Before we begin, let us take a moment to acknowledge the obvious: Alabama's inclusion in the College Football Playoff, its fourth appearance in as many years, is without a doubt contentious. No matter the metric or means of assessment, one could make an argument, and probably a solid one, that Ohio State belonged in the CFP.
The following words aren't meant to douse those emotional flames or argue this stance. Be mad if you please at the selection committee and the way it handled its first real-life controversy—putting Alabama in at the No. 4 seed over the Buckeyes even though the Crimson Tide spent this past weekend resting comfortably on the couch.
But once that anger subsides, if such outrage still exists, think about what's to come. For the third year in a row, we get Alabama vs. Clemson.
This time, however, it won't be for a national championship. It will be about eventually playing for a national championship—staying alive in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. Somehow, it feels like an unexpected but logical next chapter.
I have had the privilege of witnessing both of these previous chapters in person, and it was football bliss.
There are moments of each of these epics that will be with me forever. Like when 6'6", 251-pound Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, a giant of a man, nearly barreled me over on the Glendale, Arizona, sideline deep in the fourth quarter of the first matchup in January 2016—a shootout that Alabama won 45-40 in thrilling fashion.
The following year, I watched Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson bring the Tigers back to life in the Tampa press box, completing the 35-31 comeback with a final drive that will live in college football lore.
These games felt larger than the sport itself: a field shared by two brilliant head coaches, each with unique styles and an extraordinary amount of supreme talent at their disposal. The fact that they split the last two national championships falls short of describing just how close and theatrical these 120 minutes have been.
The combined score in these two games is even more remarkable: Alabama 76, Clemson 75.
"Alabama has been the standard for a long time, and we've had a couple of huge battles with them," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said on the CFP announcement show on ESPN. "I'm excited about it. It's been 25 years since I've been to the Sugar Bowl, and it was with Alabama. I think it's only fitting to have a chance to advance to Atlanta, you have a heavyweight matchup between Clemson and Alabama."
Make no mistake about it: This year is different. For starters, there is no Watson—a simple truth that Alabama head coach Nick Saban will undoubtedly celebrate given the quarterback's remarkable production over the past two title games.
His replacement, however, has turned into quite a matchup issue himself. Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, fresh off his brilliance in a 38-3 ACC Championship Game victory, will present a new set of fascinating challenges for the defensive-minded coach.
Defensively, Clemson will feature the strongest group Alabama has seen over the course of three years. It begins up front with a line littered with future NFL players—a group tasked with putting Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts under duress.
The Tide, meanwhile, will enter this game under unique circumstances. For the first time in what feels like forever, Saban's group seems mortal. Injuries to the defense, specifically linebacker, unquestionably played a role in this development. Many of these players—chess pieces such as Mack Wilson, who had foot surgery in early November—will benefit from the time off.
But still, there isn't that same invincibility shield surrounding the Tide. That shouldn't make this matchup any less intoxicating. If anything, it adds a special twist on the latest installment.
Beyond the endless storylines that will be beaten to death over the month ahead—schematic matchups, coaching edges and more—one can't help but be swept up in this yearly event.
Somehow, despite playing in different conferences and having to take vastly different journeys to get here, Alabama and Clemson have turned their individual dominance into a celebrated, yearly occasion.
"It's not all that different from what the LSU game has become or the Iron Bowl and the tradition of that rivalry," Saban said on ESPN's broadcast. "They've been very, very good, and we've been pretty good. We've had the opportunity to play in these playoffs. That creates a bit of a rivalry and a tradition in its own right."
The biggest and brightest in college football will touch gloves once more, this time in New Orleans for the right to play Jan. 8 in the title game in Atlanta. The decision did not come easy; this much is certain.
The end result, while still difficult to accept for some, will be accepted and celebrated in time. The third installment is here, whether you agree or not. And if the first two chapters are any indication of what's to follow, the sport's greatest, most unexpected rivalry will deliver once more.