As the clock ticked down on Clemson’s victory in the Fiesta Bowl, linebacker Ben Boulware stomped along the sideline, bellowing, thrusting his arms toward the sky.
His team had dispatched with Ohio State in a College Football Playoff semifinal and now he was celebrating, his thoughts already pointing toward a rematch with undefeated Alabama in the championship.
“That’s the game we’ve been wanting to play,” he said.
A year ago, the Tigers were undefeated and confident but came up just short, losing 45-40, vowing to return for another shot at the title.
This time around, the oddsmakers have installed them as a touchdown underdog against the Crimson Tide — who are riding a 26-game winning streak — so the challenge is clear.
“Alabama has been the standard — there’s really no argument about that,” Coach Dabo Swinney said. “If you’re going to be the best, you’ve got to beat them.”
Next Monday night will mark the first championship rematch in the nearly two decades that span the creation of the Bowl Championship Series and its offspring, the three-year-old CFP system.
There is little question that, this season, the two best playoff contenders have advanced to the final.
The Crimson Tide will try to become the first college team to go 15-0 — a mark that Clemson barely missed last season. Coach Nick Saban is chasing some personal history with a chance to tie the record set by his predecessor, Bear Bryant, by earning a sixth national championship.
For Clemson, the stakes are equally high if a little different. The Tigers, who last won it all in 1981, hope to claim what they see as their rightful place in college football.
“Sooner or later people are going to realize,” Swinney said from the trophy stage at the Fiesta Bowl. “Clemson is an elite program.”
Most of the attention in Tampa next Monday night will focus on the Tigers’ volatile pass offense against Alabama’s defense.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has all the credentials, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist who is on a roll after dismantling Ohio State with both his arm and his legs. Just as important, he has a wealth of talented receivers, including the NFL-caliber Mike Williams, who sat out almost all of last season because of an injury.
“They kind of are what we thought they were,” Washington Coach Chris Petersen said. “Really, really elite championship defense and, you know, good players across the board.”
If there is a question mark for the Crimson Tide, it involves their quarterback and a matchup that could prove crucial.
This season, Alabama has relied on true freshman Jalen Hurts to run the offense. The son of a high school coach, Hurts is preternaturally mature and a powerful runner, but has yet to prove himself as an elite passer.
Against Washington, he looked shaky at times, completing seven of 14 passes for only 57 yards. Things won’t get any easier against a Clemson defense that ranks fifth nationally with 3.50 sacks a game and consistently harassed Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett.
The Tigers limited Ohio State to seven first downs — not counting penalties — and set up camp in the Buckeyes’ backfield, recording 11 tackles for loss.
“That was a great team,” a subdued Barrett said.
It might not matter if Alabama continues to dominate with the ground game. As Petersen said: “They keep you off balance with some bootlegs and those type of things, but they’re all about running the ball.”
Saban might have found a new star in Bo Scarbrough, an oft-injured sophomore running back who has emerged late in the season, rushing for 180 yards and two touchdowns against Washington.
“You guys know me — whoever’s hot, that’s who is going to get the ball,” Saban said. “And he’s been hot lately.”
As always, the Crimson Tide program exudes an air of quiet determination and poise. They have been here before and know how to win championships.
“It’s a little bit like running a marathon, which you get at the 20-mile mark and you still feel like you’re only halfway there,” Saban said. “But we’ve got miles more to go.”
Clemson seems a bit louder, a bit edgier, with a taste for revenge. Asked how often he has thought about last season’s championship loss over the past year, cornerback Cordrea Tankersley replied: “Every day.”
Swinney believes his program is ready to take the next step.
This fall, he sees a greater sense of leadership among the upperclassman and more talent down the depth chart. The folksy, loquacious coach seems every bit as hungry as his players.
“You can best believe we’re going to show up,” he said of the championship game. “We’re going to lay it on the line and see if we can find a way to finish.”