By Eric Boynton
SAN JOSE, Calif. — It was a foregone conclusion for some observers, going as far back as the preseason, that Alabama and Clemson were clearly the nation’s two most complete teams and would ultimately meet again for the national championship.
The top-ranked and undefeated Crimson Tide enters Monday’s clash of the titans as just under a touchdown favorite over the unbeaten No. 2 Tigers. Alabama is still the unquestioned king of college football, year in and year out the team to beat after the annual reloading and never rebuilding process overseen by coach Nick Saban.
But Alabama is no longer head and shoulders above the rest of the country. That talent margin has instead been reduced to more of a nose at the wire all thanks to Clemson having closed the gap with a consistent upward surge. It can be argued Alabama is now “1A” to Clemson’s “1B” with the remainder of the nation playing catch-up to two elite programs.
Clemson’s players have mixed feelings on whether the Tigers are still chasing Alabama or whether the two schools are on equal footing.
“I wouldn’t look at it like it’s us chasing (anybody),” Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “We’re just in our lane doing what we do. I feel like us two are at the top as far as college football programs. Not just winning on the field, but as what people see as success and a winning culture. But anytime you want to be the best, the clear cut No. 1, you have to beat the team that’s had the most success and that’s Alabama.”
While Ferrell walked it back just a bit at the end to indirectly give Alabama the edge, veteran defensive linemate Christian Wilkins flat-out says his team remains the pursuer despite being right on the Tide’s tail.
“They’ve definitely been the model program for as long as I can remember,” Wilkins said. “They’ve won a lot, remained consistent, and they’ve been beating us more times than we beat them, so I would say they’re still ahead of us. I have a lot of respect for what they do and how successful they’ve been because being a part of (Clemson), I understand how hard it is to remain consistent and win at the highest level. It’s really a tough and challenging thing to do.”
The consistency of both has been remarkable and unmatched across the country since the two teams met in the first of now four consecutive matchups in the College Football Playoff. Since Alabama capped that 2015 season with the national championship, beating a Clemson team aiming for 15-0 perfection, the overall records have been a bit mind-boggling.
The defending national champion Crimson Tide is 55-3 (losses coming to Mississippi, at Auburn, and to Clemson in the 2016 national title game) in that span while the Tigers are 54-4 (losing twice to Alabama, including last year’s semifinal, and to Syracuse and Pittsburgh). They are the only teams to have made four straight CFP appearances (Alabama has five), the only two with at least eight consecutive seasons of 10 wins or more (Alabama has 11), and are tied at 58 straiight weeks ranked among the AP top 10. The next closest is Georgia at 27.
The major number Alabama has over Clemson this decade is five national championships to one.
“I think when we play our best football we’re the best team in the country,” Alabama running back Damien Harris said. “We’re not really focused on other teams. Clemson’s obviously a great team. They’ve built a great reputation for themselves, a great legacy. I’m not here to compare us to them or them to us or any other teams. We’re just focused on being the best version of ourselves.”
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa added, “I don’t know what they do on their side, but I know what we do, and I think every team is trying to chase the standard coach Saban has set here. So I wouldn’t say they’re trying to chase what we have, but they’re trying to accomplish the same things we are.”