Alabama, Clemson are runaway models headed for CFP showdown
Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney sounded elated and appeared happily drained by the experience.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban looked and sounded unmoved, like he usually does during anything other than a national championship game celebration.
The reactions of the two men pretty much told the story Thursday after their teams advanced to the College Football Playoff title game.
Unbeaten Clemson (14-0) and Alabama (13-1) will play for the national championship Jan. 11 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Clemson is seeking its first national title since the 1981 season.
“It’s been 34 years since Clemson played for the national championship,” Swinney yelled from an Orange Bowl stage after his team’s 37-17 victory over Oklahoma, “but it ain’t going to be much longer.”
“Last year we sort of participated in the game,” Saban said, matter-of-factly, after the Crimson Tide shut out Michigan State, 38-0, in the Cotton Bowl. “This year we really wanted to come and make a statement and do something special.”
The championship game sets up as a showdown between Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Alabama’s defense.
But it will also feature Alabama running back Derrick Henry — the Heisman Trophy winner — and several other All-Americans, including Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson and Alabama defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reggie Ragland.
Clemson is trying to become the first college team to win 15 games in a season, and the second Atlantic Coast Conference team in three years to win a national title, joining 2013 Bowl Championship Series champion Florida State.
Watson, a sophomore, showed all of his varied skills against Oklahoma, rushing for 145 yards and a touchdown in 24 carries and passing for 187 yards and a touchdown, with an interception.
The Heisman finalist has passed for 31 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions. He has rushed for 1,032 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Running back Wayne Gallman rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns on a day when Clemson ran for 312 yards.
Clemson also showed it can play defense.
Oklahoma went into the semifinal averaging 235 yards rushing per game. The Tigers stuffed the Sooners and held them to 67.
Alabama, which has won 11 consecutive games since losing to Mississippi, entered the semifinal ranked first nationally in rushing defense, second nationally in total defense and third in scoring defense.
Then the Crimson Tide went out and manhandled Michigan State, showing that defensive coordinator Kirby Smart remains undistracted by his impending responsibilities as Georgia’s new head coach.
Henry rushed for two touchdowns and Alabama quarterback Jake Coker played near error-free while passing for 286 yards and two touchdowns. The victory earned offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin a chance to coach in a title game for the first time since the 2005 season, when USC lost to Texas in the BCS final at the Rose Bowl.
Now Alabama faces one of its native sons.
Swinney grew up in Alabama and was a walk-on receiver and assistant coach for the Crimson Tide.
He joined Clemson’s staff in 2003 and became interim coach in October 2008. He was promoted to permanent status before the 2009 season.
Swinney did not know whom the opponent would be after his team defeated Oklahoma. And it did not seem to matter.
“All I know is,” he said, invoking a new nickname for the title game, “we’re going to the Natty.”
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