Georgia’s claim as a threat to Alabama is staked on the thin margin of a handful of plays in postseason games the past two seasons. Bulldogs recruiting classes now rival Alabama’s. Georgia has Kirby Smart building a program in a similar mold as his former boss, Nick Saban.
What the Bulldogs do not have is a victory over Alabama in the past decade. Clemson does. The Bulldogs couldn’t beat ‘Bama in a big game. Clemson did.
The Tigers and Crimson Tide will play for the national championship Monday night. It’s their fourth straight meeting in the College Football Playoffs. ‘Bama is 2-1 in those games, with a victory in the 2015 title game and the 2017 semifinal. But Clemson won the 2016 CFP final, Saban’s only loss with a national title on the line.
Someone asked Dabo Swinney if, regardless of what happens Monday night, the Clemson coach believes his program is on the same level as Alabama.
“I don't think there's any question that we're as good a program as there is in the country,” Swinney said. “It’s hard to say we're at the level of Alabama because they've won, what, six national championships in the last few years? I mean, we've got to win.”
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Swinney was fuzzy on the particulars — the Tide won five titles from 2009 to 2018 — but his overall point is correct. Clemson is right there with Alabama, but the Tigers must win this game to be considered a true threat to the Tide.
And the Tigers can beat Alabama. As of Sunday evening Clemson was a 5-1/2-point underdog in the betting market. The advanced statistics see it differently: Bill Connelly’s S&P ratings give Alabama a one-point edge and FiveThirtyEight.com puts Clemson’s chances of winning at 49 percent.
The Tigers beat Alabama in this game two years ago. The Tide are out in front of everyone, but Clemson leads the chase. The Tigers first gave notice they could be a nuisance for Alabama during the 2015 CFP championship game.
Alabama had won its three previous championship games by a combined score of 100-35. Alabama earned an aura of inevitability during that run. Clemson poked a hole in it.
Clemson pushed Alabama so hard during the 2015 CFP meeting that Saban resorted to trickery. He surprised Clemson with an on-side kick because his team couldn’t stop quarterback DeShaun Watson.
"We stand toe-to-toe with everybody in the country," Swinney said after that 45-40 loss. "This program doesn't take a backseat to anybody."
Well, anybody except Alabama, which put Clemson in good company. The next year the Tigers distinguished themselves from that group. They beat ‘Bama to win their first national championship since 1981.
“There was no upset tonight,” Swinney said after that 35-31 victory, which Watson secured on a touchdown pass with one second left.
His point was taken, but it was an upset. No team had beaten Saban’s Tide for a national championship. Texas, LSU and Notre Dame hadn’t come close.
Alabama took some of the edge off that loss by soundly beating Clemson in a CFP semifinal last year. The Tide rallied to beat Georgia in the 2017 CFP final, then did the same thing in the last SEC championship game. The Bulldogs haven’t gotten over the hump against Alabama recently, but neither can anyone else outside of Clemson.
No one saw that coming when Swinney took over the program from Tommy Bowden in 2008. Well, Swinney says he knew back then the Tigers eventually could make the kind of run they are on now.
“We were a long way away from that, that’s for sure,” Swinney said. “But I felt like we had a few pieces in place and we just needed to build an infrastructure.”
Swinney kept using that word, infrastructure, by which he meant more resources for his program. But, unlike Georgia, Clemson hasn’t really tried to emulate Alabama as much as it has tried to do more with less.
Georgia is seeking to surpass Alabama by being a better version of Alabama. Smart is stockpiling the same kind of talent, both players and coaches. Georgia is looking to become a self-sustaining football machine, like Alabama.
“Being a part of the Alabama program, it's like a big business,” Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses said, citing Microsoft and Apple specifically.
Clemson isn’t a start-up, exactly, but the Tigers are trying to get the same results without the same capital. Clemson doesn’t come close to generating the same revenue as Alabama, Georgia and other big-time football powers. Swinney’s recruiting classes have been very good, but not nearly the best.
Clemson has thrived with continuity. Swinney has managed to keep his NFL prospects around longer. He’s kept most of his staff intact, in part because Clemson pays his assistants so well.
Alabama loses waves of non-seniors to the NFL, a pattern Georgia is sure to see more often now that it’s getting the same type of recruiting classes. Saban’s assistants move on all the time. Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s recent decision to become Colorado head coach is a sign that Smart will have to deal with the same thing.
Clemson is an elite program and losing to Alabama again would do nothing to change that. But it would make it easier view that 2016 game as a one-off and leave the Tide with no real challengers at the top. With a loss, the Tigers still would be best among them but could make no claim of even footing.
Clemson could do that with a victory. I say the Tigers come close but lose by a field goal. Alabama stays on top, with Clemson closer than others but still behind.