GLENDALE, Ariz. — College football is such a finite, measurable sport. There are not 162 chances to make an impact like in baseball, or 82 games to showcase one’s skills like in the NBA, or even the 16 guaranteed games of the NFL.
In college you just have 12 shots for sure, 13 if you’re lucky and 14 if you’re special. Thanks to the College Football Playoff, a 15th game is never guaranteed but is instead a remarkable reward for those that have survived the gauntlet of a season for that right to be kings.
So when the confetti fell in Atlanta and Arizona on New Year’s Eve following the conclusion of this season’s semifinals, two teams flooded the field with unbridled joy at the end of each game. Both Alabama and Clemson know the feeling so well because, after all, they went through it all last year despite plenty of people writing them off.
Now they meet again with that same carrot on the stick in front of them.
While Alabama’s win over Washington in the Peach Bowl was expected and played out just about how everybody thought, the result in the Fiesta Bowl could hardly be fathomed. It wasn’t just that Clemson won or even dominated the game from wire-to-wire for a 31-0 victory, it was that the Big Ten’s best fell short once again and that a team as talented as Ohio State would fail to put up points for the first time in decades.
If you watched the Buckeyes closely, you knew that this wasn’t a team where offense came easy. There was smoke, there were mirrors and there were Curtis Samuel snap counts for fans scoring at home. But for Urban Meyer, the closest Nick Saban has to an equal in the game, to get shutout for the first time in his storied career? Well, that was something else.
“There’s a reason he’s never been shutout. He’s a great coach and he’s been incredibly successful,” Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney said a few ticks before New Year’s with a Cheshire grin. “Tonight was just our night. If you coach long enough, you’re going to have those moments. Tonight was just our night.”
Indeed it was. It was Clemson’s night and perhaps one unlike any other in program history. There were no fluke bounces of the football or game-changing injuries. For every big play that Ohio State had, there were two more going the other way. Every momentum shift at University of Phoenix of Stadium wasn’t a shift at all because they all tilted toward the same sideline full of orange.
It was a fitting ending for the Tigers. It was after all on that very same site at the beginning of 2016 that they fell just short of a national title in heartbreaking fashion to that same Alabama team.
“This time last year, we left the field with a little doubt and a little bitter taste in our mouth. This time around, we couldn’t let it happen again,” linebacker Dorian O’Daniel said. “And we know what we have to do next week.”
This year’s team is mostly that same Clemson squad that played Alabama about as well as anybody has in the Saban era. Sure there are a few notable departures playing on Sundays — and a few notable additions like freshmen Dexter Lawrence and Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP Clelin Ferrell.
But it’s still Deshuan Watson making incredible plays and making some question how he’s a two-time Heisman finalist and not a two-time winner. It’s still a team that lives in opponents’ backfields thanks to a fearsome front seven and still a team that has wide receivers galore.
Now there’s only one thing left to do for Swinney, the program and those very same players who were in tears back in January as they walked off the field in tears.
It’s easier said than done of course. Just ask Washington, which didn’t get the Tide’s best performance of the season but had a deficit that was in the single digits most of the game but in reality felt much more like three scores. It was the same old game plan from Alabama: run you over, take advantage of your mistake and then get inside your head and beat you into submission.
It’s something this Clemson team knows all too well being on that same losing end. But while others would dwell on that loss last year and the mistakes that cost the team down the stretch of a back-and-forth game, the Tigers moved forward. Swinney watched tape of last year’s title game just twice, something that nearly every player and coach limited themselves to doing as well.
They know exactly what happened and, more importantly, what to do differently.
“I don’t think that’s the motivation for why we’re back in this (title) game. Motivation is playing to the Clemson standard and we know if we play to our standard, we can beat anybody. The loss in that game is a chip on our shoulder but there’s more motivation than that,” senior leader Ben Boulware remarked. “That game is something we’ll watch a lot in the coming week. It’s going to suck to watch it. But we put it on film so it is what it is. We’ll put some different film on tape come Monday.”
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who will be preparing for his sixth national title game over a storied career, didn’t dance around how good his next opponent was. He is keenly aware of what’s to come next week in Florida. And, perhaps indicative of his personality, he can’t wait.
“Every game has a life of its own. Every play is that way. Regardless of the opponent, you have to do everything the right way. The really good teams understand how to handle this moment. Hopefully we’re a little bit better this year than we were a year ago,” he said, referencing that 45-40 result 12 months ago. “The thing about Alabama is that for all the notoriety and jargon out there, it’s well deserved. They’ve earned every bit of it through work, through toughness. They’re not tricking people, they’re lining up and taking care of business.”
“Alabama is the benchmark that everyone wants to be.”
Clemson is certainly one of college football’s elite programs. If you doubted that coming into New Year’s Eve, you entered 2017 with a new line of thinking. They’re a benchmark themselves for just about every program save for the one they just beat and the one they’re about to play.
But the Tigers are not the kings of college football quite yet. They know what that looks like quite intimately and they know that getting over last year’s hump won’t be easy.
The team is dead set on doing it anyway and will get their shot next Monday night in Tampa. For Clemson, it’s all that’s left on the docket and they know just how valuable these chances are.
Stat of the Semifinals
Tweet of the Semifinals
Best player: Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough
Goat of the week: Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Play of the Semfinals
Clemson vs. Alabama (Tampa, Fla.)
Given the way the two teams played in their semifinals, there’s every reason to think we’re in for another classic title game and a worthy successor of last year’s meeting. Clemson is hungry and perhaps the team best equipped to go toe-to-toe with the Crimson Tide in the trenches. We’re still waiting on Jalen Hurts to become a freshman quarterback and it seems like he has regressed a tad as the competition level has heated up. The short layoff probably helps the Tigers too. As much as I’d like to though, I’ll go with Alabama 30-24 in a thriller that comes down to the end.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)