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Someday, We’ll Appreciate Alabama And Clemson’s Historic Dominance

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

MLB
Matchup Span Years
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
NBA/ABA
Matchup Span Years
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
NFL
Matchup Span Years
Oakland Raiders-Pittsburgh Steelers 1972-76 5
Green Bay Packers-San Francisco 49ers 1995-98 4
10 matchups tied 3

Time spans considered are 1903-2018 for MLB, 1933-2018 for the NFL and 1947-2018 for the NBA/ABA.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

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

Possible matchup Span Years
Florida State-Miami 1987-92 6
Nebraska-Oklahoma 1971-74 4
Alabama-Oklahoma 1973-76 4
Alabama-Oklahoma 1978-80 3
Nebraska-Penn State 1994-96 3
Florida-Nebraska 1995-97 3
LSU-USC 2005-07 3

Source: ESPN

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.

Footnotes

  1. That streak, however, will … not continue.

  2. The Anaheim Angels and Boston Red Sox played each season from 2007 to 2009, the Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees played each season from 1976 to 1978, and the New York Yankees and New York Giants played each season from 1921 to 1923.

  3. The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers played each season from 1995 to 1998.

  4. The Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers played each season from 1972 to 1976.

  5. Seattle and Oregon State played each season from 1962 to 1964, Utah State and Arizona State played each season from 1962 to 1964, UCLA and San Francisco played each season from 1963 to 1965, UCLA and New Mexico State played each season from 1968 to 1970, UCLA and Long Beach State played each season from 1970 to 1972, Providence and Pennsylvania played each season from 1972 to 1974, and Utah and Kentucky played each season from 1996 to 1998.

  6. With the notable exception of Dexter Lawrence, who remains suspended over a banned substance found in a drug test.

  7. The first season for which we have data for that stat.

  8. To just six interceptions.

  9. Which measures the total number of times opposing quarterbacks were hit by a team’s defense.

  10. Which is the percentage of dropbacks in which the opposing quarterback was sacked, was under duress or was hit by a team’s defense.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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