There’s perhaps nothing more alluring in sports than the notion of unpredictability, that what you’re witnessing isn’t scripted, that anything could happen. George Mason. Leicester City. Buster Douglas. These narratives are the reason we keep coming back year after year.
Recently, though, it seems like the improbable has taken a back seat to the foreseeable — at least in a few major American sports.
On Monday at 8 p.m. Eastern, the Alabama Crimson Tide and Clemson Tigers will clash in the College Football Playoff final. It will mark the fourth consecutive season the two will have met in either the finals or semifinals. On the hardwood, the Cleveland Cavaliers have battled the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals in four consecutive seasons.1 And on the ice, the Washington Capitals have skated into the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of three consecutive Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But though it might seem like it happens all the time, it’s actually pretty rare for the same teams to square off in the postseason year after year.
For example, the MLB playoffs date back to the late 19th century and feature only three instances of teams meeting three seasons in a row.2 The NFL playoffs have seen a single instance of teams meeting exactly four years in a row3 and a single instance of teams meeting five years in a row.4 In the WNBA, the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury played in four consecutive playoffs from 2013 to 2016. In the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, there have been eight instances of teams meeting in three consecutive tournaments.5 And in the women’s NCAA basketball tourney, Notre Dame and UConn faced off in the Final Four, in either the semifinals or finals, an incredible five consecutive times from 2011 to 2015.
Playoff rematches are rare in the big three pro sports
Longest streaks of the same teams meeting in consecutive postseasons for MLB, NBA/ABA and NFL
|Anaheim Angels-Boston Red Sox||2007-09||3|
|Kansas City Royals-New York Yankees||1976-78||3|
|New York Yankees-New York Giants||1921-23||3|
|33 matchups tied||2|
|Baltimore/Washington Bullets-New York Knicks||1969-74||6|
|Boston Celtics-Philadelphia 76ers||1965-69||5|
|Boston Celtics-Syracuse Nationals||1953-57||5|
|Boston Celtics-New York Knicks||1951-55||5|
|Fort Wayne Pistons-Rochester Royals||1950-54||5|
|7 matchups tied||4|
|Oakland Raiders-Pittsburgh Steelers||1972-76||5|
|Green Bay Packers-San Francisco 49ers||1995-98||4|
|10 matchups tied||3|
In college football, the playoff is so new that it’s harder to look at consecutive matchups in a historical context. But we can guess at which teams might have faced off in a playoff by looking at the teams that ended each season since World War II in the top four of Elo ratings.
Programs that missed out on playoff rematches
Pairs of college football teams with the longest streaks of finishing a season in the top four in Elo ratings, 1946-2013
Consecutive postseason meetings really are few and far between. And in college football, where turnover among top-tier programs is unavoidable and injuries are prevalent, it’s striking that the same two contenders are about to produce a tetralogy. After bruising, monthslong schedules, we’re left with orange and crimson once again.
Even though the teams are familiar, there’s still plenty to be excited about in Monday’s title game. Don’t let the betting line fool you; this year’s installment promises to be the best matchup yet between the two schools.
The ESPN Stats & Information Group has tracked total efficiency back to 2005. This year’s Alabama squad ranks first (96.9) of all Football Bowl Subdivision teams in that time frame, and Clemson ranks 15th (91.6). Each enters the game racking up more than 525 yards and 44 points per contest, so it will no doubt be the best offensive matchup we’ve seen in the playoff between the two programs. Compared with each previous meeting, this will be the worst Alabama defense Clemson has faced and the best Tigers’ defense the Tide has played — though the two teams are separated by only about 4 points of defensive efficiency.
Alabama’s program has never been known as a high scorer, but it now features the most efficient offense of any team in the past 14 years. But the Tide will stare down a defensive line that is months away from playing in the NFL,6 which is likely why the Tigers tout the nation’s third most-efficient defense since 2005.
Quarterbacks under Alabama head coach Nick Saban are often more game manager than gunslinger and generally operate in a system that skews conservative. Not this year. No team averages more yards per passing attempt than Alabama’s 11.34. Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts have each posted Total Quarterback Ratings that would rank in the top five among quarterbacks with at least 100 action plays in a season since 2004.7 In total, Alabama QBs have contributed 247.09 expected points on passes this year, 105.8 more than any previous season under Saban and the fourth-most by any team in a season since 2004, the first year for which data is available. The passing attack has accounted for 50 touchdown passes8 and a team Total Quarterback Rating of 94.1, the best marks produced by an SEC offense over at least the past decade.
The offense of Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney features an elite rushing attack, and quarterback Trevor Lawrence could become the first freshman QB to lead a team to a national championship since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985. Where the team is most improved, however, is in its ability to dominate the line of scrimmage on the defensive end. “They wanted to be the best ever,” Swinney said of his defensive line, which leads the nation in sacks (52), quarterback contacts9 (312) and pressure rate10 (43.7 percent). Under defensive coordinator Brent Venables, the unit averages 7.96 expected points added per contest on run defense, the fifth-best mark since the statistic was first tracked in 2004.
The trophy case at both schools is getting full: Alabama is looking for its third title in the past four years, while Clemson is looking for its second in the past three. But don’t think these two programs are approaching the game as just the humdrum, foregone conclusion of their seasons. The matchup may have become predictable to us as viewers, but the teams are as eager as ever to face off for college football’s ultimate prize.
“It is Clemson,” Alabama tight end Irv Smith Jr. said. “So it is a little more personal.”
Neil Paine contributed research.
Check out our latest college football predictions.