Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows where things stand as his team prepares to meet Alabama on Monday in the College Football Playoff Championship Game.
“We’re proud members of the R.O.Y.,” Swinney said.
As in, there’s Alabama, and the “rest of y’all.”
Swinney revisited the ROY theme leading up to championship, which kicks off at 7 p.m. on ESPN. He broke it out two months earlier on the occasion of the first CFP ranking. The story originates from Swinney’s playing days at Alabama. When the team traveled, there was a bus for what he called the “big-time players” and then there was “a R.O.Y. bus.” It included Swinney, who started his career as a walk-on wide receiver.
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As it applies currently, Swinney’s not wrong. Alabama bids for its sixth national championship in a decade. Few programs can match this stretch of success during the poll era, which started in the 1930s. Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Southern California, Ohio State, Nebraska and Miami are among the teams that sustained championship-level success through multi-year stretches.
Only the Tigers’ dramatic triumph over the Crimson Tide for the 2016 championship has prevented a three-year streak of titles for Alabama.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we’re as a good a program as there is in the country,” Swinney said. “(But) it’s hard to say we’re at the level of Alabama.”
This is a clash of titans, the first time a pair of 14-0 teams has played for the championship. The winner will become college football’s first 15-0 team since 1897.
Clemson will pin its hopes on a terrific defense that is allowing 2.4 yards per carry and has allowed one rushing touchdown in the last five games.
But the Tigers haven’t faced an offense or quarterback like Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
The Crimson Tide has set program bests for scoring and yards in a season with a quarterback who didn’t become a starter until this year.
In last year’s national championship game against Georgia, Tagovailoa, then a freshman, replaced starter Jalen Hurts in the second half. The Crimson Tide overcame a 13-0 halftime deficit as Tagovailoa tossed the game-tying touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter and delivered a 41-yard strike to DeVonta Smith for the walk-off 26-23 triumph in overtime.
Replacing Hurts as the starter this year, Tagovailoa has been amazing, throwing for 41 touchdowns with four interceptions.
Plus, as Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables notes, “He’s got the best players on the planet around him at every position.”
Well, maybe not the best, but a couple of notable ones. Jerry Jeudy is the latest off the Tide’s assembly line of big-play wide receivers. And tackle Jonah Williams could be the first offensive lineman taken in the NFL Draft.
Williams and the Alabama line keeping Tagovailoa protected is a major storyline. Clemson’s defensive front is college football’s best. Tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, along with end Clelin Ferrell, often dominate the line of scrimmage.
“Both teams are built from the inside out,” Frerell said. “If you can’t win the line of scrimmage, you’re not going to win, or give yourself a good chance to win.”
Ferrell said Clemson lost this battle last year, 24-6 in the national semifinal, for that reason.
“They just whooped us up front,” Ferrell said.
Like Alabama, Clemson has changed quarterbacks since that game. Freshman Trevor Lawrence replaced Kelly Bryant after four games and has thrived.
The top-rated recruit of 2018, Lawrence became a starter on his 19th birthday and has thrown for 27 touchdowns, including three in the second quarter of the semifinal victory over Notre Dame, and four interceptions. Bryant transferred to Missouri.
Lawrence is now on the biggest stage, and Alabama must prepare for a different look than last year.
“Two different quarterbacks,” said Alabama tackle Quinnen Williams, the Outland Trophy winner. “Kelly can run and pass, a duel threat quarterback. And you’ve got Trevor Lawrence, he can make every throw.”
Different looks worked Alabama in last year’s title game, and it paid off again in the SEC championship game against Georgia when Hurts replaced an injured Tagovailoa and sparked a second-half comeback. The Crimson Tide has won whoever has played quarterback.
That’s why college football lately has been about the Crimson Tide, a 5 1/2-point favorite Monday … and everyone else riding the other bus.