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Four Years of Playoff Clashes Have Turned Bama Into a Benchmark for Clemson

Clemson has played Alabama more often than six teams in its own conferenece over the past four years. To the Tigers' seniors, playing the Crimson Tide has become a personal benchmark of sustained success.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Some people are sick of Alabama and Clemson playing every year. Monday’s national championship game marks the fourth consecutive year the Crimson Tide and Tigers have met in the College Football Playoff, and the third time of those four that they’ve squared off for the title. The inevitable meetings have drawn comparisons to the Cavaliers and Warriors' four-year run as all-too-predictable NBA Finals opponents before LeBron James left for the Los Angeles Lakers last summer.

But you know who isn’t tired of this regular meeting? Clemson’s 27 seniors and graduate students who have faced Alabama every year of college. To them, playing the Crimson Tide is a personal benchmark of sustained success. When the season starts, the Tigers don’t assume they’ll end it against Bama, but it’s what they want.

“Because we know they’re going to be in the national championship,” said fifth-year senior wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, “so we’re just hoping we are too.”

Over the past four years, Clemson has played Alabama more often than six teams in its own conference. As is the case with many leagues, it can be several years before two teams in opposite divisions of the ACC play each other. The Tigers, residing in the ACC Atlantic, rotate through two Coastal opponents every year, while always playing cross-divisional partner Georgia Tech. Because of the way the past four years have panned out, Alabama has become a more familiar foe than Virginia, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Duke, North Carolina and Miami.

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“You almost feel like they’re a conference opponent to an extent because each year we’ve had to play and prepare for them,” said senior defensive end Christian Wilkins.

Clemson’s seniors wouldn’t say they were ever intimidated by Alabama when this series started in 2015. Alabama took the first national title meeting, 45–40. Senior defensive tackle Albert Huggins, who has replaced Dexter Lawrence after he was suspended for failing a drug test, remembers there being some “ooh-aahs.” Renfrow admits the players were a little nervous—it was Clemson’s first trip to the championship game under Dabo Swinney—and remembers everyone being “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” since they didn’t know what to expect.

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“But now we know what to expect and what it takes,” Renfrow said while being followed by cameras through media day.

For offensive players like Renfrow, familiarity doesn’t mean the preparation gets easier. Alabama still has one of the most physical and disciplined defenses in the country, and Swinney reinforced that subject Saturday while referring to 6’4”, 295-pound defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. “They’ve always got some freak inside, like No. 92 where you just go, ‘Oh my lord,’” Swinney said.

On the other side of the ball, Clemson faces a frightening Alabama offense. The Tide have the No. 2 scoring offense in the country (47.7 points per game), and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has thrown 41 touchdowns to four interceptions. In the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma, which doesn’t have a defense nearly on the same level as Clemson, he threw more touchdown passes (four) than incomplete passes (three).

“The biggest difference is that this is by far the best version of the Alabama offense that we’ve seen in our matchups with them,” Swinney said. “I mean these guys are scoring 47 points a game, we’re scoring 44. We’ve had 33 [explosive] plays of 40 [yards or more], they’ve had 30. They’re just explosive. They have a skilled, dynamic quarterback, incredible backs, and are built in the trenches, so this is the biggest challenge we’ve had from an Alabama offense.”

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Clemson is essentially a mirror image in all of those categories, with the No. 2 defense in the country (limiting opponents to 4.0 yards per play), a top 10 running game (Travis Etienne is tied to lead the country with 22 rushing touchdowns) and a true freshman quarterback in Trevor Lawrence who also has plenty of skill players around him and seldom makes mistakes (like Tagovailoa, he has thrown only four interceptions this season).

Alabama is 2–1 against Clemson in the playoff era, but Monday will be the rubber match of national championship games. In the Clemson locker room following a 30–3 win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, Tigers players started checking their phones for the score of the Alabama–Oklahoma game to see who they were going to play. With the Tide leading 21–0 early, Renfrow got excited about the potential fourth meeting.

“They’re the best and so I think just being able to play the best every year is why you come to college to play football,” he said. “In order to be the best you have to beat the best, so being up against them is pretty fun.”