Championship Primer: 5 knee-jerk narratives for Alabama-Clemson

By Matt Hinton
January 2, 2017

It’s seven days to kickoff in Tampa. Here are the overarching storylines that will dominate the conversation between now and then:

1. Reeeeematch

Last year’s game in Arizona was an instant classic, a 45-40 nail-biter that featured big plays, unlikely stars, dramatic swings in momentum, a transcendent performance from Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, and the gutsiest call of Nick Saban’s career. It was also the first time in the Saban era Alabama has been forced to break a legitimate sweat in the fourth quarter of a championship game: After lopsided wins in 2009, 2011, and 2012 – and fresh on the heels of a 38-0 semifinal romp over Michigan State – fears of another anticlimactic Bama blowout finally proved unfounded.

For all of those reasons, Clemson-Bama II looks like the best possible scenario for this year’s game, and probably the only one in which this particular edition of the Crimson Tide wouldn’t be favored by double digits. (Bama opened as a 7-point favorite, its narrowest spread of the season.)

If any team is equipped to foil the Tide’s coronation, obviously, it’s the one that came within a play or two of taking the crown for itself the last time around. Besides Watson, the Tigers boast the nation’s deepest receiving corps and arguably its most disruptive front seven behind Alabama’s. They’ll also arrive in Tampa off one of the most dominant performances in school history, a 31-0 trampling of Ohio State that was every bit as grisly as the margin suggests. They haven’t been as consistent as the Tide over the entire season – few teams ever have – but for one game? Clemson is the only team Bama has faced, or could have faced, that knows for a fact that its best is good enough.


2. Deshaun Watson, Campus Legend

Watson will arrive for (presumably) his final college game as a two-time Heisman finalist with proven big-game chops and a 32-2 record as a starter; barring a full-scale, Troy Smith-level meltdown, his place on the shortlist of elite 21st-Century quarterbacks is already secure.

For posterity’s sake, though, there’s no stage as big or memorable as the one he’ll have on Monday night, against an Alabama defense playing for its own place in the pantheon. As phenomenal as Watson was in the last year’s title game — his 478 total yards set the record for a national championship game, surpassing Vince Young’s 2006 output against USC — in the end the loss prevented him from descending directly to the plane occupied in the popular memory by the likes of Young, Cam Newton and Tommie Frazier, each of whom ended his college career on the highest possible note. That kind of legacy is within Watson’s grasp, depending on the lasting impression he leaves us with next Monday night. But it’s safe to assume this time that his stat line won’t count for nearly as much in the long run as the final score.

3. Jalen Hurts, Just Getting Started

By now, Alabama fans have heard the name (Jamelle Holieway) and the number (31 years) often enough to answer the trivia question by heart: That’s how long it’s been since Holieway, age 18, led Oklahoma to the 1985 crown in his first year on campus, a feat no other team has come close to matching with a true-freshman starter behind center since.

If Bama breaks the streak behind Jalen Hurts, also age 18, it will be a testament both to how far beyond his years Hurts has played all season and to just how long the odds were against him finding himself in this position in the first place.

The fact that Saban was willing to hand the keys to Hurts at all was an uncharacteristic leap of faith — as I’ve noted before, the most obvious trend in previous QB competitions under Saban was that they always favored the most experienced player, putting Hurts at an immediate disadvantage against vets Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. (According to 247Sports, all three were also rated more highly than Hurts as incoming recruits.)


So far, though, the rookie has been unflappable, accounting for nearly 55 percent of the total yards for an offense that remains on pace to finish as the highest-scoring attack in school history. Sure, it helps to be surrounded by the most talented roster in the nation, and especially to have a defense capable of outscoring half of the Crimson Tide’s opponents on its own. But rarely does a player come along who makes defying decades’ worth of precedent look so easy.

4. Clemson Completes the Ascent

As championship droughts go, Clemson’s 35-year wait since its one and only national title in 1981 is old enough to run for president. In the meantime, an entire generation has come of age associating the Tigers primarily with “Clemsoning.” From 1991 to 2010, Clemson went two full decades without a 10-win season, conference title, or top-10 finish, more often than not ending the season unranked.

So it’s not for nothing that Dabo Swinney, architect of six consecutive 10-win seasons, insisted on reminding a national audience from the Fiesta Bowl trophy stand that “Clemson is an elite program.” Clearly: Since 2012, the Tigers (59-9) are tied for third nationally in both overall winning percentage and total wins, trailing only Alabama (64-6) and Ohio State (62-6); in the same span, they’ve vanquished eight top-10 opponents and claimed multiple victories over OSU, Florida State, and Oklahoma.

They’ve won back-to-back ACC crowns and produced 23 draft picks in five years. The only rung left to climb is the big one, which so narrowly eluded them last January.

Swinney’s program is built to last, but with Watson and a significant chunk of the starting lineup likely on their way out, there’s no guarantee it will be this close again anytime soon.

5. Dynasty Mode

A Bama win would give Saban his sixth national championship, tying Bear Bryant, and his fifth at Alabama in eight years, a run of such concentrated dominance it’s difficult to put into context. For some comparison, Bryant’s fifth title in Tuscaloosa came 18 years after his first, in an arguably less competitive era; since the introduction of the AP poll, in 1936, the only other coach who can claim four championships in the span of a single decade is Notre Dame’s Frank Leahy in the forties, when the concept of a “national championship” remained so nebulous that the Irish routinely declined to play in bowl games. (Prior to 1968 the AP didn’t bother to hold a final vote after the bowls, anyway.)

However you define the sport’s “modern era,” no one who has won big has done it more often, or more efficiently, than Nick Saban at Alabama.

This team in particular has a chance to cement its place as Saban’s best, and potentially — issues in the passing game notwithstanding — one of the best of all-time.

Aside from Alabama itself in 2011-12, no other school has won back-to-back championship games since Nebraska in 1994-95. Fifteen wins would be a milestone in its own right, made possible by the playoff; the last major college team to go 15-0 in a season was the University of Pennsylvania in 1897.

Bama’s ongoing, 26-game winning streak is the longest by any SEC team since Bryant’s run of 28 straight from 1978-80. One more, and the only edge the Bear will still hold in the tale of the tape is sheer longevity.