Alabama on verge of unprecedented run, with Clemson in the way
SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — Regardless of the outcome of Monday night's College Football Playoff championship game between No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama, a case can be made that no team in the history of the sport has had a better run than the Crimson Tide under coach Nick Saban.
If Alabama beats the Tigers to win a fourth national title in seven seasons, the argument may be settled.
There was talk early in the season after Alabama lost to Mississippi that the Tide dynasty was in decline. Now Alabama (13-1) is one victory away from an unprecedented achievement.
The Tide can become just the third school in college football's poll era, dating back to the creation of The Associated Press media poll in 1936, to win four championships in a 10-year span.
Notre Dame won four in seven seasons from 1943-49, but big-time college football is hardly comparable now to then. Those Fighting Irish didn't play in bowl games and never needed more than nine victories to be the best in the country.
Miami won four championships in nine seasons (1983-91), but none of those teams had to play more than 12 games.
Alabama's four championships under Saban, who took over in 2007, have all come in at least 13-game seasons.
"I mean, it's incredible," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday during a news conference with Saban. Swinney heaped so much praise on his counterpart during the half-hour session with reporters that Saban looked a little uncomfortable.
"Coach Saban, what he's done, I mean, he's one of the greatest coaches that ever coached the game," Swinney said.
Saban also has a BCS title from his time at LSU, giving him four overall. Only former Alabama coach Bear Bryant with six has more.
"This is the first one I've sniffed as a coach, and he's going for his fifth," said Swinney, who is in his eighth season at Clemson. "It's incredible."
Clemson has one national championship to its credit. Behind Danny Ford, an Alabama native and former Tide player for Bryant, the Tigers won the title in 1981 by beating favored Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
The Tigers are back on the biggest stage and again being led by an Alabaman and former Tide player. Swinney grew up near Birmingham and played for Alabama when Gene Stallings was the coach in the early 1990s. He was on the Tide team that won a national championship in 1992, upsetting Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama then went through a long dry spell until Saban arrived.
"People will say, well, anybody can go win at Alabama," Swinney said. "Not everybody can coach a great team. Not everybody can coach a great player, and I think he has a gift to be able to do that."
Under Swinney, the Tigers have won at least 10 games each of the last five seasons, just like Alabama. And Clemson has its own shot at history: If the Tigers win the national title, they would become the first team to achieve a 15-0 season.
"We want to be a program that is competing at this level on a consistent basis and I think to do that, you've got to be a top-10, top-15 type program year in and year out," Swinney said.
Alabama has been even better than that. Since going 7-6 in Saban's first season, the Tide is 97-12 and has never finished out of the final AP top 10.
No surprise: Saban has not been part of the legacy talk this week. Pondering his place in history won't help his players Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
"I owe them as the leader of the organization," Saban said. "I owe them our best as coaches and people who can support them to give them the best opportunity to be successful in the next challenge that they have.
"So I've got no time to think about that stuff."
Some other things to know about the second College Football Playoff national championship game.
DESHAUN FOOTBALL: If Clemson is going to beat Alabama and break down a ferocious Alabama defense, Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson will lead the way. The sophomore is the most talented quarterback Alabama has faced and he poses a threat running and passing.
Watson set the Atlantic Coast Conference mark for total offense with 4,731 yards, 1,032 of those coming on the ground.
Dual-threat quarterbacks give most defenses trouble and Alabama is no exception. Watson said in preparation for the Tide, he watched Alabama's loss to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in 2012.
Watson ran for a career-best 145 yards in Clemson's 37-17 Orange Bowl semifinal victory against Oklahoma.
HEISMAN HENRY: The Crimson Tide used Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who has set Southeastern Conference records for rushing yards (2,061) and touchdowns (25), as a complimentary part of its offense in beating Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl.
Henry had 20 carries for 75 yards. Don't be surprised if the Tide goes back to a heavy dose of Henry, who carried 90 times combined in the final two regular season games, to help control the clock and keep the ball away from Watson and Clemson's up-tempo spread offense.
HOLD THE LINE: Alabama's defensive line is the best and deepest in college football, led by All-American A'Shawn Robinson. The line has helped the Tide lead the nation with 50 sacks.
Clemson has some talented defensive linemen, too, though not quite as many as Alabama. That depth could be tested because All-America defensive end Shaq Lawson sprained his knee against Oklahoma and missed most of the Orange Bowl. He is expected to play, but how much? And how effective will he be?