Alabama, Clemson square off in national championship rematch

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During the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.

Could the sequel be better than the original?

Last season’s College Football Playoff national championship game was a thriller: Alabama, at the time ranked No. 2, won its fourth title in seven years by defeating then-top-ranked Clemson 45-40.

On Monday, they meet again. Alabama (14-0) is trying to go wire-to-wire as the nation’s No. 1 team, while Clemson (13-1) seeks its first title since the 1981 season.

“These are the two best teams, and to be honest with you, I don’t think there’s another team out there that’s capable of beating Alabama,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said Saturday. “I think we’re probably the only team that has a chance.”

The rematch kicks off at 8 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

Alabama’s D vs. Watson

The Tigers have some unfinished business, and this is the chance for two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson to get it right.

“It means a lot, having the opportunity,” Clemson’s junior quarterback said Saturday. “It’s very hard to set your chances in life, and for us to be able to come back and have another chance at it against a very good team, it’s a blessing. It’s a great opportunity for us, so we don’t want to miss out on this opportunity and take it for granted. We want to go full throttle at it.”

Watson gave the Crimson Tide trouble in last year’s championship game, completing 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns. He’s also coming off a big win. In the Tigers’ 31-0 dismantling of No. 3 Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal, Watson threw for one touchdown and ran for two more.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban was asked Saturday what concerns him the most about Clemson. His answer: “The quarterback.”

“Deshaun Watson, I’ve said this all week long, is probably the most dynamic player in college football, maybe the best player in college football relative to what he does for his team,” Saban said.

But for Clemson, there is reason to worry. In addition to those scores, Watson also threw two interceptions in the win against Ohio State. Had that been against Alabama, it could have been a disastrous momentum shift. The Crimson Tide lead the country in total defense, rushing defense, scoring defense and defensive touchdowns.

“We’ve got to find a way to not let them score anywhere but on offense,” Swinney said. “I think that’s the biggest challenge going in is don’t let them score on special teams and defense because that’s been an incredible recipe for them this year.”

Alabama looked invincible entering the College Football Playoff, but did a crack in the foundation surface in the team’s win against No. 4 Washington in the Peach Bowl semifinal?

Saban announced last week that offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin — who was recently hired as Florida Atlantic’s head coach — will not coach for the Crimson Tide in the national championship game. While Alabama is downplaying the change, it gives this rematch an added level of intrigue.

Now calling the plays will be incoming offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who joined the Crimson Tide staff earlier this season as an analyst.

“I’m excited,” Sarkisian said Saturday. “This is what I love to do. I’ve been doing this a long time. I’ve been fortunate to have coached in some big games in my career. Obviously this is another big one. These guys have earned the right to be in this game. My mindset is just putting them in the best position to be successful.”

Rematch prediction comes true

Heading into the national championship game last year, Swinney and Saban had a bet. Whoever lost the game would owe the other dinner.

So when the coaches, who both have vacation homes in Boca Grande, Florida, were invited to go on a dinner cruise by a mutual friend around St. Patrick’s Day, Swinney knew what he had to do.

“I showed up,” Swinney said. “And right out of the gate when we got on the boat, he was there, and I said, all right, let’s get the elephant out of the room right now because I don’t like owing anybody. I got him a nice dinner certificate to The Temptation, which is our favorite restaurant at the place we vacation, but I did write on there, ‘See you in Tampa next year.’

“It’s crazy. Here we are, both back in the same spot, and again, incredible respect for what he’s done. Obviously great respect for University of Alabama, and look forward to competing with him again, and hopefully I can come out on the other side this time.”

Said Saban: “I did tell him last year, because of the respect I have for his team and the players they had coming back, that I thought especially with his quarterback coming back and the continuity that that would give him, that they would have a great opportunity to be here again next year, or this year now.”

It’s happening: Clemson vs. Alabama, Part II.