After a week-and-a-half of hype and hoopla, Clemson and Alabama are just one day away from their duel in the desert.
But really, this matchup has been nearly a full season in the making. The top-ranked Tigers have maintained their perch atop the College Football Playoff rankings since Week 10, and Alabama has been lurking at No. 2 nearly the entire way, one week notwithstanding.
Here is a guide to Monday’s national championship game.
Date: Monday, January 11
Time: 8:30 p.m. ET
Venue: University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, Arizona)
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Odds (via OddsShark.com): Alabama -5.5
These teams have been the class of the field all season, and while they are among the sport's annual heavyweights, their respective paths to the title game have been unique.
Almighty Alabama, going for its fourth national title in the Nick Saban era, fielded speculation that its dynasty had drawn to an end following a Week 3 hiccup to Ole Miss. But Saban and company reminded everyone they own the throne until someone yanks them from the top.
Clemson has returned to relevancy behind flamboyant head coach Dabo Swinney, who, in a sport chock-full of villains, is arguably the toughest figure to root against.
His abundance of endless motivation and sincerity has made Clemson one of the most fun teams to watch this season. Swinney never shies from celebrating after big wins, such as the Tigers’ 24-22 victory in Week 5 over then-No. 6 Notre Dame, as shown by the ACC Network:
Swinney has not only revitalized Clemson after 10 years of underachievement under former head coach Tommy Bowden, but he’s shaken the program’s stigma for “Clemsoning”—the moniker aligned to its well-chronicled history of inexplicably choking in games with so much on the line.
Since 2012, Swinney’s Tigers have defeated some of the best programs in college football away from the ACC, including Ohio State, LSU, Georgia, Auburn and, this year, Notre Dame and Oklahoma.
They’d sure like to add Alabama to that impressive list.
In doing so, the Tigers would become the first team in FBS history to finish the season 15-0 and claim their first national title since 1981.
"August 3, when we started the season, I gave them shirts that said 'Dream the Dream,'" Swinney said, per Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press. "And I said '15 for 15,' with the message being let's make them print 15 tickets this year, somehow, some way.”
The Tigers are FBS' last unbeaten team, and their path to remain unblemished fittingly pits them against the juggernaut that has defied odds by dominating a cyclical sport for nearly a decade.
And Alabama has unfinished business to resolve.
The Tide were the best team in college football last year but admittedly let Ohio State get the best of them in a 42-35 loss in the CFP semifinal.
They returned to the grand stage in typical Saban fashion—behind a rugged defense, a run-heavy offense and top-of-the-line coaching that were best put on display in Alabama’s 38-0 win over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl semifinal.
Never has Saban’s “process” been on better display than with this year’s Crimson Tide—a team that complements its humility from last year’s disappointment with relentless intensity, as Saban admitted, per Charlie Potter of 247Sports:
First of all, when you talk about a team that buys in to doing things the way that you like to do it, you define principles and values of the organization that you think are important to helping the organization be successful. That’s the easy part. Getting everybody to follow the process and having the discipline to execute that on a day-to-day basis, on a game-to-game basis all season long and get everybody to buy into those things, that’s the difficult part and that’s what this team has done a really good job of.
This team appears to be on a mission to return to glory.
Clemson has been arguably the most complete team in college football this season. Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson anchors a prolific offense that has complemented a rugged defense that ranks sixth overall.
But there’s an old saying that seems fitting given each team’s path to this year’s culminating game—you have to lose one to win one.
Despite its dynasty under Saban, Alabama has been in the losing locker room of monumental games—the 2013 "kick-six" in the Iron Bowl, the 2011 home loss to LSU in "the Game of the Century" and, of course, last year’s Sugar Bowl semifinal.
And while the Tigers have been impressive under Swinney, they haven’t yet played on this stage. Clemson was resilient in the Orange Bowl win, shutting out Oklahoma in the second half after trailing after the first two quarters. But Oklahoma is no Alabama.
Clemson is on the cusp of a crown—but it's not there just yet.
Prediction: Alabama 27, Clemson 20
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