After four months of blowouts, upsets and overtimes, college football has the national championship matchup that seemed inevitable in Week 1.
Undefeated Alabama vs. undefeated Clemson in the College Football Playoff final.
Maybe that bores you. A third Tide-Tigers title game and fourth playoff pairing in four years has created some fatigue around Monday’s matchup in Santa Clara, Calif. But if you’re thinking about skipping it because you’re tired of houndstooth and paw prints, be warned.
It’ll be your loss.
“I think that this is clearly the two best teams in Alabama and Clemson, and it’s going to be an exciting game,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “I mean, this is the way it should be.”
And in some ways, it’s the way it always has been, with a handful of teams sharing the sport’s penthouse. That’s why college football hasn’t celebrated a first-time national champion since Florida in 1996 (and no, I’m not forgetting the mythical one UCF claimed last season).
Of the 129 Division I-A teams, only 27 have ever finished No. 1 in the AP poll. Ignore titles awarded before the end of World War II, and the list dwindles to 24. Basketball is for Cinderellas; football is where the titans clash.
Although this twin dominance of Clemson and ‘Bama is rare, it’s not unprecedented. USC and ‘Bama both finished first or second nationally three times in four years from 1976-79. If the current championship structure had been around during Bobby Bowden’s dynasty, Florida State and Miami could have met in three playoffs from 1987-92 ... despite already facing each other during the regular season.
The postseason shift has fortified the bluebloods’ monopoly. Since the BCS’ inaugural season (1998), only 17 teams have appeared in the 21 national title games. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that 15 teams have reached the NBA Finals in that span.
And this isn’t like the NBA’s four consecutive Cavaliers-Warriors series, where the same stars keep returning to the same stage. This ‘Bama-Clemson sequel is more The Force Awakens than Return of the Jedi, with a few old characters (Swinney, Nick Saban, ageless receiver Hunter Renfrow) echoing familiar themes alongside a largely new cast.
The first matchup’s breakout player (‘Bama tight end O.J. Howard) is catching passes for the Bucs, so someone else will have to emerge as an X-factor Monday. Keep an eye on Tide running back Josh Jacobs and Clemson defensive lineman Austin Bryant.
The Tampa Bay Tigers that won Act II at Raymond James Stadium are gone. So is the Clemson quarterback (Deshaun Watson) who delivered transcendent performances in the previous two unforgettable matchups. Alas, fans will have to settle for watching the presumptive No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 NFL draft (‘Bama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa) go gorgeous-throw-for-gorgeous-throw against the presumptive No. 1 overall pick of the 2021 NFL draft (Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence).
When you focus on the repeat uniforms, you ignore the accomplishments of the elite talent like Tagovailoa and Lawrence who wear them. Even with Dexter Lawrence suspended, Clemson still has an all-time great defensive line; the Tide counters with the best lineman in the country (Quinnen Williams). ‘Bama rotates through three great running backs; the Tigers rely on the explosive Travis Etienne.
Either No. 1 Alabama or No. 2 Clemson will become the first team in more than a century to finish 15-0. That’s not something to bemoan. It’s something to celebrate, especially considering how great their first two title games were.
So don’t yawn over another ‘Bama-Clemson title game. The nation’s unquestioned top two teams will meet at a neutral field for a chance at making history.
This is the way it should be.