NEW ORLEANS – The third installment of a trilogy rarely lives up to its predecessors.

Think about it. “The Godfather Part III” didn’t hold a candle to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 debut mafia-crime film. The same goes for Doc Brown time traveling back to 1885 in “Back to the Future III.” Mr. T’s co-starring role in “Rocky III” didn’t earn rave reviews, although it’s fair to point out that “Rocky II” didn’t set the world on fire.

Either way, you get the point. The third chapter of a series doesn’t often live up to its billing.

That’s sort of the vibe around Alabama’s third straight game against Clemson in the College Football Playoff. That is, there’s no way Monday’s Sugar Bowl semifinal game can compare to the first two games, both instant classics and both going down to the final second to determine a national champion.

First there is Alabama, a team that lost its most recent game in unimpressive fashion. Taking it even further, it’s a team that quite frankly hasn’t looked all that good in the last quarter of the season. The offense too often failed to find consistent success, too often didn’t sustain drives and looked out of sorts whether running or throwing. Criticism of the offense has been aimed at first-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, second-year starting quarterback Jalen Hurts and an offensive line that has failed to consistently impose its will at the point of attack.

As for the defense, getting off the field on third down has been a riddle not yet solved against better-than-average offenses. That problem leads to extended drives which leads to more plays the defense is on the field. Proponents say the UA offense can help out by keeping the ball more itself. UA coach Nick Saban says the defense needs to help itself and get off the field when it has the chance to do so.

Then there is Clemson, a good team, perhaps playing its best football of the season before a layoff of nearly a month. While the Tigers enter playing well, they are not nearly the team it was last year. At least not offensively.

Starting quarterback Kelly Bryant is efficient, but he’s not Deshaun Watson, who was nearly surgical in his precision while picking apart the Alabama secondary for two games. Bryant is a respectable passer, but he’s not expected to present the same problems to the UA defense that his predecessor did. He is, however, a tough runner, rushing for 646 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.

Clemson’s defense is the headliner, at least coming into the game. It has what is widely considered the best defensive line in the country. Given how Alabama struggled to handle Auburn’s front, the Tigers must be licking their paws.

So how did we get here? To fully explain that, there must be a comprehensive understanding of what came in the prequels.

Two seasons ago, Clemson’s defensive lapses that led to big plays and its lack of soundness in special teams told the story even as Watson put on a performance for the ages.

A year later, Clemson outlasted Alabama, pulling out the game on a touchdown pass (was it an illegal pick play or not?) with one second remaining on the clock.

But before that, Alabama had a 14-0 lead, and after surrendering that lead in the fourth quarter rallied late to regain the lead in what appeared to be a game-winning scramble touchdown from the then-freshman quarterback, Hurts.

“It was tough for that last drive to go the way it did,” Clemson defensive back Ryan Carter said. “But our guys didn’t lose composure. The offense’s last drive was everything we could’ve ever asked for. Our defense, it was tough allowing them to score on that last drive, but our offense just responded.”

Alabama’s offense never got that chance to respond. The game ended. So it was that haunting, sort of lingering feeling that drove Alabama in the offseason. UA coach Nick Saban spoke of “not wasting a failure.” That’s what sustained the team through the season.

Up until the Auburn game.

Now Alabama enters its much-heralded third matchup with Clemson on a down note. It’s no longer on a mission to avenge a loss from the last game of last season. There exists doubt, especially on offense, and that doubt clouds not only this semifinal against Clemson, but, to a larger extent, the way the entire season is viewed.

It is fair to theorize that Alabama played its best football in the beginning and middle of its season when it outscored opponents 344-78 in its first eight games. Over the last quarter of the season, though, the offense sputtered and the defense was shaky at times, as the scoring margin shrank to 125-48. Against SEC teams during that stretch, it was 69-60.

Those offensive struggles have showed up on film, and Clemson defenders took notice.

