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College football preview: Can Alabama do it again?

Alabama defensive lineman Raekwon Davis gestures after a

Alabama defensive lineman Raekwon Davis gestures after a stop in the first half of the Sugar Bowl against Clemson in New Orleans on Jan. 1. Credit: AP/Butch Dill

Alabama vs. Clemson has become the hottest playoff rivalry in the land. The defending national champion Crimson Tide and Tigers have met the last three seasons in the four-team College Football Playoff, and the winner of that game has won the national title the last three years.

Can Bama do it again, or is it the Tigers’ turn?

Alabama beat Clemson in the 2016 championship game in Glendale, Arizona, 45-40. Clemson got its revenge a season later, beating Alabama for the title in Tampa, 35-31. Alabama beat Clemson in the Sugar Bowl semifinal last season, 24-6. The Crimson Tide went on to defeat Georgia, 26-23, in overtime in an epic national title game.

A fourth straight Alabama-Clemson playoff matchup could happen this season.

“Anything we accomplish as a team this season is not going to come from the fact that we won a national championship last year,” said Crimson Tide senior running back Damien Harris, who has rushed for at least 1,000 yards the past two seasons. “If anything, it is just going to make it that much harder. We know that winning a national championship puts a target on your back. We know that day in and day out, we are going to get everybody’s best game.”

The Crimson Tide, winners of five national titles since 2009 under coach Nick Saban, including back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012, will need to find new stars on their defense, always a strength under Saban. Alabama had six defensive players selected in the first four rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft, including three in the first round. Alabama’s defense was dominant in the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson last season, holding the Tigers to 188 total yards.

But Alabama, 13-1 last season, also will need to manage a quarterback situation that could be a season-long distraction. Junior Jalen Hurts, a two-year starter who has thrown for 4,861 yards with 40 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions in his career, was replaced by Tua Tagovailoa in last season’s national title game. Tagovailoa, a true freshman at the time, led the Crimson Tide back from a double-digit deficit against the Bulldogs, completing 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns.

Hurts made some critical comments earlier this month about how the Alabama coaches have handled the quarterback situation. Saban downplayed those comments.

“We don’t talk about any quarterback controversies at practice,” Tagovailoa said earlier this month. “Me and Jalen don’t even bring it up. . . . I just don’t want anything to ruin our relationship. I don’t think anything between me and Jalen is bad.”

Clemson, which was 12-2 last season, also has two quarterbacks vying for playing time. Incumbent senior starter Kelly Bryant, who threw for 2,802 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 665 yards and 11 touchdowns, and highly touted freshman Trevor Lawrence, a five-star recruit, will give coach Dabo Swinney options to lead his offense.

The Tigers, however, will be fueled by their defense, which includes the best line in the country — and perhaps the best in recent memory. Linemen Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins should terrorize offenses, and all four are expected to be high NFL draft picks when their time comes.

“I mean, people just keep asking us how good can we really be?” Ferrell said. “I mean, I don’t know. We’re very talented, but I hope I get asked this question at the end of the season. That would be a better time to answer it.”

The Clemson front four could get an opportunity to answer it on the big stage of the College Football Playoff. For now, the Tigers have earned the right to be in the elite group of teams contending for a national title, a group that perennially includes Alabama.

“We start over every year, reinstall the program, reinstall the core values, the philosophy that we believe in, the why, and I just don’t vary from that,” Swinney said. “And then as we have been able to build that culture over the many years now, we just nurture it every year. You develop young people. You develop leadership.”

ALABAMA-CLEMSON: THE PLAYOFF RIVALRY

National Championship Game, Jan. 11, 2016

Alabama 45, Clemson 40: No. 2 Alabama scored 24 points in the fourth quarter to overcome No. 1 Clemson and quarterback Deshaun Watson, who threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns. It was the Crimson Tide’s fourth national title under Nick Saban.

National Championship Game, Jan. 9, 2017

Clemson 35, Alabama 31: No. 2 Clemson rallied for 21 points in the fourth quarter behind Deshaun Watson, who threw a game-winning 2-yard touchdown pass with a second left. It was the Tigers’ first national title since 1981.

CFP national semifinal, Sugar Bowl, Jan. 1, 2018

Alabama 24, Clemson 6: No. 4 Alabama scored 14 points in the third quarter to break the game open. No. 1 Clemson was held to just 188 yards of offense. The Crimson Tide would beat Georgia in the national championship game to claim their fifth national title under Nick Saban.

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