Ryan McGeeESPN Senior Writer
This was always where we were going to end up, wasn’t it?
Next Monday night, college football’s biggest stage will be occupied by Alabama and Clemson, the same two teams in that same game a year ago. The grandstands at the College Football Playoff National Championship will be filled with the same crimson- and orange-clad fans, only this time around they will probably have driven into town, not flown, and will thus have saved more money for seafood and beer.
But while some title-bout rematches might incite coast-to-coast groaning and eye rolls, this one does not. When the Tide and Tigers wrapped up their thrill-a-second 45-40 shootout on Jan. 11, 2016, most walked away wishing there had been another quarter left to play. The immediate conversation was: “How great would a Round 2 be, right?!” And when the preseason polls were revealed seven months later it was no surprise when that same pair sat atop those standings.
“Yeah, I know there will be people who look at what was expected of us at the start of the year and see us both in the championship game and they’ll say, ‘Oh, well, this is no surprise at all, right?'” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said the day after his Tigers ransacked Ohio State in Saturday’s second semifinal game, a 31-0 rout on the same field where they’d come up five points short against Alabama in their first showdown. “But I think about the road we’ve taken from that first night in that stadium to this night right here and anyone who has really followed this team knows this was way more than just going Point A to Point B. All those other points along the way weren’t easy. At all.”
Clemson certainly wasn’t alone on that zigzagging path. The road that has carried us all from Glendale, Arizona, last January to Tampa, Florida, this January has taken plenty of interesting side trips. Every time we thought we knew exactly what direction we were headed, there were uncharted detours and road blocks that seemingly steered us further away from the paved road.
For Swinney’s team it was a pair of near losses at home, first to Louisville and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, and then two weeks later, surviving a bizarre how-not-to-kick-field goals clinic against old rival NC State. Everyone remembers the stunning loss, also at home, to Pitt. But time has clouded the memories of early scares at Auburn and at home vs. Troy(!) and barely hanging on against ACC stalwarts Florida State and Virginia Tech.
“I know that number beside our name has changed a little during the year,” defensive anchor Ben Boulware said of Clemson’s national ranking, which bobbed up and down between second and fifth during the season. “But we kept our eyes on the goal to be in that top four and then that top two when it mattered most.”
There were plenty of other teams that managed to cram themselves into the gap between Clemson and the top spot when it did widen. Michigan, Washington, Ohio State, Florida State and Louisville all managed to skip ahead of the Tigers at some point. Meanwhile the likes of Houston, Wisconsin and even Texas A&M and Nebraska took turns nipping at Clemson’s hind paws.
Now they are all gone and Clemson is right back where it started, with a shot to knock off the nation’s top team. “[Alabama] is the best of the best,” Tigers QB Deshaun Watson said late Saturday night. “You’ve got to earn that title.”
Bama has earned it and then some. While Clemson yo-yoed in the top five, the team that was ranked first did not. The Crimson Tide were No. 1 heading into the 2016 season and have been there ever since. But buried beneath all of the talk about invincibility and “best team ever,” Alabama has also had some unwanted side trips on its trek to Tampa.
The Tide did start the season with a true freshman quarterback. They also fielded the nation’s 116th-most experienced roster (there are 128 teams) and the youngest depth chart in the SEC. And while they certainly didn’t have to endure the Whack-A-Mole schedule scares that hampered Clemson, back in Week 3 they did trail Ole Miss 24-3 late in the first half and had to hold off a furious rally from the Rebels to win 48-43.
“All of the wire-to-wire talk about being ranked No. 1, that glosses over a lot of what you have to do to maintain success throughout a season,” head coach Nick Saban said following the Tide’s 24-7 bullying of Washington in the first playoff semifinal. “Between injuries and immaturity and being told how great you are all of the time, there’s nothing about this job that is ever on any kind of cruise control.”
No, cruise control is something that works only when the road is straight and there’s no slower traffic to force you to stand on the brakes, no idiot weaving through that traffic to cause you to veer out of your lane, and no cones, barrels or road signs warning you of unavoidable detours up ahead.
Cones, barrels and road signs that are always colored orange and white.
“Every season is its own story. No two seasons and no two teams are ever alike,” Saban continued. “And even if the teams are the same, no rematch between those teams is ever alike either.”
Actually, Coach, we’re all kind of hoping that this one is.