The writing was on the wall before the season even started, and the matchup that college football fans waited for all season long had finally arrived. The Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers faced each other for the fourth-year in a row with the 2019 College Football Playoff national championship on the line.
Despite the build up to this highly-anticipated slugfest between two juggernauts, the Alabama-Clemson rivalry didn’t suddenly appear overnight. In the last decade, a specific series of events will climax in yet another installment of the two premier programs in college football, and every single one of them is just another domino in this historic showdown.
5. Dabo Swinney Leaves Alabama
It seems like Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has led the Tigers football program for an eternity, but his roots run deeper than most realize, and they even run back to a period when he left football entirely.
Swinney was a wide receiver for the Alabama Crimson Tide during his playing days from 1990-92. After graduating, he spent the next few seasons as an assistant coach in Tuscaloosa until 2000 before taking a brief hiatus from football to work as a real estate developer in Alabama. Then, Tommy Bowden offered Swinney a spot on the Clemson Tigers coaching staff for the 2003 season, and the rest is history.
Had Swinney stayed on at Alabama following head coaches Gene Stallings and Mike DuBose, there is a chance he ends up as the head coach of his alma mater. Instead, the decision was made, and Swinney took over the Clemson football program halfway through the 2008 season.
4. Alabama Beats Clemson in 2008
Under head coach Tommy Bowden, the Clemson Tigers were ranked No. 9 to start the 2008 season. Second-year Alabama head coach Nick Saban and the 24th-ranked Crimson Tide headed for the Georgia Dome to take on Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on opening weekend. It was the first time the two programs had met since 1975, and it was one to forget for Clemson.
Alabama would dominate and won 34-10. Just six weeks later after a 3-3 start to the year, Bowden would resign following a 12-7 loss to Wake Forest. The next week, offensive coordinator Dabo Swinney was named the program’s next head coach.
Had Nick Saban not throttled Clemson to start the season, and the team excelled in 2008, there’s a chance Swinney never gets his opportunity. You could even say that thanks to Nick Saban and Alabama, this rivalry actually exists…
3. Deshaun Watson’s Comeback
In the 2017 College Football Playoff title game, many were rolling with the Crimson Tide, who were a 6.5-point favorite to beat Clemson for the second year in a row. Trailing 24-14 entering the fourth quarter, a legendary Tigers quarterback cemented his legacy with an incredible come-from-behind win that ended Clemson’s title drought in Tampa, Florida.
Star quarterback Deshaun Watson would throw two fourth-quarter touchdowns — part of his 463 total yards and four total touchdowns on the night — to give Clemson a 35-31 victory and the school’s first college football national title since 1981.
The comeback also proved that Alabama, who entered the game with a 14-0 record, were beatable, and the program able to hold them off would hail from South Carolina.
2. Kelly Bryant’s 2018 Sugar Bowl
The third time they met in this modern saga, the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal game, proved to be the one that brought us where we are now. That Sugar Bowl game was the most lopsided of them all, and it can be traced back to a forgettable performance by Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant.
As a junior, Bryant entered that game with only six interceptions on the season and proved to be even more effective as a runner by racking up 11 touchdowns with his legs. However, two second half interceptions that led to 14 Alabama points were the difference in the game, and the Tide would roll, 24-6, to advance to the title game.
Bryant’s frustrating close to that season in New Orleans opened the door for a quarterback controversy the next year, and ultimately freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence supplanting him, which brings us to the climactic fourth chapter.
1. The 2019 National Championship
When Alabama and Clemson squared off with the 2019 College Football Playoff national championship on the line, all eyes will locked onto Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara for Monday night showdown. This was the closest margin in the modern rivalry, according to bettors, with the Tide being just a 5.5-point favorite to win the national championship game.
Well, things went off the rails in a hurry, as Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence took the top of Alabama’s secondary, and defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell rattled Tua Tagovailoa and the Crimson Tide offense all night long.
Dabo cracked the Nick Saban code once again, as the Tigers downed the Crimson Tide, 44-16. Saban’s race for his seventh college football national championship to pass Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most all-time by a coach would have to wait, as it was all orange and white in 2019.
Clemson’s historic 15-0 season capped a four-year run where both programs won two national titles and pushed each other as the nation’s best. If 2019 is any indication, college football’s top teams, and best rivalry, aren’t going anywhere.