Alabama vs. Clemson in basketball? Football schools face off with Final Four on the line

LOS ANGELES — See if this sounds familiar: Clemson and Alabama are facing each other in a playoff with the chance to compete for a national championship on the line.

For college sports fans, it’ll be another instance of the Tigers and the Crimson Tide battling on the national stage Saturday. But this time, it won’t be played on the gridiron with Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban on the opposing sidelines.

It’ll be on a 94-foot-long basketball court with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

It’s relatively new territory for the schools that are primarily known for their accomplishments on the football field. Alabama, which boasts 16 national championships while consistently staying in the title picture, is playing in its first Elite Eight since 2004 and second in team history. Clemson, which has found success in the College Football Playoff with two titles, also is in the Elite Eight for just the second time, the first coming in 1980. By the end of the night, one team will be in the Final Four for the first time.

Suddenly, things don’t sound familiar.

“Alabama and Clemson playing in L.A. Most people would think we're out here playing in the Rose Bowl,” said Alabama head coach Nate Oats.

Clemson center PJ Hall (24) defends Alabama guard Aaron Estrada (55) at Coleman Coliseum.
Clemson center PJ Hall (24) defends Alabama guard Aaron Estrada (55) at Coleman Coliseum.

Acknowledging being at football schools

Reaching the Final Four is a tremendous accomplishment for any school, regardless of its other sports, but Oats and Clemson head coach Brad Brownell acknowledge what a Final Four spot would mean to their respective programs at schools where football is the primary attention-getter.

“Alabama football is obviously the best football program in the country in college football. They've got all sorts of national championships,” Oats said. “But multiple sports have won national championships at Alabama. The athletic department as a whole is a championship-level athletic department.

“We need to get men's basketball up to the level that a lot of other sports are at.”

During Oats’ tenure, the Crimson Tide have won the SEC and conference tournament twice, made the tournament four consecutive times and earned the top overall seed in 2023. Despite that success, Oats wants more: “We’ve won a lot, but we’ve never been to a Final Four,” he admitted.

While Alabama achieved most of its recent success before Oats arrived in Tuscaloosa, Brownell has been around to see Clemson’s rise in the CFP era. Before that, Brownell said he had to recognize he was coaching basketball at a football school, a reality others must also live with.

“If you're the head basketball coach at Clemson or Alabama, you're not going to become a basketball school. You're going to be a football school. You better embrace that early on,” he said. “That's OK with me. I'm great with that.

“There's pressure you feel because you want to have as good a program as the other coaches have.”

If you needed more proof of how basketball takes the backseat at these schools, look at Clemson star forward PJ Hall. He’s from Spartanburg, S.C., about 65 miles northeast of Clemson, but he said he didn’t realize the magnitude of what a possible Final Four run could do for a team that’s never been.

Getting support from Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney

With national championship winning coaches at their disposal, it would be foolish for Oats and Brownell not to turn to recently retired Nick Saban or current Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney for guidance during this tournament run.

Oats has gone to Saban as a source of inspiration, channeling his "rat poison" talk as a way to keep his team focused. Saban has also texted Oats about having a "next play" mentality, which speaks volumes given the seven-time national championship winning coach’s inexperience with technology.

On the other side, Swinney texted Brownell multiple times ahead of the Sweet 16 matchup against Arizona and they have been talking since that win. Brownell has a hunch Swinney is using the basketball team for some dinner bets with “some of his old cronies” from Alabama.

Still, Brownell said he and Swinney have a great relationship at Clemson, ranging from playing golf to vacationing with their families together. Swinney even FaceTimed guard Joseph Girard III after the Arizona game.

What a Final Four appearance would mean for Alabama and Clemson

Both sides acknowledge how monumental an Elite Eight win would be for their program. In Alabama, the players have the chance to put their names among the greats to have stepped foot on campus, like the countless NFL stars that once called Bryant-Denny Stadium home.

“Just be probably legends on campus,” said guard Rylan Griffen. “They always say where legends are made. Making the Final Four, we would be a historic team in Alabama history. Being a part of that would be great.”

The recent success has given each team a renewed interest from its fanbase. While most of the calendar year is spent either focusing on the football season or getting ready for the next, the basketball teams now have the spotlight shining on them on the biggest stage.

“It's really exciting just to see how much people really care about the way things are going for us in this program right now,” Girard said. “Obviously everybody always talks about Clemson football and how big their support is. Knowing we're getting a lot of that right now, it feels great.”

The two sides are familiar with each other, with Clemson winning at Alabama in November. But both teams acknowledge each squad is a much different unit than those that played four months ago.

“Making a Final Four would be very big for the program. It would show that we're competing with all of the best programs in the country for the biggest thing,” Oats said. “This would be the biggest win in the history of Alabama basketball if we can pull it off.”

Said Brownell: “Certainly we're known as a football school and will be one forever. And we're all really proud of that. But I'm just doing the best I can to make our program as good as it can be. I'm proud of what we've been able to accomplish the last 14 years. Certainly this year has been really special.”

Saturday will be a historic win for one of them.

Follow Jordan Mendoza on social media @jordan_mendoza5.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alabama vs. Clemson in March? Football schools meet for Final Four bid