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Clemson: The New Alabama

Never have we ever seen this in college football: two teams battling it out, one team winning, then the losing team getting a chance at revenge the next season.

The historical nature of the Clemson-Alabama rematch in the CFP National Championship shocked me at first, but it shouldn’t have. After all, a formal national championship game isn’t even two decades old in the sport.

Back in the day—for some, the good ol’ days—champions were decided after bowl games that were filled at random. There was no room for rematches. If elite-level rivalries developed, it was up to schools to schedule them in the regular season.

The recent “Catholics vs. Convicts” ESPN documentary was based on Miami-Notre Dame games when both programs were elite, but they never met for a title. Same goes for Florida State-Miami, Nebraska-Oklahoma, Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-LSU, and any other natural rivalry featuring elite squads that played during the season, but never in the natty.

(Side note: Yes, I know Bama played LSU a few years back. That was a terrible mistake, and their rivalry is still based on games that were played during SEC play.)

This rivalry is new, and fun, and unique. The two games have been played on the biggest of stages, for the ultimate prize. The coaching battle, the contrasting styles and philosophies, the star power, the rabid fan bases—it all combines to create a second-to-none elixir.

One of the most intriguing parts of this budding rivalry is how good both of these teams are. Rarely in the regular season rivalries that captivated fans for decades before the BCS was adopted could the competing sides credibly claim to be the best in the country multiple years in a row.

It’s abundantly clear that—over a two-year span—Alabama and Clemson are the preeminent programs in college football. The gap is wide between the Tide and the Tigers, and everyone else desperately trying to ascend up the mountain.

But how close is Clemson to Alabama? Is Nick Saban’s program still neatly set apart from the rest?

Not many would give Clemson a chance in this argument. Of course, it’s foolishness to suggest that any program is better than Alabama. The numbers simply don’t support that premise. However, Clemson is quickly proving itself to be as good as Alabama.

In fact, I’ll go a step further: When Saban retires, it seems likely that there will be a dropoff, leaving Clemson’s program as the absolute standard for excellence in college football.

Think about what people say about Alabama. The Crimson Tide imposes its will on its opponents. It has elite players all over the field, at every position. It takes certain teams with certain strengths performing at absolute peak levels to beat Bama.

Just being really good isn’t enough against Alabama. You have to be good at everything. If not, Saban’s squad will make you feel like nothing.

Over the past two seasons, Clemson has lost exactly once. It has beaten elite teams at home. It has beaten very good teams in tough road environments. It has blown out two blueblood programs in semifinal games by scoring margins that would be embarrassing to teams playing in basketball’s Final Four.

Clemson has won playing its best. It has won playing far from its best. It boasts a star quarterback that has finished in the top three of the Heisman Trophy voting twice.

Furthermore, it takes a certain kind of team with certain strengths to beat Clemson. Pittsburgh was for the Tigers this year what Ole Miss has been for the Crimson Tide over the past few seasons. Being good alone isn’t enough, as Louisville, LSU, Florida State, and Florida found out.

Some of Clemson’s key components came from Alabama first, like Thad Turnipseed. Some of Alabama’s came from Clemson, like a more modern offensive approach. The two are accomplishing the same things in different ways, but with the same core mentality guiding the way.

It’s time that people start to recognize what Clemson is doing. It’s becoming the new Alabama, right in front of our eyes. Dabo Swinney is building a program that could compete with Saban’s dynasty for years—and even outlast it.

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