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Mark Edwards: Alabama to meet Clemson again, as it should be

December 30, 2018

Now, it’s Clemson.

Again.

Like it should be.

Didn’t it seem all year as if Alabama and Clemson were playing out the string just to get to this moment?

It’s like both teams played 14 exhibition games to get to the one that really counts. Alabama controlled Oklahoma 45-34 in the Orange Bowl on Saturday, with a score that doesn’t show how this one actually went. Clemson unmasked a Notre Dame team that didn’t belong 30-3 in the Cotton Bowl.

And, now we have Alabama-Clemson, Round 4, for the championship Jan. 7. The winner will be the first team to go 15-0 since Penn in 1897. Las Vegas sportsbook Bovada already has put the Crimson Tide as a 6.5-point favorite.

The year opened with Alabama first in the preseason rankings and Clemson second. Alabama went wire-to-wire in the top spot. The Tigers didn’t stay at No. 2 all year. Voters dropped them as low as No. 4 early in the season, but after a convincing 41-7 win over North Carolina State, the Tigers got shoved back to No. 2 and have stayed there ever since.

If the College Football Playoff committee had shown some guts, made Georgia the No. 3 seed and matched Clemson and the Bulldogs in a national semifinal, there might’ve been some doubt about who made the finals.

As it was, Oklahoma and Notre Dame had no real shot. Alabama played as sloppy as it has all year after building a 28-0 lead Saturday, but the Sooners were still at least a handful of “oh, wow, incredible!” plays from seriously challenging the Tide.

Now, everybody in America should agree that Alabama and Clemson have been the two best teams all along, although I’m sure the Colley Matrix computer rankings, which famously crowned Central Florida as national champion last year, will say the Tide and Clemson aren’t all that.

The last time two teams ran the table to set up a showdown like this was maybe 2005 when Southern California and Texas spent the year 1-2 in the rankings. In a championship game that turned out better than we had a right to expect, Texas won a thriller 41-38.

The last time two undefeated teams met for the championship was 2010 when Auburn beat Oregon 22-19.

But the Alabama-Clemson matchup is a bit different than either of those, and not just because teams have to go through a four-team playoff instead of a two-team setup.

The three previous matchups in three years make this one different. Alabama holds a 2-1 edge after dominating late in its 24-6 win in the Sugar Bowl. Otherwise, they weren’t that far apart. This season’s meeting will mark the fourth time that the winner will take the national title.

They’re built the same way — they can grind through the regular season but explosive enough to win a shootout. They’re strong up front, good defensively, have good quarterbacks and can run the ball well when they need to. Both teams have experienced winners.

Heck, Clemson still has Hunter Renfrow, who is the only guy to play for both of Clemson’s national championship teams in 1981 and 2016. (Kidding.) He’ll have a say against Alabama. Again. (Not kidding.)

If there’s a difference, it’s at quarterback and receiver. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa was downright surgical against Oklahoma, completing 24 of 27 passes with four touchdowns. Who could blame any Alabama fan sitting at home, yelling at the TV, “If he hadn’t hurt his ankle, he would’ve won the Heisman.” Maybe they’re right.

He’s a special talent, but good grief, his receivers are special. Any Oklahoma player who dares to say this isn’t the best collection of receivers they’ve played all year is lying, either to us or themselves.

There’s another way they’re different, as well — they very well may play again next year. Or the year after that. Or both.

When USC met Texas and Auburn met Oregon, none of those teams looked like they could sustain what they had. They looked like super teams that were giving it their best shot. None won a championship after they met.

Alabama and Clemson are dominant, and not just for this year.

So, finally, the season starts for real Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.

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