SAN JOSE, Calif. — Ross Pierschbacher is part of history.
College football history, if you ask the record books. Ancient history, if you ask his teammates.
“Ross Pierschbacher is older than Hunter Renfrow,” tight end Hale Hentges said. This is true; Pierschbacher is a few months older than Clemson’s 23-year-old fifth-year senior receiver.
“Ross Pierschbacher is older than Joe Pendry,” running back Damien Harris said, invoking the name of the 71-year-old former offensive line coach.
Pierschbacher is also old enough to remember the last time Alabama didn’t play in a national championship game. He redshirted during the 2014 season when the Crimson Tide lost to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff’s semifinals.
He’ll start his fourth consecutive national championship game on Monday night when Alabama faces Clemson. Pierschbacher is believed to be the first player in college football history to start four straight national championship games.
“After the Ohio State loss in 2014, I looked back and thought of how many things had to go right for us to even get to that point,” Pierschbacher said. “So I was like ‘Are we ever even going to get another chance at a national title?’ That was kind of my mindset. Then we got there and, the whole year, everything kind of went right for us: the Heisman Trophy, Joe Moore Award, SEC championship. It was just like a perfect storm.”
They reached the national championship game at the end of the 2015 season, and for three subsequent seasons.
Alabama is the first program to reach the national championship in four straight years. A true college football national championship game wasn’t held until the Bowl Coalition was formed in 1992, preceding the Bowl Aliance, the Bowl Championship Series and the College Football Playoff. There was no official national championship game prior to that; the No. 1-ranked team may or may not have faced the No. 2 team in its bowl game. No college football program has won four straight national titles since freshmen became eligible in 1972, meaning a player could not have started four such games.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said. “Going into this thing, I had high hopes and dreams. But I think this surpassed them for sure.”
Pierschbacher started his first three national championship games at left guard, but moved to center this season. He’s been a quiet fixture in the program for four seasons and was named a permanent team captain at the end of the regular season. Monday will be his 57th start in college.
The move from guard to center made Pierschbacher responsible for communicating pre-snap calls to his fellow linemen. During his freshman year, he said his mindset was to “come off the ball and try to hit somebody.” This year, he has to be more measured.
“Just having a guy with the experience, not as much with the game but how to prepare for the game, how to go about the process of getting ready, getting your body ready, getting your mind ready, getting film study, ready to make adjustments in a game, it’s invaluable to have a guy like Ross that can do it,” offensive line coach Brent Key said.
A few other Alabama players will be playing in their fourth straight national championship on Monday night, but none were listed among 22 starters for the previous three meetings. Harris, Hentges, and outside linebacker Christian Miller all played in the last three, though none were among the 22 starters each season.
Clemson has a few players starting their fourth straight game against Alabama, like left tackle Mitch Hyatt and wide receiver Hunter Renfrow. But the Tigers lost to Alabama in a semifinal in 2017, failing to reach the national championship. Senior defensive tackle Christian Wilkins played significantly as a freshman, but didn’t start. He’ll be facing Pierschbacher for the fourth straight season on Monday.
“He’s a good player,” Wilkins said. “He does a really good job. He’s moved around, all across their offensive line. He’s a good player and does a good job of getting the o-line going.”
A rule change that occurred prior to this season means his record could theoretically be broken in the future. Players can now play up to four games at any point in a season and still redshirt to preserve a season of eligibility. The odds of a program reaching five consecutive championship games and a players’ career unfolding in that fashion are infinitesimal, however. It would be far more likely that his record is tied, perhaps by a current teammate.
“It’s going to be hard to beat,” Pierschbacher said. “I think any team, going forward, it’s unheard of to have four straight national championships games. I don’t know if that’s ever been done before as a team.”
Florida State (1996, 1998-2000) and Nebraska (1993-95, 1997) each had runs where they reached four of five national championship games, but neither made four straight games.
Starting four straight championship game have given him an arsenal of memories in the midst of Alabama’s dynasty. He blocked for Derrick Henry’s Heisman season. He watched Tua Tagovailoa’s game-winning touchdown pass to Devonta Smith sail over his head.
“A lot of moments stick out,” he said. “Derrick Henry’s run in the end zone where we went big personnel and kind of plowed ahead. The kickoff return with Kenyan Drake, the onside kick. I just remember taking that final knee in Arizona. The whole emotion… Getting that first one is something special. Obviously, Tua last year, his last second touchdown. A lot of things stick out. Hopefully we add some more memories on Monday night.”
He’s also been on the other side of a national championship game. The Crimson Tide’s wins in 2015 and 2017 were sandwiched around a loss to Clemson to conclude the 2016 season.
“Winning a national championship is the best feeling you could ever have,” Pierschbacher said. “All the hard work and everything, the whole entire season, you’re happy for coaches, families, teammate, you’re happy for all those guys. To have it be taken away from me, to be that close, it really did hurt.”
Offensive linemen aren’t recognized with any official statistics of their own. That makes it all but impossible for one to etch his name in a record book.
The only statistic that’s kept for them is starts. Pierschbacher will make start No. 57 on Monday night, capping his career with his fourth straight national championship start.
“It’s just something to be proud of,” he said. “I think later on in life, once you leave the program, you’ll be more proud of the things you accomplished. Right now, you’re just in the thick of things.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.