NEW ORLEANS – Once again, the real star of a Clemson-Alabama game was Deshaun Watson, presently employed as the Houston Texans’ franchise quarterback. Watson, on hand Monday night at the Superdome for No. 4 Alabama’s 24-6 Sugar Bowl victory over No. 1 Clemson, made a College Football Playoff semifinal impact on both sides.
Watson for two years tutored Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant, one of the surprise national stars of the season. Indeed, while he threw two killer interceptions Monday night and might not start next season, a Bryant-led Clemson team wasn’t supposed to get anywhere near The Big Easy for New Year’s Day.
And after breaking Alabama hearts in the national championship game last year, Watson befriended Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Watson’s Sugar Bowl advice for Hurts: “Be fearless.”
Hurts’ efficiency combined with typical Nick Saban-inspired defense and vintage vengeance makes for an All-SEC, Alabama-Georgia national championship game. Surely, Waffle House and Chic-Fil-A will go into Defcon 1 mode and open mobile facilities all over metro Atlanta.
Alabama and emerging giant Georgia likely will stick around as playoff contenders for a while and Clemson isn’t going anywhere either.
The Tigers are 40-4 over three seasons with another playoff run set to start Sept. 1 against Furman.
The stretch includes three five playoff games and a national title.
“We’ll see if we can finish a little better next year," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said after the game. "But at the end of the day, there aren’t many 12-win teams in the country. We lost to Alabama. We lost to a great football team."
Same time next year against Alabama?
As likely as anything in postseason matchup in the sport.
In the trenches
A Clemson-Alabama game means every mistake (like Deon Cain’s dropped pass on third down or various pass blocking whiffs) is magnified. But such games are won or lost up front and this time Alabama’s defensive line got the best of the best Clemson offensive line in Swinney’s nine full seasons as head coach.
As in the Tigers’ 14-6 home victory over Auburn in the second game of the season, a rugged SEC opponent bottled up Clemson running backs. Auburn beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl but the Tide had a much more well-rounded game against Clemson.
Or what you would expect from a No. 4 seed that, though slightly favored, has been mad about losing to Clemson for a year.
The revenge factor blew through every step of Sugar Bowl preparation.
“It was a little bit personal for us after what happened last year,” Saban said.
It was apparent from Trevon Diggs’ rock ‘em, sock ‘em hit on Clemson’s Travis Etienne on the opening kickoff that forced the Tigers to start from their own 16.
From then on, the Tigers were behind schedule.
It’s unlikely the Clemson-Alabama theme is playing well out there in college football strongholds outside the South, or in certain precincts within. But pace yourself.
"I don’t think this will be the last one," Swinney said. "Everybody talked about the trilogy (Clemson-Alabama III) like somebody’s fixing to die or something. We’ll be back, and so will they. We’ll probably have several more opportunities to hook it up with these guys and we’ll look forward to that.”
Saban hates predictions but agreed more playoff bouts with Clemson “wouldn’t be surprising.”
Of course, the key to repeated success is reloading with good players able to execute in big games. No one knows that better than Saban, the five-time national championship winner.
“It’s almost like you’re rebuilding your team each and every year, in my opinion,” Saban said, “and it's a totally new challenge as to how people embrace the roles that they have, leadership.”
The Clemson people completely get that.
This season, for instance. The supposedly transitioning Tigers kicked off the post-Watson Era with a No. 1 College Football Playoff seed with Bryant at quarterback and new stars such as running backs Etienne and Tavien Feaster and a defensive line that might be the best in program history.
Tide and Tiger fans made it so noisy inside the sold-out Superdome it was like a road game for both quarterbacks as they tried to communicate with teammates at the line of scrimmage.
Just think how loud it will be next time, and the next.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff