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2024 NCAA Tournament: Revisiting the Alabama-Clemson rivalry in football as schools vie for Final Four bid

Clemson and Alabama are both making waves during March Madness. The two southern football giants are set to face off in Saturday’s Elite Eight with an appearance in the coveted Final Four on the line — a goal that neither basketball program has yet to attain. While this may be a rare postseason showdown between the two on the hardwood, the Crimson Tide and Tigers share a rich history on college football’s biggest stage. 

Between 2016-19, Alabama and Clemson competed in four straight College Football Playoff games, three of which were for the national championship. That streak constitutes four out of the five matchups between the two teams since the turn of the century. On top of that, Alabama and Clemson have never played one another — outside of the playoff format — in the postseason. 

As one might expect from such a prolific modern rivalry, Alabama and Clemson’s playoff streak featured amazing moments and monolithic figures. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was in the midst of building an emergent dynasty, while former Alabama coach Nick Saban worked to stack wins onto an already Hall of Fame worthy résumé. 

Myriad future NFL Draft picks, All-Americans and Heisman Trophy winners featured in these clashes, highlighted by the likes of Deshaun Watson, Jalen Hurts, Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa. With Alabama and Clemson set to play in the postseason once more, this time on one of college basketball’s biggest stages, it felt appropriate to look back at their College Football Playoff rivalry. 

2016: College Football Playoff National Championship

Final: Alabama 45, Clemson 40 

In the first meeting between the two teams in eight years, Alabama and Clemson took center stage at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, with a national title on the line. What a battle it was, setting the precedent for an impressive streak of postseason clashes, each with something major on the line. They traded blows until midway through the fourth quarter when Alabama running back Kenyan Drake returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to give his team a 38-27 lead. From there, the Crimson Tide were firmly in the driver’s seat with the win cemented by a 1-yard Derrick Henry touchdown run as the clocked ticked down to one minute. 

2017: College Football Playoff National Championship 

Final: Clemson 35, Alabama 31 

One year later, the two found themselves in a similar situation with a different — but significantly more thrilling — result. Alabama led 24-14 entering the fourth quarter thanks to strong performances by running back Bo Scarbrough and tight end O.J. Howard. But Clemson scored just 1 minute into the fourth quarter to cut the lead and found the end zone again 10 minutes later to take its first lead of the game. Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts roared back with a 30-yard touchdown run with just around 2 minutes left to put Clemson back down. The Tigers and quarterback Deshaun Watson methodically moved down the field with the assists of spectacular catches by the likes of Mike Williams and eventually landed at Alabama’s 9-yard line with 9 seconds left. A pass interference on the ensuing play moved the ball forward 7 yards, allowing Watson to hit Hunter Renfrow on a rollout for a walk-in 2-yard touchdown. Clemson recovered the onside kick to seal its first national championship of the century. 

2018: Sugar Bowl (CFP Semifinal) 

Final: Alabama 24, Clemson 6 

Not a whole lot of drama in this one with a trip to the CFP National Championship on the line. Clemson was held to just two field goals while Alabama’s defense controlled the game from start to finish. Defensive lineman Daron Payne, who was eventually named the game’s defensive MVP, even had an impact on offense, catching a 1-yard touchdown pass from Jalen Hurts in the third quarter. The Crimson Tide defense intercepted Clemson QB Kelly Bryant twice, the second of which linebacker Mack Wilson returned 18 yards for a touchdown and the game’s decisive score. 

2019: College Football Playoff National Championship

Final: Clemson 44, Alabama 16 

On paper, this had the makings of an instant classic. A fourth straight postseason showdown between two college football giants with absolutely stacked teams; the starting lineups featured 33 future NFL Draft picks and seven All-Americans. Alabama was at the height of its offensive boom with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa spreading the ball to wide receivers Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III. Clemson’s defense was historically good, anchored in the middle by a pair of all-star defensive linemen in Christian Watkins and Clelin Ferrell. In reality, the game was a complete rout. Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell got the best of Tagovailoa on a pick six less than 2 minutes into the game. The two went back-and-forth through an explosive first quarter, but Clemson gained a 21-16 lead with just over 11 minutes to play in the second quarter and held Alabama scoreless from there. Future No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence finished the game with 347 yards and three touchdowns, while Tagovailoa threw two interceptions. 

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