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Alabama Clinches the Inevitable Clemson Rematch That the 2018 Season Deserves

All anyone could talk about on Saturday was the ways this year's playoff could have been improved, while Alabama and Clemson reasserted their dominance and confirmed that this outcome was this season's only logical option.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The overwhelming response to Alabama’s 45–34 Orange Bowl win against Oklahoma and Clemson’s 30–3 Cotton Bowl clobbering of Notre Dame on Saturday was not “Wow, Alabama and Clemson are really, really good and boy are we lucky that two teams that produced two recent classic national title games are going to play one another again with the giant tube of lipstick on the line.”

It was this…

Told you no one in the Big 12 could play defense. 

Or this…

Notre Dame is a fraud that should be forced to join a conference.

Or this…

Georgia would have put up a better fight than both of those tomato cans, but nobody listened to Kirk Herbstreit.

The level of dissatisfaction with the format by which college football determines its champion feels as high as it was when teams just played in the bowls their conferences affiliated with and anyone who wanted could claim a national title. It feels as high as it did when the Bowl Alliance matched the two best teams from all the leagues except the Big Ten and Pac-10. It feels as high as it did when the BCS tried to pick the best two teams to play for the national title and did things like leave out undefeated Auburn or match two division rivals in the national title game.

This is not to bemoan the College Football Playoff or the greatest sport on earth. One of college football’s charms is an abundance of creative, caustic and often hilarious complaining. But the end to this season seemed especially rife with hopelessness from various corners of the sport. UCF goes undefeated twice and can’t sniff the top four. The Big Ten’s one-loss champion finished behind the SEC’s two-loss runner-up. (And in all honesty, that two-loss runner-up probably was the team best equipped to challenge Clemson, and we already know it is equipped to challenge Alabama.) The Pac-12 feels as far away from a playoff berth as some of the Group of Five leagues. The drumbeat has begun from fans and from people who matter within the sport to expand the playoff to eight teams, but doubling the field probably wouldn’t have changed the final matchup in this particular season.

It feels as if this season was always headed toward an Alabama-Clemson showdown, and the fact that the inevitable happened may have sucked the joy out of the season for a large chunk of the country. College football is supposed to surprise us. It’s supposed to subvert our preseason expectations. It’s not supposed to go according to the script.

But this time, it did.

And if it feels as if everyone but Georgia is light years away from Alabama and Clemson, it’s because everyone else is. “Bama fatigue is real,” said one famously reformed Alabama hater this week. His name? Tua Tagovailoa. The last time Alabama played in what is now known as Hard Rock Stadium, Tagovailoa cheered hard for Notre Dame because fellow Hawaiian Manti Te’o played for the Fighting Irish. And also because Tagovailoa hated Alabama because the Tide won too much.

In that BCS title game following the 2012 season, Alabama jumped on Notre Dame early and rolled to a 42–14 win. That night, the S-E-C chant began raining down from the stands with 31 seconds remaining in the first half and Alabama up 28–0. Saturday, the chant came with 5:54 remaining in the first quarter and Alabama leading 14–0. Like that Notre Dame game, the Tide would go up four touchdowns before Oklahoma broke onto the scoreboard. This lead still would not relax Tide coach Nick Saban.

It was obvious this night would be different for Oklahoma when Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray broke out of the pocket on the Sooners’ first possession. Typically, he’d run long past the first down marker as helpless defenders flailed. Instead, Alabama linebacker Anfernee Jennings grabbed Murray and dragged him down for a loss of three. Nobody did that to Murray all year, but Murray hadn’t played a defense like Alabama’s all year.

By the time Oklahoma made a first down, Alabama led by three touchdowns. Murray helped the Sooners fight back to a point. A gorgeous 49-yard pass to Charleston Rambo allowed the Sooners to cut Alabama’s lead to 31–20 late in the third quarter, but Tagovailoa continued to dissect the Sooners’ much-maligned defense as he led a nine-play, 87-yard drive that he capped with a 10-yard touchdown slant to DeVonta Smith. Murray would lead another touchdown drive to get Oklahoma within 11, but Alabama recovered an onside kick and Tagovailoa led a five-play, 48-yard drive that ended with a 13-yard touchdown strike to Jerry Jeudy. Oklahoma would tack on yet another touchdown, but the Sooners had delivered the promised shootout a quarter-and-a-half too late. Alabama’s early defensive success combined with Tagovailoa’s brilliance had produced a deficit Oklahoma could never overcome.

Tagovailoa made a strong case that we Heisman voters got it wrong when we chose Murray first and Tagovailoa second. That touchdown to Smith with 13:08 remaining was Tagovailoa’s 21st completion in 24 attempts. Tagovailoa finished 24 of 27 for 318 yards and four touchdowns, and he probably would have had more had Alabama coaches not purposely tried to slow the tempo to take possessions out of the game and keep the defense fresh. The result was similar to the last time a Heisman Trophy winner faced a Heisman runner-up in his next game. In the Rose Bowl following the 2005 season, Texas quarterback Vince Young was the best player on the field, and he led the Longhorns to the national title by beating tailback Reggie Bush’s USC team.

That game feels like it was part of a bygone era of college football. A team from the Big 12 and a team from the Pac-10 were clearly the best two teams in the sport. The following season, Florida crushed favored Ohio State 41–14 in the BCS title game and ushered in an era of SEC dominance. After a while, the superiority of the league gave way to the superiority of just one team. Alabama has won five national titles since 2009 and two of the last three. The only consistent, reliable foil to Saban’s Tide in this era of college football has been Dabo Swinney’s Clemson. The Tigers pushed Alabama to the brink in a classic title game three years ago and then beat Alabama in another thriller of a title game two years ago. Alabama suffocated the Tigers in a semifinal in last year’s Sugar Bowl, but the addition of freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence has had the same effect on Clemson’s offense as the insertion of Tagovailoa at halftime of last year’s national title game had on Alabama’s offense.

These are the titans of the sport. They have earned their place at the top. Hopefully their third meeting in a national title game will be was exhilarating as their first two.

But the fatigue is real. Bama fatigue. Clemson fatigue. Saban fatigue. Dabo fatigue.

For those who suffer from those maladies, there is only one treatment. Tell your favorite coach to make his team better. Because the sport still belongs to the Tide and Tigers, and it might be that way for a while.