SAN JOSE, Calif.
There has been great emphasis placed on the continuity of the Alabama-Clemson series as the two teams prepare for a fourth consecutive meeting in the College Football Playoffs. That’s fair. This is an unprecedented situation in college football history: the same two teams meeting four straight times in the postseason with national title hopes riding on each one of the games.
Instead of looking at Monday night’s title game as part of continuity, perhaps it is worthwhile to consider it from the other angle. This could be a reset — Alabama vs. Clemson IV, yes, but also Tagovailoa vs. Lawrence I with Round 2 quite possible in New Orleans after the 2019 season. Football is a team sport and that’s where a lot of the attention has been. But the College Football Playoff in its brief existence has never had quite this sort of quarterback matchup.
There have been other great postseason quarterback matches — Tua Tagovailoa was in one just last week, against Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray. But this pairing, with an Alabama sophomore who didn’t play at all in Alabama-Clemson III and a Clemson freshman, Trevor Lawrence, has an almost generational feel to it, with two gifted and highly charismatic players coming at a time when the role of quarterbacks in college football itself is changing — and both are coming back next year.
This is no disparagement of the quarterbacks who have pushed Alabama to championships under Saban before: Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron, Jake Coker, or to Jalen Hurts who has twice been at the brink. It’s not a slam on former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant. The Tigers’ Deshaun Watson was at a different and higher level, but even he did not generate quite the buzz that we will see on Monday night.
“I think both these quarterbacks have NFL potential, no doubt,” Nick Saban said at Saturday’s media-day-and-fan-circus “The offenses that they run certainly have sort of some elements of drop-back, NFL passing-type game, and both players execute it extremely well.
“I don’t know if their offensive system has changed,” Saban continued. “I think how they utilize the players is a little bit more like when Watson was playing. They have ability to throw the ball vertically down the field. They’ve got some skill guys outside that have done a really good job of making explosive plays. Trevor Lawrence does a good job of throwing the ball down the field. That was an element of their game last year that maybe wasn’t quite as significant. They had a lot more quarterback runs and things like that that were difficult to defend, which utilized the talents of the quarterback that they had.
“Systematically, it’s not different. How they utilize the people in the system, (that) is different.”
Alabama is different, too. As great as Tagovailoa has been this season, it’s possible that he has his best game in front of him. He said on Saturday that he feels “better than I have in months,” and that’s coming off a performance where he completed all but three of his passes (24 of 27). All that, and he has already played on this giant stage, at least for a half.
Without questioning Lawrence’s ability, that’s a lingering question. Has he faced this sort of pressure, in an ACC title game against Pitt (no) or a semifinal against Notre Dame (maybe, but probably not.) Has he seen a defense like Alabama’s? Those answers will come Monday night and contain Clemson’s fate.
Until then, there is nothing wrong in celebrating this game as another in a series. I wrote a column about that last week. But it is also worth thinking about whether it is also the start of something new.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.
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