This one game can define Clemson’s legacy

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Clemson football is idling at the corner of Almost and Great, and college football history is waiting to see which way the Tigers turn.

With a victory at Levi’s Stadium on Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Clemson would prove that it is better than Alabama this year and the equal of the Crimson Tide in the playoff era.

If the Tigers win, they will lead the Tide 2-1 in their three championship meetings. Throw in Alabama’s semifinal victory last year, and the teams would have split four games in four seasons. They would be the Lakers and the Celtics of the ’80s, Ali and Frazier of the ’70s, two competitors who brought out the best in each other. If the Tigers win, their record over the past four seasons would be 54-4. Alabama’s record would be 55-4.

If the Tide win, however, Clemson will have the same record against them in the past four seasons as Auburn and Ole Miss (1-3). The Tigers would have the same record against the Tide as the Cleveland Cavaliers had against the Golden State Warriors in the past four NBA Finals. You know: the Warriors, the NBA dynasty, a team one Kyrie Irving 3-pointer away from owning four consecutive championships.

Alabama is one second away from playing for its fourth consecutive national championship, that one second being how much time remained when Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson threw the 2-yard touchdown to Hunter Renfrow to win the title two years ago.

A Clemson victory would confirm that we are seeing two programs dominate the same era, as with Notre Dame and Army immediately after World War II, a regular-season rivalry that Army ended because it became too intense.

This is a rivalry without enmity, perhaps because they don’t know from one season to the next whether they are going to play. Clemson seems to feed off Alabama, using the Tide as the ideal to achieve. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, the Alabama-born, Alabama-educated, formerly Alabama-employed challenger, paid homage to the reigning champion. He said coaching against Nick Saban “is literally like competing against John Wooden.”

Saban is four national championships short of the 10 Wooden won as basketball coach at UCLA, but give him time.

“Well, I don’t think there’s any question that we’re as good a program as there is in the country,” Swinney said, then proceeded to contradict himself, using his favorite acronym, which stands for “rest of y’all.”

“I mean, it’s hard to say we’re at the level of Alabama because they’ve won, what, six national championships in the last few years. … We’re proud members of the ROY bus. I think [ESPN personality] Stephen A. [Smith] said it best. He said, ‘It’s Alabama five, four, three, two, one, and then it’s everybody else.’ So we’re like sixth, working our way there.”

Tigers senior defensive lineman Christian Wilkins has played 151 snaps against the Tide over the past three seasons, more than he has played against any ACC team save Louisville (158).

“They’ve been the model program in college football in terms of winning,” Wilkins said. “… Really, all I can remember in my whole life is Alabama, Alabama, Alabama.”

College football history is usually digested in smaller amounts. If Clemson wins two national championships in three seasons, history will say the Tigers belong at the top. Coaches and administrators don’t like to judge a program based solely on the results of championship games. That standard fails to recognize how hard it is to make it to this point.

Few people outside of Pickens County, South Carolina, fully appreciate how far Clemson football has come. When Swinney took over as interim head coach in the middle of the 2008 season, no one discussed whether he would be able to handle the pressure of maintaining Clemson’s greatness. It didn’t exist.

That was the year Alabama announced its return to national relevance in the season opener by upsetting No. 9 Clemson 34-10 in Atlanta. Former athletic director Terry Don Phillips took a chance on Swinney, firing head coach Tommy Bowden after six games. Swinney immediately began talking about Clemson becoming the standard.

“If I can believe this, y’all can,” said assistant head coach Danny Pearman, paraphrasing one of Swinney’s many adages.

It starts with believing that you can get to the top, and believing that you can stay there. It took Swinney three seasons to win 10 games and an ACC title, four more seasons to win a second and displace Florida State as the dominant team in the conference, and one more year after that to win the national championship.

“If we win,” said Woody McCorvey, the longtime Clemson assistant who is now the associate athletic director of football administration, “everybody’s gon’ know that we’re an elite program.”

Win, and the Tigers stand with the Tide. Lose, and they stand closer to the postwar Brooklyn Dodgers, who won one of six World Series against the Yankees in a 10-year span.

“I think for sure we’ve been the two most consistent programs in all of the country,” Swinney said. “We’ve just got to finish the deal a few more times.”

History demands it.

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