Why college football fans shouldn't be salty about another round of Clemson-Alabama

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Dabo Swinney saw his first tumbleweed Saturday. It was an exciting moment.

“We’re coming down the road on a bus, and this huge, like, ball of sticks … just comes right at the bus,” the Clemson coach said at the College Football Playoff championship game media day. “I’m like, ‘What the heck is that?’ He’s like, ‘That’s a tumbleweed.’ I thought those were just in like Roadrunner or the movies or something.”

Chalk up another American life experience for Dabo, the hick tourist who lives and works in a small town in the South Carolina Upstate region. He’s seen a lot while traversing the country to play Alabama the past four years. Clemson and the Crimson Tide have met in Arizona (“Look, a cactus!”), Tampa (“Those palm trees are purty”) and New Orleans (“What’s the deal with the beads?”). Now the Bay Area.

While the education of Dabo Swinney is a positive aspect of this ongoing series, Clemson-Bama IV has not exactly been well received around much of the nation. Critics have dumped a bucket of Haterade on this red-hot rivalry.

Some say they won’t watch Monday night. Some say four straight seasons of playoff matchups between these two is ruining college football. Some people are weird like that.

These are the two best programs in the sport, by far, and they should be applauded for their sustained excellence. This should be a rivalry celebrated the way Lakers-Celtics was in the 1980s, and the way Warriors-Cavaliers is today. Yes, this is largely a regional affair, two schools tucked away in the Southeastern U.S. But fans of the sport should enjoy a riveting and compelling series of showdowns, with two of the previous three matchups turning into absolute classics.

Instead, a jealous nation is taking shots. College football’s tribalism has reached the point of partisan politics, where every opponent’s victory is to be downgraded, facts are fudged and nefarious bias is constantly claimed.

Basically, there’s a whole lot of whining going on.

Alabama’s Nick Saban (L) and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney have met in the CFP title game three of the last four seasons. (AP)
Alabama’s Nick Saban (L) and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney have met in the CFP title game three of the last four seasons. (AP)

The system isn’t rigged. Alabama isn’t here because ESPN favors the SEC. Clemson isn’t here because it had the luxury of coasting through a weak league.

They’re both here because nobody has been able to beat them, and almost nobody has even come close. Average margin of victory for the undefeated Tide: 31.5. Average margin of victory for the undefeated Tigers: 31.4.

Complaints about scheduling are loud and persistent. Clemson and Alabama come from the two Power Five conferences that don’t play nine league games, the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern, and that seems to infuriate a lot of people. Then there is the fact that both played a game against an FCS opponent.

What’s happened when other top teams have gotten their shot at these guys in the playoff? Alabama is 4-1 against teams other than Clemson, having won the last four in a row. Clemson is 3-0 against teams other than Alabama, all of them blowouts.

Carping about who these two have played rings a little hollow when they whip all comers.

“Somebody’s got to beat us,” Alabama safety Deionte Thompson said of both teams. “We’re the best every year. We’re at the top for a reason.”

It’s true that the Tigers have played what the Sagarin Ratings consider the easiest schedule of anyone in the CFP rankings Top 10. But Notre Dame had a chance to “expose” a team that came out of an underwhelming league, and the Fighting Irish lost by 27 in the Cotton Bowl.

Alabama’s schedule is fifth-hardest of the CFP Top 10 — not as difficult as the slate played by Georgia, Oklahoma, Washington and Michigan; more difficult than that of Florida, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Clemson and Central Florida. If people think Nick Saban’s team had it easy by not playing a true road non-conference game or by playing Citadel in mid-November, they’re overlooking the fact that the Tide dominated the nation’s toughest conference.

Oklahoma played a tougher schedule than Alabama. Oklahoma also trailed Alabama 28-0 early in the second quarter of the Orange Bowl and never for a single moment had a realistic chance to win.

So instead of complaining, here’s what other programs need to do: Get better. Hire better, recruit better, develop better, strategize better. Take your operation up to meet the industry leaders.

Get “aligned.” That’s a buzzword you hear from both Alabama and Clemson staff — the administration is all-in on football, the athletic department is all-in on football, and the coaches have everything they could possibly need to succeed. They have all the facilities, all the staff, all the budget necessary. Their recruiting operations are massive and smart. They use technology to their advantage in scouting both prospects and opponents. They don’t leave much of anything to chance.

If you consider some of their expense on football glory to be excessive, well, you might be right. Being good at college football has always entailed a willingness to lose perspective — to make the sport too big and too important at the expense of academic mission.

But there are a lot of schools cutting corners and making faustian bargains without being as good as Clemson and ‘Bama. Georgia and Ohio State and Oklahoma aren’t exactly in a position to turn up their nose and tut-tut the two programs they can’t beat. They’re every bit as much a part of the Football Industrial Complex as the Tigers and the Tide.

“People aren’t really appreciating what’s going on right now,” said Clemson safety Tanner Muse. “But I think in 10 or 20 years, people will say, ‘Wow, those were the golden days watching those two Goliaths go back and forth.'”

Muse is right. Don’t hate, appreciate. A high-level rivalry like Clemson-Alabama is one for the history books, not something to be diminished due to jealousy.

“I think that this is the way it should be,” Swinney said. “The two best teams, the two best programs, the most consistent having a chance to kind of battle it out for all the marbles.”

And the tumbleweeds.

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