The names roll off the tongue with ease: Deshaun Watson, O.J. Howard, Mike Williams, Jonathan Allen, Wayne Gallman and Reuben Foster. The list goes on and on, but you get the gist.
There was a lot of talent on the field in Tampa last year in the national championship game when Alabama and Clemson met, talent that is now in the National Football League. Yet both teams find themselves in the College Football Playoff again, playing the other for the third year in a row. Alabama’s been to every playoff and Clemson has been to three of four.
Both programs are at the top of the college football mountain. So how do they do it year-in and year-out?
The answer to that question was partially answered Wednesday during the early signing period when both teams signed some of the best players in the country. That isn’t an aberration, as both teams annually top the team recruiting rankings.
Both programs also develop their players. That’s why they’re playing for a chance at another national championship.
Simply put, UA’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney are builders and caretakers of two of the premier programs in the sport.
“It’s two great programs,” Alabama outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings said. “We have great coaches and great players. We just look forward to playing each other and going out there and making it a good game.”
A good game is expected after the first two thrillers, games that went down to literally the last second in both years. Alabama outlasted an up-for-the-challenge Clemson team two seasons ago, and the Tigers returned the favor last season, ripping a second straight national championship out of the hands of the Crimson Tide. After 120 minutes combined in the two games, they’re separated by one point: 76 to 75.
In a sport built on rivalries, this unnatural rivalry popped up not because of the annual schedule but solely because of how good the respective teams are.
That Alabama lost so many playmakers on defense yet was able to return to the playoff speaks to the program Saban has built, and to its consistency.
“We’re pleased with the way some of the guys on our team accepted the challenges of their new roles on the team,” Saban said. “Those guys made progress and improved throughout the year and played very well for us, but we still have a tremendous amount of respect for some of the guys we lost and the great careers they had here at Alabama.
“From Clemson’s standpoint, they have really good players. They recruit well. And the guys that they’ve had step in on offense have done a fantastic job for them this year, starting with the quarterback. The receivers, the new running backs, those guys have all been very effective for them. They are almost as productive offensively as they were a year ago.”