Clemson will play Alabama for a third consecutive time in the college football playoffs. Coach Dabo Swinney, an Alabama alumnus, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think some people don’t want to give you much credit until you beat the very best,” Swinney said in a media conference call Sunday. “Alabama is that.”
The top-seeded Tigers will play fourth seed Alabama in the New Orleans Superdome at 8:45 p.m. on Jan. 1. In the other semifinal, Georgia will play Oklahoma at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. at 5 p.m.
The semifinal winners play for the national championship at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Jan. 8 at 8 p.m. All three games will be televised on ESPN.
The past two national championship games matched Clemson and Alabama. The Tigers beat the Crimson Tide in Tampa, 35-31, in January when quarterback Deshaun Watson found wide receiver Hunter Renfrow in the end zone in the final minute. The previous season, Alabama outlasted Clemson 45-40 in Glendale, Ariz.
“Any time you play them, you know it’s an ‘Everything you’ve got’ kind of game,” said Swinney, who played wide receiver for the Crimson Tide from 1990 through 1992. “But we look forward to it.”
Despite being the top seed, the 12-1 Tigers were an initial 1-point underdog in betting lines.
“Pretty much everybody who plays Alabama is going to be an underdog; none of that stuff really matters,” Swinney said. “We’ve won a bunch of those games” against nationally prominent programs.
Alabama edged out Big Ten champ Ohio State for the final playoff spot, despite the 11-1 Crimson Tide not playing in the SEC Championship Game Saturday in Atlanta. Alabama was eliminated from contention for its conference championship with a loss to Auburn. Ohio State was badly damaged by a blowout loss to unranked Iowa earlier this season.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said there was some “white-knuckling” over whether the Crimson Tide would be selected. He said that was a lesson to his team not to take these opportunities for granted in a sport where one regular-season loss can be devastating.
Saban said he’s glad his team was rewarded for its “body of work for a whole season.” However, “we put our fate in someone else’s hands.”
Had Wisconsin beaten Ohio State Saturday, it’s likely the Badgers would have been the fourth playoff team.
Saban praised Kelly Bryant, who replaced Watson as Clemson’s quarterback. Bryant was named Most Valuable Player in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte Saturday. He threw for one touchdown, ran for another, and set a record by completing his first 15 passes, against a Hurricanes team that had the best takeaway-giveaway ratio in FBS. The Tigers beat Miami 38-3 for their third consecutive ACC championship.
Clemson has one of the country’s top defenses, particularly along the line. All four starters – particularly tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence – are considered strong NFL prospects.
“That’s a great front-7, very athletic,” Saban said of Clemson’s defense. “They’re by far the best team we’ll have played.”
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell
College Football Playoff
Monday, Jan. 1
Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.: No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 2 Oklahoma, 5 p.m.
Sugar Bowl, New Orleans, La.: No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 1 Clemson, 8:45 p.m.
Monday, Jan. 8
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta: Semifinal winners