Alabama on verge of unprecedented run, with Clemson in the way

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Alabama's Keys to Victory


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- Regardless of the outcome of Monday night's College Football Playoff championship game between No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama, a case can be made that no team in the history of the sport has had a better run than the Crimson Tide under coach Nick Saban.

If Alabama beats the Tigers to win a fourth national title in seven seasons, the argument may be settled.

There was talk early in the season after Alabama lost to Mississippi that the Tide dynasty was in decline. Now Alabama (13-1) is one victory away from an unprecedented achievement.

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The Tide can become just the third school in college football's poll era, dating back to the creation of The Associated Press media poll in 1936, to win four championships in a 10-year span.

Notre Dame won four in seven seasons from 1943-49, but big-time college football is hardly comparable now to then. Those Fighting Irish didn't play in bowl games and never needed more than nine victories to be the best in the country.

Miami won four championships in nine seasons (1983-91), but none of those teams had to play more than 12 games.

Alabama's four championships under Saban, who took over in 2007, have all come in at least 13-game seasons.

"I mean, it's incredible," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday during a news conference with Saban. Swinney heaped so much praise on his counterpart during the half-hour session with reporters that Saban looked a little uncomfortable.

"Coach Saban, what he's done, I mean, he's one of the greatest coaches that ever coached the game," Swinney said.

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Clemson and Alabama, 2015-16 season, Championship preview
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Alabama on verge of unprecedented run, with Clemson in the way
Alabama quarterback Jake Coker (14) hands off to running back Derrick Henry (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against the Wisconsin Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Clemson running back C.J. Davidson (21) runs for yardage against Wofford during the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 49-10. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Alabama running back Derrick Henry (2) scores a touchdown in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Middle Tennessee, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Alabama defensive lineman Jarran Reed (90) and Alabama tight end Michael Nysewander (46) celebrate after a tackle during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Middle Tennessee, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Alabama won 37-10. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Clemson's Charone Peake comes up short on a reception during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Appalachian State Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
Clemson fans raise their hands in a school gesture before the start of an NCAA college football game against Appalachian State Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 41-10. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
Alabama quarterback Cooper Bateman passes the ball during first half of an NCAA football game against Mississippi, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Mississippi running back Jordan Wilkins (22) scores a touchdown during first half of an NCAA college football game, as Alabama linebacker Dillon Lee (25) watches, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
FILE - In this Sept. 17, 2015, file photo, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson looks for a receiver during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Louisville in Louisville, Ky. In the ACC, No. 3 Clemson hosts No. 17 Florida State on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. Clemson would clinch the Atlantic Division with a victory. Florida State would take control of the division with a victory and work itself back into the College Football Playoff race. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)
Clemson quarterback D3eshaun Watson (4) throws a pass under pressure form Louisville's Sheldon Rankins (98) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Louisville, Ky., Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 26: Kenyan Drake #17 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes against Louisiana Monroe Warhawks at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 26, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - SEPTEMBER 26: Jake Coker #14 of the Alabama Crimson Tide looks to pass as he rushes away from Lorenzo Jackson #45 of the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks at Bryant-Denny Stadium on September 26, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson rushes for a 38 yard gain on the first play of an NCAA college football game against Notre Dame Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 24-22. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
Clemson's Artavis Scott reacts after scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Notre Dame, Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
ATHENS, GA - OCTOBER 03: Minkah Fitzpatrick #29 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates scoring a touchdown after blocking a punt against Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATHENS, GA - OCTOBER 03: Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide rushes for a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson drops back to pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia Tech Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 43-24. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
FILE - In this Oct. 10, 2015, file photo, Clemson's Jayron Kearse, center, and Richard Yeargin tackle Georgia Tech's Mikell Lands-Davis during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Clemson, S.C. No one pushes No. 1 Clemsonâs defense harder than its offense. The combination has led to an undefeated season, an Atlantic Coast Conference championship and a spot in the national semifinals against No. 4 Oklahoma (11-1) at the Orange Bowl on Thursday, Dec. 31. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro, File)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 10: Kenyan Drake #17 of the Alabama Crimson Tide is tackled by Dwayne Eugene #35 and Jeremiah Ledbetter #55 of the Arkansas Razorbacks at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 10, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
An Alabama fan cheers in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Alabama won 27-14.(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Boston College quarterback Jeff Smith (5) is tackled by Clemson safety T.J. Green (15) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) runs for yardage as Boston College defensive back Justin Simmons (27) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Alabama quarterback Jake Coker (14) hands the ball off to running back Derrick Henry (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Alabama running back Derrick Henry (2) is hit by Texas A&M 's Myles Garrett, right, during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, in College Station, Texas. Alabama won 41-23. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson, lower right, sacks Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya during the first half of an NCAA College football game, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015 in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Clemson players celebrate after their 58-0 win over Miami in an NCAA College football game, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2015 in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Alabama wide receiver ArDarius Stewart (13) catches a pass as he comes down on top of Tennessee defensive back Brian Randolph (37) and defensive back Justin Martin (8) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2015, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Alabama won 19-14. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 24: D.J. Pettway #57 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates their 19-14 win over the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 24, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Clemson's Deon Cain, left, catches a touchdown pass as North Carolina State's Jack Tocho defends during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Clemson's Artavis Scott (3) and quarterback Deshaun Watson celebrate Watson's touchdown against North Carolina State during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015. Clemson won 56-41. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 07: Quarterback Jake Coker #14 of the Alabama Crimson Tide looks to escape the pocket against the LSU Tigers in the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 07: Quarterback Jake Coker #14 and Anthony Averett #28 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrate their 30-16 win over the LSU Tigers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 7, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Clemson's Wayne Gallman leaps forward on his way to a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Florida State Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 23-13. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 14: O.J. Howard #88 of the Alabama Crimson Tide attempts to break a tackle by Taveze Calhoun #23 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
STARKVILLE, MS - NOVEMBER 14: A'Shawn Robinson #86 of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts after sacking Dak Prescott #15 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs on the first play of the game at Davis Wade Stadium on November 14, 2015 in Starkville, Mississippi. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Clemsonâs Charone Peake, left, catches a pass while as defends Syracuseâs Cordell Hudson, right, in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Nick Lisi)
Syracuse fans cheer in the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against Clemson in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Nick Lisi)
TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 21: ArDarius Stewart #13 of the Alabama Crimson Tide breaks a tackle by Zack Johnson #22 of the Charleston Southern Buccaneers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) looks to pass during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Wake Forest on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
Wake Forest running back Isaiah Robinson (21) is tackled by Clemson cornerback Cordrea Tankersley (25) during the first half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 28: ArDarius Stewart #13 of the Alabama Crimson Tide fails to pull in this touchdown reception against Jonathan Jones #3 of the Auburn Tigers at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 28: Adam Griffith #99 of the Alabama Crimson Tide reacts after kicking his fourth field goal against the Auburn Tigers with Shawn Burgess-Becker #27 and Cole Mazza #55 at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson takes the field before the start of an NCAA college football game against South Carolina Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Clemson won 37-32. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
Clemson's Deon Cain pulls in a 55-yard pass for a touchdown while defended by South Carolina's Al Harris Jr.during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 5: Running back Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide carries the ball against linebacker Jarrad Davis #40 of the Florida Gators and defensive back Keanu Neal #42 of the Florida Gators in the third quarter during the SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome on December 5, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 5: Running back Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates after defeating the Florida Gators 29-15 in the SEC Championship at the Georgia Dome on December 5, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) runs the ball as North Carolina's Mikey Bart (45) tackles during the second half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
Clemson's Jadar Johnson (18) reaches for North Carolina's Cameron Albright (31) during the first half of the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)
FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2015, file photo, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson celebrates after Clemson defeated North Carolina 45-37 in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game in Charlotte, N.C. Deshaun Watson is the Atlantic Coast Conferenceâs offensive player of the year and one of four Tigers on The Associated Press All-ACC first team. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)
ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 31: Wide receiver Calvin Ridley #3 of the Alabama Crimson Tide catches a six-yard touchdown pass against cornerback Jermaine Edmondson #39 of the Michigan State Spartans in the third quarter during the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on December 31, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 31: Running back Derrick Henry #2 of the Alabama Crimson Tide stiff arms defensive end Shilique Calhoun #89 and then runs for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Michigan State Spartans during the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium on December 31, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Alabama running back Lawrence Erekosima (43) makes a 'confetti angel' after Alabama defeated Michigan State, 38-0, in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015. (Richard W. Rodriguez/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images)
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) attempts to evade Oklahoma safety Ahmad Thomas (13) on his way to a touchdown during the first half of the Orange Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)
Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow (13) can't take control of the ball as Oklahoma safety Steven Parker (10) defends, during the second half of the Orange Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) throws oranges to the crowd after his team won the Orange Bowl NCAA college football semifinal playoff game against Oklahoma, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Clemson defeated Oklahoma 37-17. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)
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Saban also has a BCS title from his time at LSU, giving him four overall. Only former Alabama coach Bear Bryant with six has more.