“Definitely paid a lot of attention to those games, those close games, you know, where they struggled, why are they struggling, things like that,” Carter said. “Definitely different from last year.”

Those struggles have shown up most profoundly on third downs. Alabama’s deficiencies in that department aren’t exactly new information, but when you consider the fact last year’s offense went 2 of 15 against Clemson on that key down, those shortcomings become even more troubling.

One of the strengths of the offense is clearly Calvin Ridley, who leads the team with 55 receptions. However, Alabama’s trouble in the passing game is highlighted in that the second-leading receiver is a running back with 14 catches (Bo Scarbrough) and behind him are Jerry Jeudy and Cam Sims with just 13 receptions. In other words, there is no clear No. 2 target. Clemson defenders acknowledged that taking away Ridley is one of the keys to their game plan.

“Yes (if we take away Calvin it limits them) for sure,” Carter said. “I think he’s a big reason why they have success, and we’re going to have to do our best to try and limit those big plays. Calvin Ridley’s just a special player for them, and again, if you take away him, it’s a whole different ballgame.

“So we’re going to do our best to try and limit his success and limit what we can do defensively for him to not as much of a big receiving game as possible.”

Ridley knows it, too.

“Teams can cloud me and take me out of the game and it’s hard,” Ridley said.

There have been key, transcendent moments in each of the two previous games, from the onside kick two years ago (which Ridley said he had no idea was coming) to the pick plays last season (which still give Alabama nightmares). Then there was the disappearance of Alabama’s running game after Scarbrough left the game in the third quarter with a leg injury. It was a moment that turned the game.

“I think they established the running game early last year,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “We got settled down and got a little bit better. Losing (Scarbrough) was a big deal for them.”

This year’s Alabama run game remains potent. The team averages six yards per run. Both teams know the run game will be the key to any chance of success for the Crimson Tide.

“(It’s the) best group of backs we’ve seen this year,” Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “When you watch the game last year you see how strong No. 34 (Damien Harris) and No. 9 (Bo Scarbrough) and No. 8 (Josh Jacobs) back there, and then they have one of the best offensive lines we’ve seen this year. It’s going to take a whole team effort with the front seven to stop that run game, because if you can’t stop the run you can’t win the game. It’s going to be tough and I’m getting tired of saying how tough it’s going to be because … wow, they don’t really have a weakness.”

At this point of the season, it’s unreasonable to think the UA passing game will make a dramatic jump forward. Alabama likely won’t need a 300-yard passing performance to win, but it will need the average throws to covert first downs to possess the ball more than it did to close the season.

Clemson defenders say they’ve seen growth from Hurts. Standout defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said Hurts reminds him of Miami quarterback Malik Rosier and Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.

“He’s really fast and can hurt you with the run,” Wilkins said. “He makes big throws, and he’s one of those bigger, thicker quarterbacks. So, he’s kind of a mix between them.”

Ferrell said Hurts is difficult to defend.

“You can’t really put it into words when you have a guy as versatile as he is,” he said. “When you have a guy that can do a little bit of everything and does it very well and has the pieces around him to maximize the abilities he has, there really is no limit you can put on his talent or the level of ceiling he has. It really is more of a whole unit and a team effort as far as the defense to stop him.”

Will the third game live up to the last two? The odds aren’t good simply because of how good the previous two games were. But it could still be better than “Rocky III.”

If nothing else, the two teams sure do know the other well. It’s come to feel like a conference game with these annual matchups.

“There’s familiarity with their personnel,” Venables said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Because we always start completely over (in scouting) as though we don’t know them from Adam.

“You have a feel for, OK, that quarterback is a monster, he’s like a running back back there. Or Ridley is ultra, ultra talented, runs every route whether he’s getting it or not full speed, very precise in what he does. Things of that nature, from a scouting report standpoint, if it’s an advantage for us it’s an advantage for them, too. You’ve got to start over, how you normally prepare for any other opponent just in regards to a complete breakdown.”

Reach Aaron Suttles at or at 205-722-0229.