While everyone else drank sticky daiquiris and dodged sticky puke on Bourbon Street, we feasted on sticky wings. We won.