The three-peat will be complete.
Then again, there might be a few more chapters in college football’s most intriguing new rivalry.
For the third year in a row, Clemson will meet Alabama in the College Football Playoff, only this time it will be in Monday’s Sugar Bowl semifinal in New Orleans rather than the national championship game.
They’ll be hard-pressed to match the drama and excitement of the past two meetings: Alabama’s 45-40 victory that featured 40 points in the final 10½ minutes, followed by Clemson’s 35-31 triumph on a touchdown pass with one second remaining.
“We haven’t competed against each other a lot,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday. “But all of a sudden you’ve got this three-game series that has just happened at the highest level. And this is kind of a rubber match. But, to be honest with you, this is probably not going to be the last one. There will probably be more of these down the road.”
Second-seeded Oklahoma (12-1) faces No. 3 Georgia (12-1) in Monday’s other semifinal — at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson (12-1) is the top seed in the playoff, bouncing back from a shocking 27-24 loss to Syracuse in mid-October. Alabama (11-1) didn’t even get a chance to play for the Southeastern Conference title, losing to Auburn in the regular-season finale after being ranked No. 1 all season by The Associated Press.
Despite the setback, the selection committee went with the Tide as the No. 4 seed over Big Ten Conference champion Ohio State.
That set up Clemson-Alabama, Part III.
“This is kind of like a rivalry now,” Tide linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “This is something I will definitely remember for the rest of my life, just to be able to be a part of this whole big thing. I’ll have faced these guys three times, watched so much film of us winning and losing. Now we have another chance.”
At Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley is in his first season as the Sooners’ head coach and Kirby Smart is in year two at Georgia, his alma mater. They came into their jobs in very different ways, but both inherited ready-made rosters, with the talent to make a championship run. The challenge for each was to reach that potential.
Smart, the longtime defensive coordinator under Nick Saban at Alabama, was hired by Georgia after former coach Mark Richt was pushed out.
The program did not need an overhaul. Smart, 42, was left a roster built on the foundation of top-10 recruiting classes in both 2014 and 2015. Members of those classes make up the majority of Georgia’s starting lineup in the Rose Bowl, including star running back Nick Chubb and All-America linebacker Roquan Smith.
Smart’s task was to make players who had some success understand they were capable of much more.
“They may see it as they were completely happy winning nine, 10 games a year, and that’s what I call complacency,” Smart said. “In our case that was probably the greatest challenge was not accepting what had been done before as the norm and convincing the players that are currently on the team that we can do better.”
After going 8-5 last season, Georgia won the SEC in 2017.
Riley, 34, was already an integral part of the Oklahoma program when he was promoted from offensive coordinator in June to replace Bob Stoops, who had surprisingly decided to retire after 18 years in Norman. The Sooners had won the Big 12 in 2015 and 2016, making the playoff in 2015, with Riley calling plays. They entered 2017 as favorites again, led by quarterback Baker Mayfield.
With the rest of the coaching staff already in place, Riley did not necessarily have to win over the players.
“Probably the biggest challenge was starting in early June,” Riley said. “Whatever changes we did want to make you felt like you had to get them done pretty quickly. So I think for us it’s continuing to build on it, trying to find a few ways to get a little better, and maintain the high expectations there’s always been at Oklahoma.”
The Sooners rolled to another Big 12 title, Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy.
The CFP championship game in Jan. 8 in Atlanta.