Chuck Culpepper: Sick of Alabama vs. Clemson? Well, the football will be great.
Whatever downer might spring from a title game featuring same old vs. same old ought to be offset by a central feature: the football. Alabama-Clemson IV on Jan. 7 promises a caliber of football darned-near celestial. It might even become the best football yet played in one nation’s 149 years of human eccentricity, specializing in football played by people who also must go to college, more or less.
The stadium named for a famous brand of jeans and normally roamed by the San Francisco 49ers will teem with so many sparkling talents that there are simply too many of them to follow and comprehend during a given viewing. That applies to Alabama’s running back trio even by itself, with Damien Harris, Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs having combined for 2,136 rushing yards and evidently near-zero selfishness.
Try to keep up with Alabama receivers DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs and Jaylen Waddle and Irv Smith and Jerry Jeudy, who, by the way, won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s utmost receiver, and you might go mad.
Their quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, is merely a player whose prowess by itself might draw a connoisseur toward a stadium and into traffic and gladly into the hassle of parking. He just had four touchdown passes and three incompletions in the Orange Bowl.
The defenses, especially the lines, are emblems of the 21st century, an era when large men move in a way large men once didn’t.
Yet in all the bounty of it, there’s one player who turns up at the right time in the sequence of the unlikely annual Alabama-Clemson series. He’s 6-foot-6, and even his hair (long, blond) has grown famous.
If you’ll recall, this Alabama-Clemson habit began with the national championship game of January 2016, which featured one of the best college players ever, Deshaun Watson, driving Alabama coach Nick Saban to throw down his headphones per custom, and to order a fourth-quarter onside kick that doubled as a show of deep respect for the opponent. That game ended 45-40, Alabama. Next came the title game of January 2017, with Watson’s drive to forever going 68 yards and ending with one second left. That goose bump of a game ended 35-31, Clemson.
It’s the ensuing match that didn’t fit.
In the Sugar Bowl national semifinal of last New Year’s Day, No. 4 Alabama drubbed No. 1 Clemson, 24-6, and Clemson barely could budge. It gained 188 yards, an unthinkable sin in this era, and 260 fewer than usual that season. Its rushing yards total, 64, could make one sob. It suffered five sacks. The primordial game featured Alabama’s defense making two large third-quarter plays that turned 10-6 into 24-6 and, given Clemson’s struggles, clinched the thing.
Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, the master conductor who has built a force that has gone 54-4 since 2015 (next to Alabama’s 55-3), reported being “just incredibly disappointed in our performance,” while complimenting Alabama’s defenders.
That night in New Orleans, Clemson had a quarterback, Kelly Bryant, who was merely terrific in a matchup of mastodons that doesn’t have much patience for merely terrific. Bryant, who had waited through two seasons until the Houston Texans finally employed the superman Watson, had been one of the 11 finalists for the Manning Award and one of the 16 semifinalists for the Davey O’Brien Award. When he wound up transferring from Clemson in late September, the people who deemed Missouri lucky to get him weren’t batty.
It’s just that he lacked the insane precision required of the task, and his 18-for-36 passing could not drive Alabama mad enough to stop putting the throttle on its throttling the rush. Further, the previous NFL draft and post-draft signings had taken away primo wide receiver Mike Williams (the seventh pick after 177 receptions at Clemson), running back Wayne Gallman (fourth round after 3,416 yards), tight end Jordan Leggett (fifth round after 112 receptions) and receiver Artavis Scott (signed later after 245 receptions).
Just 12 days before that 24-6 dud of a night, there had come an official signing after a yearlong commitment.
The people who assess high school talent had dropped massive hosannas upon Trevor Lawrence, a quarterback from Cartersville, Georgia, a town northwest of Marietta, which is northwest of Atlanta. They ranked him No. 1 nationally among all players here, No. 1 there, No. 2 over there. He broke some Georgia high school records owned by Watson while playing for a team with a nickname that simply must be shared at all chances: Purple Hurricanes. By one week after 24-6 in January, Lawrence was on Twitter, arriving at Clemson and hugging his parents, who include his 6-7 dad.
Now, with quarterbacks so much wiser than they used to be at 19, Lawrence is zinging beauties all over the field, his level of precision just that level required for a date with Alabama. He has made 10 starts since Swinney switched from Bryant. The numbers stand at 2,933 passing yards, a dreamy touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of 27-to-4 and the general look of 10 or 15 or 20 future seasons in the NFL.
“He’s just so poised,” Swinney said. “And he’s 6-6. He just sees it. And he’s got a gift of an arm. But I just love his humility and how consistent he is with his demeanor and his preparation day in and day out. Easy, easy, easy guy to coach and easy guy to get behind and support. His teammates love him.”
Then, as the Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame demonstrated, an incomprehensible array of talents has sprouted up with him. There’s 6-4 true freshman receiver Justyn Ross, who haunted Notre Dame for 148 yards and two touchdowns. And then 6-4 budding great Tee Higgins also at receiver as a true sophomore. And then running back Travis Etienne, a year older after a tough night coping with Alabama last Jan. 1, and with 1,572 rushing yards. And still more.
Of the receivers, Lawrence said in Texas on Saturday, “Those guys are unbelievable,” and, “They made a lot of plays, just throw it in an area, and they’ll come down with it.” Of the offense, he said, “You have guys all around you that are just great players and take that load off you.”
That’s on a team with the No. 1 yards-per-play defense in the country (4.05), with that horrifying line. It’s all too much to process. It figures to be some night in Santa Clara.
Chuck Culpepper covers national college sports, as well as some tennis, some golf and some international sports for The Washington Post. He has written previously for Sports On Earth at USA Today, the National (Abu Dhabi), the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Oregonian and, beginning at age 14, the Suffolk Sun of the Virginian-Pilot.