DALLAS — After their victories in the College Football Playoff semifinals, in which they dominated the competition, Clemson and Alabama will play for the championship in — hey, wait a minute, haven’t we already written this column?
The answer is yes, we have, and more than once. In fact, next Monday, Jan. 7, will be the third national championship game in four seasons between Alabama and Clemson, with the two having split their previous showdowns. Each has a 14-0 record, and the winner of the Jan. 7 game will become the first program in college football’s top tier to win 15 games in a season since, by some measurements, Penn accomplished the feat late in the 19th century.
Making this matchup even more familiar is the fact that the two programs also met in a playoff semifinal just last season. The Crimson Tide beat the Tigers in that game and then went on to defeat Georgia for the title. And Georgia happens to be the one team that gave Alabama a serious challenge this season — in the Southeastern Conference championship game, which the Tide won, 35-28.
All three of these programs are young across the field, meaning they are already amply stocked for the next couple of seasons. In addition, the Alabama and Georgia quarterbacks are sophomores, and Clemson’s is a freshman. And would you like to guess which teams have claimed three of the top five recruiting classes going into February’s national signing day?
They say the N.F.L. is socialism for owners and capitalism for the players, as the owners split much of their revenue while the money that the players make is correlated with their on-field value. As for college football, these days it resembles more of an oligarchy, with only a few teams seemingly in position to win national championships. (As for the players, who are not compensated beyond scholarships and related costs, feel free to supply your own analogy.)
Interested parties, of course, may deny the yawning disparity between the top few programs in college football (into which, on good days, you could also throw Oklahoma and Ohio State) and everyone else.
“We gave up four big plays that we characteristically don’t give up,” Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly said after his team’s 30-3 loss to Clemson at the Cotton Bowl on Saturday. He maintained that the Irish were “capable of moving the football and doing the things necessary to beat this football team.” Actually, maybe not.
Asked why Clemson’s three recent semifinal victories in the playoffs had been so lopsided — the combined score is Clemson 98, Oklahoma/Ohio State/Notre Dame 20 — Tigers Coach Dabo Swinney tried to aw-shucks the question away. “I don’t know,” he responded. “We got our butts beat last year.” (Well, yeah, you played Alabama in that semifinal.)
Indeed, the ultimate competition in college football now seems to be a round robin among three programs who fit within a fairly small geographic radius.
There are several reasons for this. There is, for one thing, a fertile crescent of recruiting that stretches roughly from the Houston area through the Deep South and down Florida’s boot. In college football — as in so many other things — personnel are destiny; that Alabama, Clemson and Georgia are close to this bumper crop of players gives them a distinct advantage. It is no coincidence that 12 of the last 13 national titles were won by teams from the Southeast, and if you throw in Central Florida’s claimed national title last season, it is 13 out of 14.
And recruiting matters perhaps more than ever because of several trends: better high school football, which produces more game-ready freshmen; better college development, which enables more underclassmen to enter the N.F.L.; liberalized transfer rules, which accelerate churn. Colleges are reloading bigger proportions of their rosters every year.
Of the handful of coaches who are best at grabbing the elite players out of high school, no one does it better than Alabama’s Nick Saban. Remember, this is not the N.F.L., where teams are allotted equal numbers of draft picks. In college football, teams can sign 20 or 30 new players every year, and no rule limits them from taking a big chunk of the top group. Alabama has had the highest-ranked recruiting class, according to 247Sports’s composite figures, for nearly every year going back to 2011. The one exception was last year, when the highest rank went to Georgia.
Other teams can break through. Ohio State won the 2014 season national championship. Oklahoma has made the past three semifinals, and it gave Alabama a hard time in the second half of Saturday’s game. Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan could sneak into a playoff and show us that we were underrating the Big Ten. Stanford, which zags in recruiting where everyone else zigs by insisting on high academic standards, is perhaps another Andrew Luck away from big-time contention. Southern California could find its next Pete Carroll.
But for now, the winner of the fourth straight Alabama-Clemson game (counting that semifinal) will be the national champion for the fourth straight year.
As for which of the two will be victorious this time, it is worth remembering that Alabama’s biggest question mark was the health of sophomore quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who had to have ankle surgery after an injury in the SEC title game against Georgia. On Saturday, however, he set worriers at statistical ease, going 24 for 27 with 318 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Then again, Tagovailoa’s eye-popping numbers came against one of college football’s weakest defenses. When Tagovailoa has met opposition of Clemson’s caliber, the results have been mixed: 166 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in the second half and overtime of last season’s national-title game against Georgia; 164 yards, a touchdown and an interception versus Mississippi State’s top-ranked unit last month. (He fared worse against Georgia this month but was injured for most of the game.)
Meanwhile, Clemson’s quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, has not faced a defense remotely similar to Alabama’s — unless you count going against his own team’s starters in practice. Further, the Tigers’ blowout semifinal victory masked a weaker second half, in which the offense scored just 7 points and went 3 for 8 on third downs.
In other words, the Clemson-Alabama national championship game should be close. Just like the two before it. And the one that may follow this one in the next year or two.