The collision course has finally reached a pinnacle, as Alabama and Clemson—the nation’s clear best all season—are set to play in what figures to be a barnburner of a national championship game.
A matchup pitting the Tigers’ high-powered spread offense against the latest edition of Alabama’s archetypal defense has been destined, with these teams ranked 1-2 since the second College Football Playoff rankings were released in Week 11.
Despite a pair of lopsided semifinals—Alabama stampeded through Michigan State, 38-0, and Clemson ran away from Oklahoma, 37-16—such margins prove that the Tigers and Tide are truly the nation’s best.
Here is a look at a few storylines heading into the Jan. 11 matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.
Tigers, Tide Meet for First Time Since 2008
The 2008 season opener between these two was supposed to be a nail-biter featuring a Top 10 Clemson team finally living up to expectations against an inexperienced Alabama squad hoping to find its identity in Nick Saban’s second season.
Not even close.
Alabama ran to a 34-10 win behind the two-headed running beast of Glen Coffee and Mark Ingram, and freshman receiver Julio Jones hauled in his first career touchdown.
Under quarterback Cullen Harper—the preseason favorite to win ACC Player of the Year—Clemson was limited to 188 yards of total offense and converted just 1-of-9 third downs with two turnovers.
Alabama was methodical. Clemson was stale.
The Tide never looked back in a game that can be pinpointed as the proverbial spark of the Saban dynasty—his first win as Alabama's head coach over a ranked team. The Tide have won three national and four SEC titles since, and for a sport so cyclical, they remarkably remain in the hunt every season.
Clemson tanked into irrelevancy, prompting embattled head coach Tommy Bowden to resign six games in, leaving the reins to unknown and unproven wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney in the interim.
Swinney was eventually promoted, and after a few growing pains in his first two full seasons, he led the Tigers to their first ACC title in 20 years. He’s now considered among the best coaches in the country, and he's winner of the ACC, AP and Walter Camp Coach of the Year Awards this season.
That meeting in 2008 may seem to be forgotten, but it was vital to developing these programs into their thriving forms of today.
Swinney Goes Up Against Alma Mater
Swinney is one victory away from winning his first national title as a head coach, but it won’t be his first overall.
He was a walk-on wide receiver for Alabama’s 1992 championship team and went on to become a graduate assistant and receivers coach.
ESPN shared a picture of Swinney from his playing days donning crimson and white :
Fun fact: Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney won the 1992 national championship as a player ... at Alabama. pic.twitter.com/y21AzxbxjJ— ESPN (@espn) January 1, 2016
Swinney was on the unfortunate end of Alabama’s overhaul in 2001, when head coach Mike DuBose and his entire staff were fired. He fell out of coaching before Bowden took a chance on him in 2003.
He’s not the first Alabama alumnus to find success at Clemson either, per Creg Stephenson of AL.com:
Did you know? The 3 winningest coaches in Clemson history (Frank Howard, Danny Ford, Dabo Swinney) are Alabama grads.— Creg Stephenson (@CregStephenson) January 1, 2016
Swinney has been the catalyst for Clemson’s return to the nation’s elite, something that it hasn’t enjoyed since the Danny Ford era in the 1980s.
Bowden, who coached the Tigers for 10 years but never quite lived up to expectations with a 72-45 overall record and no 10-win seasons, admitted such, per Jon Solomon of CBS Sports:
Dabo is the reason they've gotten here. The reason they hired him was recruiting. Them and Florida State, they just have a lot better players than everybody else in the conference. He's not an X's [and] O's guy, but he's a really good evaluator of coaches and players. He's a big vision, CEO type, and that's what schools want these days.
Swinney has received a slew of accolades and is considered one of the nation’s best. But he’ll meet his match in the CFP title game against one of the very few who may have a coaching edge: Saban.
But Swinney probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
His Tigers are college football’s last unbeaten and could become the first FBS team in history to go 15-0, per ESPN Stats & Info. Defeating Almighty Alabama—once his haven—would be a fitting way to cement his first coaching championship.