DALLAS — A season that traded in the berserk has managed to conclude with the logical. A season that seemed to lack a Godzilla team has come upon a monster final. A final between No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz., feels like one of those playoff deals where lopsided semifinals feel like an acceptable tariff toward big enticement.
In a college football top tier comprising 128 teams and about 1,280 flaws, Clemson (14-0) and Alabama (13-1) have spent at least the last two months seeming the least flawed, week by week, until they wound up pretty compellingly close to flawless.
For one thing, it got a little fortunate.
But for the loony lateral of a beefy tight end for a lucky Arkansas on fourth and 25 in overtime at Ole Miss on Nov. 7, Alabama wouldn’t have qualified for the Southeastern Conference championship game even with a better overall record than Ole Miss. It might have joined Ohio State among single-loss teams foiled by a border-state villain, teams whose mightiness we might never get to gauge. It would have made hellish work of the computations of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Yet the illogic did add up to logic, for here comes a final with two of the season’s most towering elements, banging against one another.
There’s Alabama’s defensive front, a frightening and futuristic blend of speed and muscle that made it sound like some nutty understatement when, after the 38-0 ransacking of Michigan State Thursday night in the Cotton Bowl, Alabama Coach Nick Saban said, “I think our defensive front probably affected the quarterback a little bit, so that made a difference in the game in the ability to operate.”
Then there’s Clemson pilot Deshaun Watson, the only quarterback invited to New York for a Heisman Trophy show so interminable that it might not have ended just yet, and the third-place finisher in that balloting.
It’s probable that Alabama has seen nothing this season like Watson, and Watson has seen nothing this season like Alabama.
Now they’ll see each other as vital parts of dueling chemistries.
To travel college football anymore is to hear players incessantly tout the brotherhoods, the families and the love within their teams, but here come two teams that do make that assessment almost palpable for witnesses. In their semifinals, the Clemson and Alabama families won their respective second halves by 21-0 and 28-0.
On the Cotton Bowl field as the confetti gun set to blast, Alabama hybrid defender Ryan Anderson said: “I thought it just showed the brotherhood that we have. I think that’s what it showed.”
Earlier, after Clemson’s 37-17 disposal of Oklahoma at the Orange Bowl, Watson said: “We just love each other, support each other, and just really love each other and, you know, if we do that, no one can break through us.”
Looking across Clemson’s units shows numbers hard to break through. It ranked in the top 20 nationally in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense and total defense. At least with Alabama, you could spend a lot of the season wondering about a questionable passing game that made Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry’s 90 carries in the closing two pre-bowl games, and his 1,986 rushing yards for the season entering Thursday, all the more manly.
It looks like you can’t do that anymore.
Along the way from September, quarterback Jake Coker seemed an efficient afterthought, a senior and first-year starter who, as a three-year part-timer, went 3 for 5 passing in 2012, 18 for 36 in 2013 and 38 for 59 in 2014. He went 25 for 30 on Thursday night, with such excellence that it grew clear that Henry and the defense served another role in 2015: They gave Coker and teammates time to mend flaws, especially after Alabama looked at a messy 43-37 loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 19 and resolved to ride Henry from there.
Now that it has become both deeply excellent and deeply competent, Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin gave a little tour of his units and said freshman receiver “Calvin Ridley had never played, and Jake had never played, and we had nine new starters on offense, and Richard Mullaney, the third receiver from Oregon State. So it was going to take time. We were still in a quarterback situation, rotating guys and figuring that out.
“Luckily, we are a defensive team. When you are a defensive team, and can run the ball, it allows your skill guys and your quarterback to develop as the season progresses. But, we knew at some time that we would need these guys like they did today and in the Florida game” for the SEC championship on Dec. 5.
Said Saban of Coker, “I wasn’t surprised at all by the game he had tonight.”
Said cornerback Marlon Humphrey of his team, “We have good everything on this team.”
Yet said Kiffin of Alabama, “Make no mistake, this is still a defensive team.”
That defensive front insists that it be so, as would the nation’s foremost unit of any kind, a rotating menace chockablock with dynamic sorts. In a typical game, Alabama’s defensive linemen number 11, but Florida Coach Jim McElwain quipped that they feel like 30, while lip-reading TV viewers might have read Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook as saying, “They’re [expletive] everywhere.”
“We were able to get him with four guys, and that makes things easier to coach,” said Kirby Smart, spending these unusual days as Alabama’s defensive coordinator and Georgia’s newly hired head coach. He also said of 38-0: “No, I did not see this coming.”
Of course, Watson can do at least one thing Cook doesn’t: tuck it in and take off toward severe damage to opposing morale. He has gained 100-plus rushing yards in four of the last five games, with 145 against Oklahoma. He had 150 yards of considerable help from running back Wayne Gallman, of whom Coach Dabo Swinney said, “He’s got over 1,500 yards this year, and he’s just a sophomore, you know?”
Of course, so is Watson, but clearly they’re men, and a week from Monday in Arizona, they’re about to oppose other men.