TAMPA, Fla. — On Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s cellphone is a photo of himself with Alabama counterpart Nick Saban on a St. Patrick’s Day dinner cruise with mutual friends in Florida.
Saban had won a bet with Swinney, and it was time to pay up.
So Swinney handed a dinner certificate to the Crimson Tide coach, but wrote, “See you in Tampa next year.”
And now they’re here, both teams in a rematch from last season’s College Football Playoff National Championship, a game Alabama won 45-40, resulting in Saban receiving his fourth title at the school and fifth overall — and a nice dinner to go with it.
Now Swinney and No. 2 Clemson (13-1) hope to feast when the Tigers take on the top-ranked Tide (14-0) at 5:17 p.m. PST Monday at Raymond James Stadium. Alabama is a 6½-point favorite in the game, which will be televised on ESPN.
“It’s crazy, here we are back in the same spot,” Swinney said.
Both teams have a reason to be especially motivated.
For the Tigers, they are eager to avenge last year’s loss. They had every chance to win that game, with quarterback Deshaun Watson passing for 405 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for 73 yards.
An Alabama onside kick early in the fourth quarter changed the tone, allowing the Tide to then take the lead for good at 31-24.
Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware remembered “being in that locker room crying, walking off the field with the confetti falling on you for all the wrong reasons.”
“And as a defense, (we) just felt like crap because we felt like it was on our shoulders when we lost that game, giving up 45 points,” Boulware continued. “So, obviously, (we) want to change that this year.
“We’re going to try to play a much more clean game. All the guys have been focused this week, in their watching film (Saturday) morning before we came here, so I’m expecting a lot more clean game. I’ll be upset if we give up 45 points again. Hopefully, our offense will score 46, if we do.”
Alabama’s defense had a similar experience last season in Glendale, Arizona.
The Tide are known for their tough, physical defense, but Watson did a number on them. Saban compared it to a basketball game.
Now Alabama brings back another strong defense, the nation’s best, in fact. It’s a defense that in allowing just 11.4 points per game is as good as any that has ever played college football.
And it’s a defense that doesn’t want to relive 2016.
“I was definitely a little disappointed or upset, but you’d have to look at the big scheme of things,” Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said. “We won the game and that was the most important thing. Even though I was disappointed, I was still happy with the end result.”
Alabama is the sport’s gold standard, the Tide — who carry a 26-game winning streak into this game — can add to their legacy.
Swinney knows all about that history, having grown up in the state as an Alabama fan. He said he was a “crawl-on” in the program and worked his way into playing on the 1992 national championship team. Now Swinney marvels at how Saban has elevated the program even further.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Swinney said. “Coach (Bear) Bryant was a hero of mine, and everybody here knows about Coach Bryant. But with what Coach Saban has done … it’s just incredible. I really have no words because it’s really hard to do.”
Saban offered similar words of praise for Swinney, and said it was appropriate a rematch would take place.
“You should expect to play the best team if you’re going to compete for a championship,” Saban said. “I certainly think Clemson deserves to be here, and I think they’re the best team. And I think our team deserves to be here, and they’ve done a great job all year to beat a lot of good teams to have the opportunity to get here as well.
“If I was going to pick who the two best teams are, I would say the two best teams are here. And that’s the way it should be.”
Contact Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.
WHO: No. 1 Alabama (14-0) vs. No. 2 Clemson (13-1)
WHEN: 5:17 p.m. Monday
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
TV/RADIO: ESPN; KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
LINE: Alabama -7; total 50½