Over the past decade, Clemson has been the closest FBS team to being Alabama football’s equal. Dabo Swinney built a dynasty in the ACC, leading the Tigers to six straight playoff appearances from 2015 to 2020. The two schools met at the apex of college football, playing each other in the postseason an incredible four seasons in a row.
They first faced off in the 2015 national championship, which was a close win for the Crimson Tide. Swinney and Clemson would avenge the loss in the 2016 title game, winning on a controversial last-second touchdown.
The Tide and the Tigers were pitted against each other once again in the first round of the 2017 CFP, this time resulting in a lopsided 24-6 victory for Alabama football. The Tide would move on to defeat Georgia for the crown.
The very next season, Bama and Clemson played for the national championship once again. Clemson routed Bama 44-16 in the 2018 title bout, the most recent matchup between the two. Clemson would go on to lose the 2019 title game to LSU, and then fall to Ohio State in the 2020 playoff which would eventually see Bama win the title.
It’s been almost strange to have two dynasties of this magnitude coincide and dominate the sport at the same time. The two have collectively won five of the last six national championships. At least one of the teams has appeared in every title game since 2015 and the two have played each other on the game’s biggest stage three times.
However, it’s clear that Clemson is a peg below Alabama football, even if it’s just in terms of longevity and sustainability. While both programs were at the top of the sport from 2015 to 2020, it must be noted that Alabama won three national titles under Nick Saban before Clemson even reached the elite tier of college football. Many wondered if the 2018 national title game was a “changing of the guard” situation, but Alabama was the big dog on the block, long before Clemson’s rise, and has since proven that Clemson was always just the challenger.
Coming off of back-to-back playoff seasons that failed to yield titles, Clemson entered 2021 vengeful and hungry. They would drop their highly anticipated season opener in a top-5 matchup against Georgia, scoring only three points. Their offense would continue to struggle, as they lost a pair of conference games before November to fall to 4-3 overall (previously 52-3 in ACC games since 2015).
Clemson did finish the regular season strong, winning five straight and blowing out Atlantic division champion Wake Forest and in-state SEC rival South Carolina to close the year. To give credit where it’s due, the Tigers finished the season at a respectable 9-3 and still have a top ten defense nationally.
However, their offense has been abysmal, and their record includes 4 one-possession victories in conference play. Although Alabama football was similarly plagued with numerous close games against presumably inferior competition, the Tide played a much tougher schedule (and lost only one game in the regular season). While Alabama defeated top-ranked Georgia to become champions of the best conference in college football, Clemson failed to even make the title game in a fairly weak ACC.
Additionally, the culture and infrastructure upon which Dabo Swinney built the Clemson program is beginning to crumble. He is now losing players to the transfer portal, as well as coaches to other jobs (including Swinney’s long-time defensive coordinator and right-hand man Brent Venables). Losing players and coaches is a part of college football and it has impacted every program, including Alabama. However, Swinney emphasizes loyalty, and Clemson has seemed impervious to these types of losses throughout his tenure.
As the years pass, elite teams rise and fall across the country. Since Nick Saban took over in Tuscaloosa, however, there has been only one elite program. Saban and the Tide continue to show us that they’re different from the rest, and this 2021 season has been perhaps the best example. Let’s see if Alabama football can cap its “down year” with another national title.