Column: The greatness of the Alabama-Clemson rivalry far outweighs its repetitiveness
The early numbers don’t look great for the championship showdown Monday night between Alabama and Clemson.
Overnight television ratings were down for the teams’ semifinal victories and, by midweek, seats for the title game had dropped below $120 on the secondary market.
If fans feel a bit ho-hum about watching the No. 1 Crimson Tide against the No. 2 Tigers, it wouldn’t be surprising.
This is the fourth consecutive season the teams will meet in the College Football Playoffs and the third time they will play for the title. With both remaining undefeated week after week this fall, another rematch seemed inevitable.
But there might be another way to view Chapter 4 of the Alabama-Clemson saga, a story line that might appeal to fans outside the boundaries of the Southeast.
Think Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier. Or the Lakers against the Celtics.
“You know the type of rivalry that we’ve done built over these last few years,” Alabama safety Deionte Thompson told reporters. “I mean, it’s going to be a war.”
Back in the late 1800s, the Ivy League schools went toe-to-toe each season, with Princeton and Yale winning a string of national titles. Harvard had its dynasty after the turn of the century.
There have been other stretches where the same schools dominated the rankings, but nothing since the advent of the title game in 1998, when the Bowl Championship Series began matching the best two teams in the nation.
Alabama-Clemson isn’t a rivalry fueled by proximity or conference affiliation; this one was forged in the national spotlight.
Their streak began at the 2016 championship, in the second year of the four-team CFP bracket. The Crimson Tide won that first meeting 45-40; the Tigers got revenge the following season 35-31.
A rubber match in the 2018 semifinals wasn’t as close, with Alabama sprinting to a 24-6 victory. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney recalled: “We got our butts beat.”
But this fall began with the teams once again ranked atop the Associated Press poll.
The Tigers slipped a few notches early in the season, switching to freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence and nearly losing to Syracuse, then climbed back to No. 2. Top-ranked Alabama also had a scare, needing a fourth-quarter comeback to defeat Georgia for the Southeastern Conference championship.
Their subsequent double-digit victories in the semifinals left no doubt the CFP format got it right this season.
“These are clearly the two best teams,” Swinney said.
And the seeming indifference from fans?
Last week’s scores might explain the television ratings that, while strong, represented a decrease from last season. This week, geography might be hurting ticket sales.
The TicketIQ website notes that prices have dropped from previous seasons, perhaps because fans are reluctant to trek cross-country to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
“At an average distance of 2,428 [miles] from each campus, this is the farthest distance that two teams have had to travel to play in the national championship game this decade,” the company said.
The game Monday matches teams that, in some ways, mirror each other.
Both feature highly ranked defenses anchored by merciless front lines. Alabama’s sophomore quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, has been more productive than Lawrence, but both offenses rank in the Top 5 nationally, averaging more than 500 yards and 44 points.
“They’re going to be well-prepared,” Clemson defensive end Austin Bryant said of the Crimson Tide. “They have a great offensive line, great offense in general that plays lights out.”
The best thing about this rematch? History suggests it could be entertaining.
Not only were the previous title games close, they featured a couple of the most memorable plays in recent college football history.
In 2016, with the teams trading scores down the stretch, Alabama coach Nick Saban rolled the dice, calling for an onside kick with 10:34 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Crimson Tide recovered, gaining an extra possession that proved critical to the 45-40 win.
“We weren’t playing very well on defense,” Saban said at the time. “I thought we needed to do something that was going to change the momentum of the game.”
The following season, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson took over in the final two minutes, with his team trailing by three.
“Let’s be legendary,” he recalled telling his teammates in the huddle. “Let’s be great.”
His length-of-the-field drive concluded with a two-yard touchdown pass to receiver Hunter Renfrow with one second left for the 35-31 victory.
College football could use that kind of excitement right now.
The past month has suffered from too many bowl games with blowout scores or hardly any scoring at all. Monday night offers something more promising.
Two proven rivals. Two brand names. The first meeting of undefeated teams in a CFP finale.
“I mean,” Swinney said, “this is the way it should be.”
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