When someone asked Dabo Swinney about playing Alabama in Monday's College Football Playoff championship game the other day, the Clemson football coach, as is his habit, invoked the Lord above. He said it was "cool," he said it was "neat," and then he said, "I think God has got a sense of humor."
Swinney grew up in Alabama dreaming of playing for the Crimson Tide, and then he did it, first as a walk-on, then as a scholarship player. He coached there early in his career, getting his MBA and staying in Tuscaloosa until the age of 31, when he briefly veered out of coaching altogether before eventually winding up at Clemson. Maybe this matchup is a sheer cosmic coincidence, or maybe, as Swinney suggests, it isn't—either way, it's not a question that will be resolved at the end of this column.
Still, it's not unprecedented for these programs to intertwine. The last coach to lead Clemson to a national championship, Danny Ford, was an assistant coach under Paul "Bear" Bryant at Alabama before leading the Tigers over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl in 1981. At some level, every program in the South is aspiring to be Alabama. With Clemson—a school that has long been relegated to outsider status by virtue of its modest roots and its conference (the ACC rather than the SEC), not to mention its tendency to falter in big games—that affiliation is especially intimate. I imagine that if, someday in the near future, Nick Saban chooses to retire or make one last stab at succeeding in the NFL, Swinney would be at the top of Alabama's shortlist of replacements; I also imagine that if Alabama offered him the job, Swinney might evoke Bear Bryant's iconic line about Mama calling him home.
"If I could just script it, you know, if I could just—if you could say, 'Hey, you're going to get a chance to play the National Championship game at some point. Who do you want it to be against?' I would pick Alabama, again, for the same reasons, because they're the best," Swinney said. "They've been the best. They've earned that."
All of that mingling history, combined with Swinney's own legitimately inspiring rags-to-riches tale, makes for a first-rate storyline in advance of the title game. To me, though, the most interesting facet of Clemson-Alabama centers on the question of whether Clemson can find a way to differentiate itself from Alabama, to play this game with the sort of lightness and sense of humor that Alabama lacks.
This is the thing that Michigan State could not do, by virtue of the way the Spartans were put together under former Saban assistant Mark Dantonio: the Spartans are structured in a similar enough manner to the Crimson Tide that they could not compete with Alabama's superior manpower. For all of Swinney's fealty to Alabama, his Clemson team is constructed in a completely different way. This is largely because of the Tigers' quarterback, Deshaun Watson, who is capable of making the kinds of plays that even Saban cannot prepare for.
Needless to say, that will not stop Saban from trying to prepare: the Crimson Tide have reportedly enlisted a dual-threat quarterback recruit, Jalen Hurts, who has only been on campus for a week, to play the role of Watson on the scout team. As we saw in Clemson's College Football Playoff semifinal win over Oklahoma, however, Watson is capable of laughing at your plans. He can throw a deep ball, which is one of Alabama's primary defensive weaknesses this season, and he has rushed for more than 100 yards in his past six games, which lends him the kind of unpredictability that works directly against Saban's cold-hearted, Process-oriented approach.
None of this matters if Clemson can't match up athletically and are overwhelmed by Alabama's line play, the way Notre Dame was in the BCS Championship game a few years back. Here is the other thing about Swinney, though: that folksy exterior disguises a shrewd recruiter with an MBA who has spent nearly a decade at Clemson implementing a very specific plan. Swinney has built a recruiting foundation that, as CBS Sports' Jon Solomon points out, is as solid as any in the country over the past several years.
So maybe it feels like more of a surprise than it should that Clemson is here in this game in the first place. Maybe what Swinney has done is combine Alabama's rigid structure and recruiting process with a certain amount of looseness and unpredictability ("When Steve Spurrier got to South Carolina, he made that place cool," a South Carolina high school coach told ESPN's Ryan McGee. "Then Spurrier started looking old, Clemson's offense got rolling and look who's cool to these kids now."). This formula worked for Ohio State in 2015, and it could work for Clemson. In fact, this formula already worked for the school once before.
Some 34 years ago, in that Orange Bowl against Nebraska, Clemson's Danny Ford unleashed his own mobile quarterback, Homer Bailey, who threw for 134 yards and ran for 66 more, not including negative rush yardage. "Jordan was just great," Nebraska coach Tom Osborne said afterward. "We tried to contain him and keep him inside, but we couldn't."
Such is the challenge for Clemson, just as it is for every team that attempts to conquer Alabama: Can you find a way, literally and metaphorically, to break containment? Can you find a way to cross up Saban's rigid sense of order? This is the moment when we see whether the levity Swinney has displayed all season long can carry over to a team that, at some point, will have to let it fly. I don't really think any higher power cares one way or another which two teams face off in a college football game, even a title contest, but I do think Swinney inadvertently brought up a more important point: that the only way to defeat Alabama is to loosen up.