In a famous scene from one of the greatest sports movies of all time, boxers Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed clinched at the end of their fight in “Rocky.”
Balboa’s face was a mess: eyes swollen, nose grotesquely broken. Creed had sustained broken ribs and his features were also swollen shut.
Balboa had just become the first to go the distance with Creed, the heavyweight champion.
“Ain’t gonna be no rematch,” Creed said into his opponent’s ear.
Balboa’s reply: “Don’t want one.”
The Clemson Tigers feel different. They went the distance with the University of Alabama a year ago in the College Football Playoff Championship in Glendale, Arizona, losing 45-40.
But they want another shot.
They get it Monday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa: Alabama vs. Clemson, for the second time.
In the movies, Balboa got his rematch with Creed – whether he wanted it or not – and won. Clemson is hopeful of a similar result.
“They know they belong,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said of his players. “They know they’re good enough. … As far as last year, just they made a few more plays than we did in a highly-competitive game. That was the difference.”
You remember Alabama’s onside kick, and Kenyan Drake’s kickoff return for a touchdown. You probably recall tight end O.J. Howard’s breakout game to win MVP honors. If you’re an Alabama fan, you may cringe at the memory of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson carving up the Crimson Tide to the tune of 405 yards and four touchdown passes.
But there was more to it than just those big plays. It was an epic game with a back-and-forth flow.
Alabama struck first, with Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry breaking loose for a 50-yard run midway through the first quarter to give the Crimson Tide a 7-0 lead.
When Clemson responded on its ensuing drive, with Watson throwing his first touchdown pass less than 2½ minutes after Alabama’s opening score, it signaled the type of game this would be: heavyweights trading big punches, looking for the knockout.
On the final play of the first quarter, Watson came back with another touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow to put the Tigers up 14-7.
The defenses controlled this period, but Alabama put together a seven-play, 42-yard drive to tie it up after Eddie Jackson intercepted a pass. Henry scored on a 1-yard carry to even the score at 14, which is where it stayed until halftime.
By halftime, Henry had amassed 128 yards and two touchdowns, but quarterback Jake Coker had only 82 yards passing and had been sacked four times.
“We can’t take the negative plays on offense,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said at intermission. “That’s killing us. It’s stopping every drive.”
Coker had connected with Howard for a 25-yard completion in the first quarter, but no one could have guessed what was to come. The senior quarterback found Howard running free for a 53-yard score early in the second half.
It was Howard’s first touchdown reception since his freshman season.
“Initially it felt like a dream and I tried to tell everybody to wake me up because I thought it wasn’t real. It was just a great feeling to get in the end zone again,” Howard said after the game.
Clemson, however, seized back the momentum, driving to a field goal and then a touchdown to take a 24-21 lead going into the final period.
Alabama drove 64 yards in eight plays, but had to settle for a 33-yard Adam Griffithfield goal to tie it with 10:34 remaining.
That’s when Saban took a bold chance, calling for an onside kick. Marlon Humphrey ran under Griffith’s arcing kick and fielded it, giving Alabama possession. Two plays later, Coker passed to Howard for a 51-yard touchdown to put Alabama up 31-24 with 9:45 remaining.
“It was worth the risk, I felt,” Saban said. “But it was calculated on the fact that I thought we could execute it and the way they lined up, it was available to us. And it was something that I knew that we would use in this game if we needed to.”
Clemson answered with a field goal, but Alabama’s Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a score and UA was up 38-27 midway through the period.
Watson drove the Tigers back, methodically, and threw his third touchdown pass of the game to cut the Crimson Tide’s advantage to 38-33 with 4:40 to go after a failed two-point conversion attempt.
But there was still more drama to come. Howard took a screen pass 63 yards into Clemson territory to spark an eight-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a 1-yard touchdown run by Henry for a 45-33 Alabama lead.
Clemson got the ball back with just 1:02 remaining and Watson zipped his team down the field to throw his fourth touchdown pass with just 12 seconds left.
The Tigers tried their own onside kick, but failed. Alabama took a knee to run out the clock and claim the national title.
Clemson took the loss hard.
“I feel like a lot of guys had regret about the game,” said defensive end Clelin Ferrell, who was on the bench at the title game as a redshirting freshman. “A lot of guys left some doubt on that field.”
Alabama celebrated its accomplishment.
“This is what we stood up and said at the beginning of the season,” said Howard, the game’s offensive most valuable player. “We wanted to come out and win a national championship this season and our team fought hard for that. I’m just so proud of our team, and no team deserved this more than we do.”
SETTING THE STAGE
Coming off that classic championship game, Alabama started the current season at No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason rankings. Clemson was No. 2.
The Crimson Tide swept through the regular season undefeated, with a close call at Ole Miss, to earn a spot in the SEC Championship Game. UA defeated Florida, 54-16, and was given the top seed in the College Football Playoff.
Alabama beat fourth-seeded Washington, 24-7, in the Peach Bowl semifinal to advance to the title game.
The Tigers survived close games against Auburn, Troy, Louisville, North Carolina State (in an overtime game) and Florida State before falling to Pitt, 43-42, on Nov. 12 in the 10th game of the season. Clemson bounced back to beat Wake Forest and South Carolina to close out the regular season, then topped Virginia Tech, 42-35, in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
Drawing the No. 2 seed, Clemson shocked Ohio State in a 31-0 shutout in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal to advance.
Since the dawn of the Bowl Alliance era in the 1995 season, there has never been a rematch in the national championship game. That carried through the Bowl Championship Series years and into the current College Football Playoff format.
In several instances, one championship finalist or the other has made it back to the next year’s national title game, but never to play the same team it played the year before.
Alabama vs. Clemson.
One more time.