The decision to give the fourth and final playoff spot to one-loss Alabama instead of Big Ten champion Ohio State has set the stage for the ultra-rare re-rematch. For the third season in a row, Alabama and Clemson will meet in the playoff, after splitting the previous two seasons’ meetings.
The only difference this time around is that the clash between these two programs—college football’s finest over the past three years—will come in the Sugar Bowl semifinal rather than the national title game.
It’s a matchup teeming with storylines, but the game itself won’t take place for another four weeks. Anything can happen between now and then, and there are 38 other bowl games before the semifinal kicks off on New Year’s Day. All this goes to say, this preview of Alabama-Clemson Part III is of the way-too-early variety.
How both teams got here
Clemson: With authority. The Tigers knew the ACC championship game against Miami served as basically a playoff quarterfinal; a win meant entering the playoff as the likely top seed, while a loss would have almost certainly killed any shot of repeating as national champions.
All Clemson did was absolutely annihilate Miami from the opening whistle in a performance that severely tempered the “Miami is back” talk, at least for now. Clemson carried a 38–0 lead into the fourth quarter before surrendering a meaningless field goal and now enters the postseason brimming with confidence.
The Tigers started the year ranked third in the AP poll, and apart from a Friday night loss to Syracuse in October—a game starting quarterback Kelly Bryant left in the first half with a concussion—Clemson has been rock-solid all season. With four wins over teams in the final playoff ranking and coming off back-to-back gut-check victories (Clemson handled rival South Carolina 34–10 on the road in the last week of the season), the Tigers are a worthy No. 1.
Alabama: By the skin of their teeth. The Crimson Tide’s 26–14 loss at Auburn on rivalry weekend left their fate in the hands of the committee, as Auburn’s victory clinched the SEC West and kept Bama out of the SEC title game. But Ohio State did Nick Saban’s team a real solid by beating Wisconsin, which would have taken the fourth spot with a victory, and the committee resisted the urge to pick the two-loss Buckeyes simply because they won their conference.
Alabama doesn’t have many quality wins on its résumé, as Florida State’s disastrous season nullified what appeared to be a prestigious win in Week 1, but its only loss on the season came on the road to a top-10 team in a game that was far closer than the final score.
Storyline you’ll get tired of hearing
Does Alabama even deserve to be here? You’re going to hear a ton about how this is the third straight year these teams will meet in the playoff, but that’s a genuinely intriguing storyline that doesn’t come along often. On the other hand, continuing to debate whether it should be Ohio State instead of Alabama is neither productive nor enjoyable. No matter your opinion on the decision—for what it’s worth, I think the committee nailed it—there’s no going back now, for better or worse. Fans should shift their attention from the Ohio State-Alabama debate to the actual football games coming up, which should be spectacular.
Matchup to watch
Alabama’s rushing attack vs. Clemson’s defensive front. Alabama relies heavily on the three-headed ground attack of running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough and quarterback Jalen Hurts, all of whom have over 500 rushing yards on the season. It’s been a successful strategy thus far—the Crimson Tide are 11th in the country with 265.3 rushing yards per game. But Clemson’s extremely talented defensive front, led by first-team All-ACCers Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, presents a new challenge entirely. The Tigers held Miami to 104 rushing yards on 30 attempts and 214 yards of total offense in the ACC title game. Whether Alabama is able to establish a run game will go a long way toward determining the outcome.
Alabama’s health. The Crimson Tide came into the Iron Bowl banged up, particularly on the defensive end. Linebackers Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller were playing their first games since the season-opener against Florida State, while Mack Wilson suited up for the first time since Oct. 21. The defense looked vulnerable in giving up 408 yards of total offense to Auburn.
Those three guys will seriously benefit from the extended break, but Alabama will be without starting safety Hootie Jones, who will miss the game with an MCL injury he suffered against Auburn. All in all, Alabama should be healthier for the semifinal than it was for the Iron Bowl, which bodes well for the defense’s chances to slow Clemson down.
The game opened as a pick ’em, but public support for Alabama has made the Crimson Tide slight favorites. Clemson has proven over the past two years that it can match Alabama talent-wise at virtually every position on the field. The Tigers are peaking at the right time, and that defense won’t allow Alabama to impose its will on the ground. Clemson is in good position to take Part III.