Get ready for The Trilogy.
Coming soon to New Orleans.
Clemson and Alabama, who have split thrillers in the past two College Football Playoff national championship games, will settle the score, so to speak, this time in the semifinals, in the 84th Allstate Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The winner will face the winner of the other semifinal, Oklahoma vs. Georgia in the Rose Bowl, for the national title on Jan. 8 in Atlanta.
Clemson is the No. 1 seed and Alabama is No. 4, beating out Ohio State for the berth in the most-contentious decision in the four-year history of the CFP.
The Tide (11-1) was chosen despite not winning the Southeastern Conference — a 26-14 Iron Bowl loss to Auburn prevented that — and Ohio State (11-2) was left out even though it won the Big Ten Championship game Saturday night against previously unbeaten Wisconsin, which finished sixth in the final rankings.
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer, whose team made last year’s playoffs despite not winning the Big Ten, said he was disappointed but accepted the decision of the committee. His athletic director, Bruce Smith, is a committee member but could not participate in discussions about OSU.
“We’ve been in a few of these decisions in the past few years,” he said. “We had a job to do, and we did it. And the College Football Playoff committee had a job to do, and they did it. We respect it and move forward.”
CFP committee chairman Kirby Hocutt, the athletic director at Texas Tech, said Ohio State’s 31-point loss to unranked Iowa could not be overlooked (the Buckeyes also lost to Oklahoma) and, that to the committee, Alabama was the better team even though it meant giving the SEC two teams in the playoffs while leaving out the Big Ten and Pac-12.
“The selection committee favored Alabama’s whole body of work,” Hocutt said. “Alabama has been consistent week-in and week-out over the entire season.
“Ohio State’s wins were impressive, but it wasn’t enough to place them over Alabama.”
The oddsmakers agree. Alabama, making its fourth straight CFP appearance including a 42-35 semifinal loss to Ohio State in the 2015 Sugar Bowl, already has been established as a 1½-point favorite against Clemson, which secured the No. 1 seed with its 38-3 rout of Miami in the ACC title game.
That spread is almost as close as the combined score of the title games between the Tigers and the Tide: 86-85 Alabama.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, who spent time on TV Saturday talking about the Tide’s worthiness, said he felt all along that the committee would make the right choice.
“I certainly believed and trusted in the integrity of the committee that they would put the best teams in,” he said. “I also believed that on the total body of work that our team deserved to be there, and I’m happy that we are.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he hadn’t concerned himself over who his team would play, at least not before the Miami game.
“My focus was a million percent on Miami,” he said, “So I didn’t give it any thought. After that, it doesn’t matter if you’re 1, 2, 3 or 4 or who you play. You have to earn your way there, and we’ve done that.”
However, Clemson junior defensive tackle Christian Watkins admitted his reaction to playing Alabama again was more animated than the Tigers’ getting the No. 1 seed.
“We were No. 1 last week, and so we knew if we won there wouldn’t be any change there,” he said. “We know we’re going against a great team, and we know they are and they know who we are. It really didn’t matter who we played, because they’re all good teams now. But I’m excited personally because playing Alabama again is really cool.”
Alabama junior safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said that first and foremost the Tide hoped to make the playoffs. But after that, playing Clemson again is lagniappe.
“All we wanted was a shot,” he said. “I think we deserved it. We expect a great challenge. They’re a great team over there, offense, defense, coaching. It’s a clash of two great teams.”
Alabama vs. Clemson should be a tourist bonanza for New Orleans and a boost for the Sugar Bowl, which had its lowest attendance last year when Oklahoma met Auburn.
“This is a great opportunity to host two giants in the game, and two of the country’s most passionate fan bases,” said Paul Hoolahan, the Sugar Bowl's Chief Executive Officer. “It’s shaping up to be a great New Year’s in New Orleans."
The game is officially a sellout, but there remain multiple options for teams to purchase tickets through hospitality and travel packages and via secondary markets.
Sugar Bowl COO Jeff Hundley said the ticket demand should rival that for the 2012 BCS championship game between LSU and Alabama in the Superdome.
This will be Alabama’s 16th Sugar Bowl appearance, the most by any school. The Tide is 8-7 in the Sugar Bowl, including defeats in its past three Sugar Bowls: to Utah in 2007, to Oklahoma in 2014 and to Ohio State in a CFP semifinal in 2015.
The Tide did defeat LSU, 21-0, in that BCS title game.
Swinney was a member of another Alabama championship team, as a reserve wide receiver when the Tide defeated Miami in the Sugar Bowl to claim the 1992 title.
He related again Sunday the story of when he came to New Orleans in March with Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson as Watson received the Manning Award, his first time in the Superdome since 1992. He took a picture of the interior to show his current team where they could be playing in the semifinals.
“That was a fun moment,” Swinney said. “I told Deshaun, ‘That’s where we beat the 'Canes.’
“When I realized it was one of the playoff sites, I kind of turned it into a reconnaissance trip. It’s cool to see it come to fruition.”
Clemson is the 20th top-ranked team to play in the Sugar Bowl. One of those 20 was LSU, which already been proclaimed the national champion when Clemson made its only previous Sugar Bowl appearance, losing 7-0 in 1959.
Both Clemson and Alabama will arrive in New Orleans on Dec. 27. That’s one day later than CFP games for the past three years and for non-playoff Sugar Bowl games.
Saban said the change was requested because teams need to be more focused on preparing for the game than treating it like a bowl trip.
“We’ve learned it’s different when you’re in a playoff game,” he said. “It’s not really a bowl game, because even though you want the players to have a reward for having a good season, there’s also a consequence to how you play.
“The first year against Ohio State (in the 2015 Sugar Bowl), our players still looked on it like a bowl trip. In the games since then, they’ve been a little bit more focused, because you’re playing for the opportunity to play for the national championship.”