“We wanted to play Alabama,” he said, “because now y’all got to change your stories. Y’all got to change the narrative.”
Ncaa Game 2017
Alabama vs Clemson Live
Date: Monday, January 1, 2018
Time: 8:45p ET
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That narrative is simple. Alabama has a stranglehold on the sport. Alabama is the only team to have made every College Football Playoff. It has won three of the last six national championships. It very well could have won six out of the last six titles. No team has towered over any sport the way Alabama has for the last decade.
But for the first time, there are signs that the Crimson Tide’s grip may be loosening. And that is what makes Monday’s College Football Playoff Semifinal between No. 1 Clemson and No. 4 Alabama a potentially seminal moment in the sport’s history.
It isn’t just the rubber game of what anybody with eyeballs would call one of the greatest trilogies in modern sports history—one in which Alabama beat Clemson for the title two years ago, only for the Tigers to pull off last year’s stunning upset.
This semifinal matchup in the Sugar Bowl is arguably the most hotly anticipated game in recent memory—even more than next week’s national championship for an even broader reason. Swinney’s Clemson team is out to prove that last year’s national championship was more than a fleeting plot twist, but rather a paradigm shift in the college football universe that Alabama dominates.
Plenty of teams have taken their shot at Alabama before. Nick Saban has, in fact, lost football games. Afterward, the Crimson Tide would then stampede their way to another title and make it abundantly clear that there isn’t a single team in the entire sport that can stand toe to toe with them.
There’s a difference now, though. A second straight loss to Clemson in the playoff could destroy that air of invincibility. It would be difficult to call Alabama the sport’s overlord when another program has established itself as, at the very least, its equal.
And over the past three seasons, Clemson has done just that, with a turnaround nobody saw coming. It wasn’t long ago that Death Valley saw Swinney as an underqualified hire who underperformed. In 2010, his third season at Clemson, the Tigers went 6-7 and there were loud calls for his firing. Instead, he made a promise: By 2020, he said, this would be the best decade in Clemson football history.
Now Clemson is the No. 1 team in the country, again. Over the last three seasons, Clemson is 40-3. And the only people musing about Swinney’s job are Alabama fans who wonder if the 48-year-old might take up the mantle at his alma mater in Tuscaloosa when Saban someday retires.
But Clemson’s ascension isn’t the only reason Alabama’s hegemony is in doubt. There’s another team knocking on the door. It plays in the same conference and is also in the playoff: Georgia.
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart, a former Saban assistant, has challenged his ex-boss in ways that even Swinney hasn’t or couldn’t. Georgia won the SEC championship, ending Alabama’s three-year reign. Then Georgia became the first SEC team not named Alabama to make the playoff.
Even more persuasive than this one-year run, though, are the signs that this isn’t a fluke—which would mean Alabama may not just have an equal in the nation, but also in the same conference.
The most telling of those indicators is that the last time any school had a better recruiting class than Alabama, every other school in the SEC had a different coach. In every year from 2011 to 2017, Alabama’s recruiting class rated No. 1 in the country, according to 247sports.com. In many instances, it wasn’t even close. But for the 2018 recruiting class, Georgia ranks No. 1. And Alabama sits seventh.
Perhaps the best way to grasp the changing landscape is just by looking at this season: The Crimson Tide nearly didn’t make the playoff. For Alabama to make it, the committee had to admit a non-conference champion for just the second time. And for the first time, they allowed in two teams from the same conference.
All the while, there was a peculiar question surrounding the Crimson Tide’s candidacy: How good are they? Their best wins this season weren’t very good at all. In their best chance to settle those doubts, they lost to Auburn—and missed out on the SEC title game as a result. Between that and a spate of injuries, even the eye test was suddenly no longer Alabama’s best friend.
Which is why a Clemson win could say so much. It would catapult the Tigers—not the Crimson Tide—to a third straight championship game and could give credence to everybody who has begun doubting whether Alabama belonged in this final four in the first place.
But something else just might happen Monday night. It’s entirely possible. Oddsmakers say it’s even probable. Alabama could beat the No. 1 team in the country. And everything would be back to normal.
“I came to Clemson to compete at the highest level,” said Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, “and Alabama’s the best.”