Hollywood couldn't write a better script than what we've seen so far in Clemson and Alabama's post-season rivalry, and fans on both sides are hoping for a happy ending to the must-see trilogy.
The first two showdowns took place in the national championship game and featured plenty of fireworks. Offenses seized control of the spotlight in those battles.
Tonight, in round three from the Sugar Bowl, will the defenses finally take command on the field? That could be the case.
Ball-hog defenses to take center stage
Alabama and Clemson rank number one and two, respectively, in scoring defense in the nation. The key to the Tigers dominance on defense starts in the trenches. Clemson ranks number one in the country in sacks.
The Tigers defense line features four starters that are projected to be future first or second round NFL draft picks. This unit makes it very difficult for the opposition to push the ball down the field. The strength of this defense starts with their chemistry off the field.
"It’s about brotherhood," defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. "It’s about that chemistry and love that we have. We want to see everyone have success on the field. It’s not so much we want to be great players, but we want to see everyone have success and love each other as a person first.”
“We understand our personalities," defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence said. "We understand when the other is getting serious. We know when to chill out or keep going. It’s weird.”
It’s obvious these guys treat each other like family and act like it as well. It works out for this group of Tigers -- a unit that puts personal success to the side to make sure the mission is accomplished. Tonight, that’s stuffing Alabama’s eighth ranked rushing attack in hopes of securing a spot back into the national title game.
Is Kelly Bryant the key?
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s number one mission when he arrived at Clemson was to build a consistent program. Since 2011, only Alabama’s won more games. The key to the Tigers success starts with the development of their players.
"It's just really about a daily commitment, and it comes down to performance," Swinny said.
This season, Clemson’s played at a high-level behind first-year starters like quarterback Kelly Bryant. He took the reins of the Tigers offense that lost most of their fire power from last year’s national title team.
"There was a lot written all spring, all summer about who wasn't here anymore and very little written about who was here," Swinney said.
"After the championship game last year, everyone was talking about how we couldn’t get back to this stage and not a lot of people gave this team a chance," Bryant said.
Bryant and the Tigers harnessed that doubt and ran with it. Clemson’s signal caller felt more than ready for his turn after spending two years as Deshaun Watson’s understudy.
"I continued to grow and soak up as much knowledge as I could through Deshaun and the coaching staff," Bryant said. "It helped me become the player I am today.”
Tonight, Bryant gets his opportunity to perform on one of the biggest stages in college football against Alabama.
"It’s something every kid that grows up watching football dreams about -- playing in a semifinal game against a team like Alabama," Bryant said. "I’m ready and I’m trying to embrace it and make the most of this opportunity."
"This team has been really special because, again, this is a so-called rebuilding year for us," Swinney said. "We weren't supposed to be any good this year, and these old boys didn't get the memo."
The secret to Swinney's success? Fun, faith, fellowship
Clemson’s successful run under head coach Dabo Swinney is undeniable. He’s guided the program to the playoffs for the third consecutive season. And the Tigers are on the verge of claiming back-to-back national titles. It's truly remarkable what Swinney has accomplished in 10 seasons leading the Tigers.
His personal blueprint for building of the current powers in the sport varies from his sideline counterpart, Alabama’s Nick Saban. They are near opposites personality wise. Saban takes a more serious approach to football preparation. Even his players said on media day they hope his New Year’s resolution is to chill a little bit more. The Tide still loves their coach.
So do the Tigers and all the fun Swinney likes to have around the game of football.
“Well, first of all, I don’t know how to be anything but myself," Swinney said. "So I personally don’t think you can be very successful if you don’t just be who you are."
“He’s a player’s coach," quarterback Kelly Bryant said. "That’s one thing that caught my eye during recruitment. He’s been straight up with me and can relate to me. He’s down to earth, what you see on TV is what you get.”
“Definitely keeps our confidence up and our faith strong, even if we’re down at practice," wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud said. "He’s like, ‘You need to bring your energy up.' Just to have a coach like that motivates because he works so hard, why not get better? Why not come to practice and have a purpose?"
“I love what I do," Swinney said. "I mean, I think, when you love what you do, you’re passionate about it and you have fun. I love what I do. I love being with the players. And I love competing. I love being a part of a team. I love having an opportunity to help impact and shape young people’s lives through the game of football."
Clemson takes on the Crimson Tide in the New Orleans Superdome in the 2018 Sugar Bowl at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
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