TAMPA – Alabama’s Nick Saban, 64, already has won five national championships and is guaranteed a place on coaching’s Mount Rushmore.
Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, 47, describes himself as a “crawl-on” football player at Alabama because he wasn’t good enough to walk -on. Through hard work, organization and the ability to recruit at an elite level, he has Clemson in the College Football Playoff national championship game for the second consecutive season.
As the coaches met with the media for the final time before Monday night’s national championship game, this much was clear: They are at distinctly different places in their careers but will be playing for the same thing at Raymond James Stadium: a national championship that will ultimately define their legacy.
Or will it?
Clemson has not won a national title in football since 1981, when
Danny Ford (also an Alabama alum) was coach. Ford led the Tigers through their most consistent period of success with six ACC championships and 96 wins in 11 seasons.
Swinney, who took over for Tommy Bowden at Clemson in the middle of the 2008 season, has put together six consecutive 10-win seasons. That’s never been done at Clemson. The only thing that’s missing is a national championship.
Swinney makes it clear that a national championship is something he wants to bring to Clemson someday. But it’s not something that will define him.
“One of the things I try to tell our players, in having been a part of it – this is my third national championship experience (he won a championship as a player at Alabama in 1992) – I think it’s important that you breathe a little bit and that you enjoy it,” Swinney said. “Don’t let the pressure of the moment cause you to lose any pleasure.”
An Alabama national championship would be Saban’s sixth overall and fifth in eight seasons, which is unprecedented in college football. The current record time span to win five national titles is 16 years, set by Alabama in 1964-79.
A victory also would tie him with Alabama legend Bear Bryant for the most championships in a coaching career.
So Saban’s legacy is secure. Monday night will be one of those moments that ultimately will define how big and how historic it will be.
We start our Five Burning Questions with something simple: Which coach will get this legacy-building national championship?
Here are four more questions about the national championship game.
2. Is this Alabama defense better built to handle Clemson’s Deshaun Watson?
A year ago in the national championship game, Watson was magnificent, rolling up almost 500 total yards (405 passing, 73 rushing) against one of the best defenses in recent memory. That defense was deep in quality linemen.
The front seven on the 2016 Alabama defense is faster and more athletic than a year ago. You need no further proof than the national statistics: Alabama leads the nation in scoring defense (11.4 ppg), rushing defense (62.0 ypg), and total defense (244.4 ypg).
If Clemson is going have any kind of rushing attack, it will have to come from Watson. But this Alabama defense can run with him.
If Alabama can contain Watson and win the national championship, some will call this the best Crimson Tide defense of all time.
3. Will the absence of Lane Kiffin at offensive coordinator have a real impact on the game for Alabama?
Kiffin was replaced by Steve Sarkisian last Monday. Kiffin had been the Alabama OC for the past 43 games. Sarkisian has had a week to put together a game plan and work with the Alabama players, particularly freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Hurts and offensive tackle Cam Robinson said the practices in the past week have been faster and smoother than they were before the December 31 semifinal game with Washington.
“You get what you emphasize,” Sarkisian said. “I appreciate the fact that the players responded positively to what we’re doing.”
Sarkisian said he would call the game from the field to have eye-to-eye contact with Hurts between series. Hurts never got into a rhythm against Washington.
Swinney said he doesn’t expect anything different from Alabama because Sarkisian is calling the plays.
“It’s not like they are going to come out and run the triple option,” he said.
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