Clemson, Alabama set for Part III of college football's newest rivalry
NEW ORLEANS — For the third year in a row, Clemson will meet Alabama in the College Football Playoff, only this time it will be in the Sugar Bowl semifinal rather than the national championship game.
They will be hard-pressed to match the excitement of the last two meetings: Alabama's 45-40 victory that featured 40 points in the final 10 1⁄2 minutes, followed by Clemson's 35-31 triumph on a touchdown pass with one second remaining.
“We haven't competed against each other a lot,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said on the eve of the New Year's night game. “But all of a sudden you've got this three-game series that has just happened at the highest level. And this is kind of a rubber match. But, to be honest with you, this is probably not going to be the last one. There will probably be more of these down the road.”
ACC champion Clemson (12-1) is the top seed, bouncing back from a shocking 27-24 loss to Syracuse in mid-October. Alabama (11-1) didn't even get a chance to play for the SEC title, losing to Auburn in the regular-season finale after being ranked No. 1 all season by the Associated Press.
Despite the setback, the selection committee went with the Tide as the No. 4 seed over Big Ten champ Ohio State.
“This is kind of like a rivalry now,” Tide linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “This is something I will definitely remember for the rest of my life, just to be able to be a part of this whole big thing. I'll have faced these guys three times, watched so much film of us winning and losing. Now we have another chance.”
Alabama has endured a rash of injuries at linebacker, which seemed to affect the Tide's defense late in the season.
With more than a month off since the loss to Auburn, the situation looks a little better but remains a point of concern for coach Nick Saban.
Most notably, Dylan Moses and Shaun Dion Hamilton won't be able to go against Clemson, dealing a blow to the Tide's signal-calling inside linebacker position. That puts a big burden on Mack Wilson, who returned from a foot injury to play in the Auburn game but wasn't all that effective.
“It's very important to get the signal, get it communicated and get the defense lined up,” Saban said. “Mack is very capable. He doesn't have a lot of experience doing it, but I'm sure he will do a good job in the game.”
Clemson's Kelly Bryant had some huge shoes to fill stepping in for Deshaun Watson, but the junior quarterback made it a relatively seamless transition.
Bryant provides the same sort of dual threat as Watson, capable of beating teams with his arm or his legs, but it's hard to envision him putting up the same sort of numbers on the big stage.
Meanwhile, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts struggled with his consistency down the stretch, which might be a product of working with his third offensive coordinator (Brian Daboll) in two seasons.
Alabama needs a win to stay on course for Saban's record-tying sixth national title.