College football has never seen anything quite like this.
For the last two seasons, Clemson and Alabama have dominated the sport, battling each other in the postseason, taking turns at being king of the hill.
Now comes the rubber match with the top-ranked Tigers and fourth-ranked Crimson Tide back in the playoffs and going head to head for a third consecutive time.
“I guess the stars are aligned,” Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “Everything happened like the way it’s supposed to happen.”
This year, instead of meeting in the College Football Playoff title game, the teams will square off in a Monday night semifinal at the Sugar Bowl, but to the coaches and players involved, the distinction is merely semantic.
“These games are like a dogfight,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
The rivalry’s first two installments amounted to a test of wills between Clemson’s do-everything quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Crimson Tide’s depth of talent on both sides of the ball.
The 2015 championship game went back and forth before Alabama came on strong in the fourth quarter, earning victory by way of a daring onside kick.
“Last year was great … one of the best moments of my life,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “And it stunk the year before.”
Alabama players still hurt from their defeat.
“I feel like it’s kind of a big revenge game because they ended our season last year,” defensive back Ronnie Harrison said. “So that’s been on our hearts all season.”
You have to dive deep into college football history to find anything approaching a matchup played at such stratospheric levels.
From 1973 through 1975, USC and Ohio State met in the Rose Bowl three consecutive seasons. The Trojans and Buckeyes were ranked in the top 10 each time, splitting the first two games before USC took the third in an 18-17 thriller.
But in an era when poll votes were the deciding factor, only the first meeting produced a national champion.
Army and Notre Dame dominated through the mid-1940s, but they battled each other during the regular season. Same went for Minnesota and Michigan a decade earlier.
Hardly any schools played football when Princeton, Harvard and Yale took turns at the top in the late 1800s.
Clemson versus Alabama came along after college football had shifted to a unified championship game. And both teams have found a way to prevail amid widespread parity.
These are the only two programs in the Power Five conferences that have notched 10 or more victories for the past seven seasons. During that span, Alabama has won 91% of its games, just ahead of Clemson with 85%.
This fall, they survived a regular season marked by weekly upsets and a constant churn in the rankings.
Ranked No. 1 in the preseason, Alabama remained unbeaten through its first 11 games despite crucial injuries on defense, but hit a major bump in the final week of the regular season.
A 26-14 loss at No. 6 Auburn kept the Crimson Tide out of the Southeastern Conference title game and seriously jeopardized their shot at making the four-team playoff.
In a controversial decision, the CFP selection committee chose them over Big Ten Conference champion Ohio State for the final slot.
“Ending the season the way we did and having our fate in the hands of the selection committee hurt,” Harrison said. “We just want to prove that we are supposed to be here.”
Monday night already has a nickname — “The Trilogy” — as if it were a blockbuster “Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars” sequel.
The matchup remains enticing, even if Watson is long gone to the NFL and Alabama’s defense isn’t quite as fearsome with all those replacements. There is hope for another nail-biter because players on both sides know each other’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.
As Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel put it: “We might as well add them to the schedule at this point.”
The Tigers have a strong defense of their own and have filled Watson’s spot with the capable, sometimes brilliant, Kelly Bryant.
Alabama can still manhandle opponents — the defense ranks second nationally — and has scoring punch with sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts a year older and wiser.
Given that memories of the past two seasons remain fresh, both teams act as if they have a score to settle. It seems only natural that the road to the championship runs through them.
“We know what they’re going to bring and how tough the game is going to be,” Clemson offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt said. “It’s just going to be a brawl out there.”
If it’s true that good things come in threes, college football has it pretty good right now.
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