The Sugar Bowl = Last "Clash of the Titans?"

Jan 3, 2018

The Alabama Crimson Tide are back at practice for this Monday’s national championship game in Atlanta. The Tide will face Georgia after the Bulldogs defeated Oklahoma in this week’s Rose Bowl game in Pasadena. Alabama won its slot in the title game by beating Clemson in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. This was the third time the Crimson Tide has faced the Tigers in a major game. And one football historian says it might not be the last time. APR’s Pat Duggins reports on how legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant dealt the same coaches time after time, just as Nick Saban is now…

“We came here to win, and…just incredibly disappointed, in our performance. But, the credit goes to Alabama.”

What a difference a year can make. That was Clemson’s head coach Dabo Swinney talking with reporters after the Tigers lost the Sugar Bowl to the Crimson Tide. In January of last year, Swinney was basking in triumph after beating Alabama for the national title.

“You know, championship football is a game of a few plays, and you gotta make the critical plays, and we didn’t do that.”

But, Nick Saban and the Tide did…

‘I don’t think anybody can question the relentless competitive attitude that we played with…the warrior-like mentality out there," says Saban. "It was certainly was we needed.”

But there were some flubs. Alabama went into halftime with a ten to three lead. Then, just fourteen seconds into the second half, quarterback Jalen Hurts fumbled the ball and Clemson recovered. That put the Tigers in position to score a second field goal, which was the last time Clemson got any points. One reason is Alabama defensive nose tackle Da’Ron Payne. He made a critical interception a few plays later, and then was sent out as part of the Tide offense. Payne recalled an earlier chat he had with Jalen Hurts about catching a pass…

“Jalen…all week…he was telling me, he’d throw it to me, and I’d better catch it," says Payne. "And I tried to make sure I caught the ball…”

And catch it he did. Payne says Hurts wasn’t the only one he was talking about it… “I had been talking to coach lots about it," he recalls. "He said keep working, you might get it. I tried my best to practice and work hard, and they finally gave it to me…”

That catch earned Payne defensive MVP honors. It was only his second catch, including one in high school. The Sugar Bowl ended twenty four to six, and for a lot of fans…this win was payback for this…

“We beat the last seven national champions…all of them this year. I don’t know who Tweeted that out. But, I appreciate that little nugget.”

It was one year ago. Sweeney was addressing reporters inside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. And one of those championship teams he was talking about was Alabama. That game cost Nick Saban the title.

“I think every loss is very painful. My loss is the bad feeling I have for the players who’ve worked so hard to create this opportunity for themselves, and to not be able to finish it, is very disappointing for me…for them.”

This was the second match-up in as many years between Clemson and the Crimson Tide. Alabama beat the Tigers in Arizona in 2016 for the title. Tampa in 2017 was Sweeney’s chance for payback. The Tide led for the whole game. At least until the last four and a half minutes. That’s when a pair of penalties put Clemson within striking distance and then the lead. Da’Ron Payne drew an unsportsmanlike conduct call, followed by a penalty for pass interference against Anthony Averett. That did it. Clemson made the go ahead touchdown and never looked back.

“Just hats off to those guys. What an unbelievable champion they are…” Sweeney was being gracious in victory. The final score was thirty five thirty one with the Tigers hoisting the 2017 championship trophy.

"What a fight. I mean…I don’t know if I can…I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to stomach watching that one anytime soon. That has to be one of the greatest games of all time.” Just as Sweeney savored the thrill of victory.

It was Nick Saban tasting the agony of defeat… “I think every loss is very painful. My loss is the bad feeling I have for the players who’ve worked so hard to create this opportunity for themselves, and to not be able to finish it, is very disappointing for me…for them.”

And win or lose, facing Clemson is something Alabama fans stand a decent chance of facing Clemson again in the near future. That’s the view of someone with deep roots in Crimson Tide lore…

“This is really a first time thing with Clemson," says Ken Gaddy. He runs the Bear Bryant Museum on the campus of the University of Alabama. He’s referred to Saban facing Sweeney in the 2016 and 2017 championships and then this year’s Sugar Bowl.

“Three times in a row Dabo Sweeney, a former player, as their head coach. So, it’s kind of a unique thing going on here.”

Unique, maybe. But not unheard of.

However, you might to ask your grandparents about previous examples… We asked Ken Gaddy to put on his historian’s hat and look for examples when an Alabama football coach faced the same opposing coach again and again. He says it was a half century ago…in New Orleans…in the Sugar Bowl.

“The closest analogy would have been the Nebraska ’66 Orange Bowl, 67’ Sugar. We split those. Bob Devaney was coach of Nebraska. We played Notre Dame two years in a row. Unfortunately, we lost both of those games.”

Gaddy says Alabama fans had better get used to seeing more of Dabo Sweeney. That’s because of the way semi-final games like the Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl are structured. “Now, that the national championship is tied directly to those games, it may happen more and more as we go forward. Alabama, is Clemson going to be in consideration for the national championship? So, this may not be the last time that they play…”

And fans of the Crimson Tide might want to add Georgia’s Kirby Smart to that list. Nick Saban and the team will face Bama’s old defensive coordinator this coming Monday in Atlanta for the national championship.