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Clemson is Alabama’s Equal

By Jim Johnson
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It had been Alabama, then Clemson, then everyone else. Now, it’s Alabama AND Clemson, then everyone else.

Alabama and Clemson are now equals in every way.

They sure weren’t equals on Monday night, when the Tigers put a 44-16 beatdown on the Tide, but in the College Football Playoff era, it had been Alabama, then Clemson, then everyone else. Now, it’s Alabama AND Clemson, then everyone else.

Over the last four years, Alabama’s record is 55-4. Over the last four years, Clemson’s record is 55-4.

Over the last four years, Alabama and Clemson rank first and second in net points per game.

Over the last four years, Alabama and Clemson are 2-2 against one another.

Alabama has three conference titles over that span. Clemson has four.

Alabama has six CFP wins since 2015. Clemson has five.

And, most importantly, Alabama and Clemson have two national championships apiece, during that time frame.

From the standings to the record books to head-to-head results, there’s literally nothing to split these programs.

Granted, Alabama has sustained its success for longer, but over the course of a full recruiting cycle, these are the two premier programs in the sport. And we’re not talking about all-time historical relevance. In the modern landscape of the game, the here and now is all that matters.

The last legs of the BCS era may justifiably be called the Saban era, but the infancy of the Playoff era can’t. This is the Alabama-Clemson era, and the only reason ‘Bama is first is the alphabet.

As a matter of fact, taking that historical relevance into account, Clemson’s success is arguably more impressive than even that of the Crimson Tide.

Alabama has always been good, always been a contender, always been in the mix. The only times that hasn’t been true is when they’ve been on probation.

The same can not be said for the pre-Dabo Swinney Tigers.

After winning the national championship in 1981, they were dominant in the ACC for the better part of the rest of the decade. However, between 1990 and 2009, when Swinney took over full time, they missed out on a bowl game four times, won just one conference title, and failed to win double digit games even a single time.

Clemson is not a traditional power. It’s not a blue blood. It’s not even the historical caliber of conference foes Miami or Florida State, much less Michigan or Ohio State or Notre Dame, or, of course, Alabama.

As of the end of last season, its all-time winning percentage was saddled in between Washington and Virginia Tech.

Suffice it to say, Clemson isn’t supposed to be what it is. Clemson isn’t supposed to be the first FBS team to go 15-0 and win the national championship. Trevor Lawrence isn't supposed to be the first freshman quarterback to win it all since Jamelle Holieway did it in 1985. Dabo Swinney isn’t supposed to be one of only two active coaches with multiple rings. And they damn sure aren’t supposed to accomplish all that by dropping a 40-piece on the team that is supposed to do all those things.

But that’s what makes this so special, all of it. That’s what makes Swinney special. It’s what makes Christian Wilkins and Hunter Renfrow and Justyn Ross and Trevor Lawrence and Clemson special. It’s what makes college football special.

The ball doesn’t care what’s supposed to happen. It’s an oblong object that bounces to the beat wherever the it good and well wants to -- kind of like Clemson.

People complained all week about the inevitability of Alabama-Clemson IV. And, yes, it had been a foregone conclusion since before toe first met leather, back in August. However, that notion fails to recognize the complete implausibility of Clemson’s rise to inevitability.

A decade ago, even the most optimistic Tiger fan couldn’t have anticipated this.

Powerhouses aren’t born overnight, they’re years in the making before anyone even realizes what happened. Another common complaint is that the same handful of teams are at the top of college football every season. Yet, that too fails to appreciate that, by and large, those teams were the same ones that dominated before either of the World Wars, before desegregation, before ESPN was born, or Lil’ Wayne dropped Tha Carter III. Building one in the 2010’s, as Clemson has, is a different animal, without the benefit of prior dominance or years of infrastructural success.

Clemson has proven that blue blood, or red blood, or veins coursing orange and purple, there’s a path for growth outside of the game’s traditional elite.

It started with a division championship in Swinney’s first full year, and then a conference title two years later.

Anyone can catch lightning in a bottle, though. It’s about what you do with it while you’ve got it. Clemson parlayed theirs into Sammy Watkins and Grady Jarrett, and then Carlos Watkins, DJ Reader, and Cordrea Tankersley, to go along with budding superstar Tajh Boyd, and brought in Brent Venables from Oklahoma. That core ripped off eleven wins, en route to an ACC repeat.

They, in turn, built off that success, adding Mackensie Alexander, Ben Boulware, Dorian O’Daniel, Tyrone Crowder, Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman, Artavis Scott, Kendall Joseph, Deon Cain, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Christian Wilkins, and, oh yeah, Deshaun Watson, over the next three years, whilst winning another 31 games.

Then, and only then, did the machine that we saw against Alabama begin to reach its full potential. It started with competing for conference titles, then winning them, then recruiting at a national level, then winning at a national level.

The rest is, quite literally, history. Just scroll back to the top and look at those records and accomplishments since 2015, if you don’t yet believe.

Looking at the rosters, it’s easy to chalk up Alabama and Clemson as the clear two best teams, and, at a certain point, the game is first and foremost about talent acquisition, both on the field and the sidelines, but in order to acquire said talent, one must first become attractive to said talent.

Winning is attractive. Having fun is attractive. Alabama does enough of the former, and has enough history, that it can get away with less of the latter, or, as Mark Ennis most aptly described it, “Saban’s joyless murderball.” Few teams are gifted the same luxury.

It took talent development to get here. Clemson made the most of what they had until they could get who they wanted.

It took hiring, and somehow keeping, the best defensive mind in the country, Brent Venables.

Clemson, on the other hand, I suppose, plays joyful murderball. No one’s ever had such a good time committing atrocities on opposing teams.

This is not to take away from Alabama, or what Nick Saban has accomplished, but, to some degree, Alabama is what it’s supposed to be. Clemson is everything Alabama isn’t, in many respects, and yet has, in recent memory, found identical results.

We’re past Alabama, then Clemson, then everyone else. Until proven otherwise, it’s Alabama AND Clemson, then everyone else.

And, at least for one night in Santa Clara, it was Clemson, then Alabama, then everyone else.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP