NEW ORLEANS — The three-peat will be complete.
Then again, there might be a few more chapters in college football’s most intriguing new rivalry.
For the third year in a row , Clemson will meet Alabama in the College Football Playoff, only this time it will be in the Sugar Bowl semifinal rather than the national championship game.
They’ll be hard-pressed to match the drama and excitement of the last two meetings: Alabama’s 45-40 victory that featured 40 points in the final 10 1-2 minutes , followed by Clemson’s 35-31 triumph on a touchdown pass with one second remaining .
“We haven’t competed against each other a lot,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday on the eve of the New Year’s night game. “But all of a sudden you’ve got this three-game series that has just happened at the highest level. And this is kind of a rubber match. But, to be honest with you, this is probably not going to be the last one. There will probably be more of these down the road.”
Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson (12-1) is the top seed in the playoff, bouncing back from a shocking 27-24 loss to Syracuse in mid-October . Alabama (11-1) didn’t even get a chance to play for the Southeastern Conference title, losing to Auburn in the regular-season finale after being ranked No. 1 all season by The Associated Press.
Despite the setback, the selection committee went with the Tide as the No. 4 seed over Big Ten champ Ohio State.
That set up Clemson-Alabama, Part III.
“This is kind of like a rivalry now,” Tide linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “This is something I will definitely remember for the rest of my life, just to be able to be a part of this whole big thing. I’ll have faced these guys three times, watched so much film of us winning and losing. Now we have another chance.”
Some things to watch for when Clemson takes on Alabama in the Sugar Bowl:
RENFROW VS. FITZPATRICK
Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow has been a real thorn in Alabama’s side. The former walk-on caught four touchdown passes in the two previous meetings, including last season’s 2-yard game winner.
The burden of shutting down Renfrow could fall largely on Alabama’s star defensive back, Minkah Fitzpatrick.
“I think that’s going to be the key matchup in the game,” Clemson co-offensive co-ordinator Tony Elliott said. “Obviously, Hunter’s had some really, really good games against these guys, so they’re going to be gunning to make sure they take him away and force other guys to make plays.”
Fitzpatrick is looking forward to the challenge.
“He’s not going to out-physical you or outrun you,” the Alabama player said. “He gets the ball out in space, makes people miss, and he’s a real shifty guy, smaller guy, so it’s hard to tackle him in space.”
Alabama has endured a rash of injuries at the linebacker position , which really seemed to affect the Tide’s stellar defence late in the season.
With more than a month off since the loss to Auburn, the situation looks a little better but remains a point of concern for coach Nick Saban.
Most notably, Dylan Moses and Shaun Dion Hamilton won’t be able to go against Clemson, dealing a blow to the Tide’s signal-calling inside linebacker position. That puts a big burden on Mack Wilson, who returned from a foot injury to play in the Auburn game but wasn’t all that effective.
“It’s very important to get the signal, get it communicated, and get the defence lined up,” Saban said. “Mack is very capable. He doesn’t have a lot of experience doing it, but I’m sure he will do a good job in the game.”
Clemson’s Kelly Bryant had some huge shoes to fill stepping in for Deshaun Watson, but the junior signal-caller made it a relatively seamless transition.
Bryant provides the same sort of dual threat as Watson, capable of beating teams with his arm or his legs, but it’s hard to envision him putting up the same sort of numbers on the big stage.
Watson passed for more than 400 yards in each of his games against the Crimson Tide and accounted for a total of eight touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts struggled with his consistency down the stretch, which might be a product of working with his third offensive co-ordinator (Brian Daboll) in two seasons.
Over his last three SEC games, the sophomore completed barely 50 per cent of his throws (33 of 65) for 637 yards and three touchdowns. The passing game has been downright one-dimensional; Calvin Ridley leads with 50 receptions, while no one else has more than 14.
GETTING THEIR KICKS
Considering how close the last two games were, this one could come down to a kick.
Alabama would seem to have an edge with Andy Pappanastos, who converted 15 of 19 field goals and didn’t miss from inside 40 yards.
Clemson had to switch kickers during the season after Greg Huegel went down with an injury . Alex Spence missed four of his first six attempts but he knocked through five of his last six, including a career-best 46-yarder in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
DRIVE FOR FIVE
Alabama needs a win to stay on course for Saban’s record-tying sixth national title.
Saban came up just short a year ago, leaving him one behind Bear Bryant.
Alabama has won four championships in the last eight seasons under Saban, who also claimed a BCS title at LSU during the 2003 season.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry
For more AP college football coverage: www.collegefootball.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_Top25
Paul Newberry, The Associated Press