"This is the first one I've sniffed as a coach, and he's going for his fifth," said Swinney, who is in his eighth season at Clemson. "It's incredible."

Clemson has one national championship to its credit. Behind Danny Ford, an Alabama native and former Tide player for Bryant, the Tigers won the title in 1981 by beating favored Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.

The Tigers are back on the biggest stage and again being led by an Alabaman and former Tide player. Swinney grew up near Birmingham and played for Alabama when Gene Stallings was the coach in the early 1990s. He was on the Tide team that won a national championship in 1992, upsetting Miami in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama then went through a long dry spell until Saban arrived.

"People will say, well, anybody can go win at Alabama," Swinney said. "Not everybody can coach a great team. Not everybody can coach a great player, and I think he has a gift to be able to do that."

Under Swinney, the Tigers have won at least 10 games each of the last five seasons, just like Alabama. And Clemson has its own shot at history: If the Tigers win the national title, they would become the first team to achieve a 15-0 season.

"We want to be a program that is competing at this level on a consistent basis and I think to do that, you've got to be a top-10, top-15 type program year in and year out," Swinney said.

Alabama has been even better than that. Since going 7-6 in Saban's first season, the Tide is 97-12 and has never finished out of the final AP top 10.

2016 National Championship Media Day: Alabama Crimson Tide

No surprise: Saban has not been part of the legacy talk this week. Pondering his place in history won't help his players Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.

"I owe them as the leader of the organization," Saban said. "I owe them our best as coaches and people who can support them to give them the best opportunity to be successful in the next challenge that they have.

"So I've got no time to think about that stuff."

Some other things to know about the second College Football Playoff national championship game.

DESHAUN FOOTBALL: If Clemson is going to beat Alabama and break down a ferocious Alabama defense, Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson will lead the way. The sophomore is the most talented quarterback Alabama has faced and he poses a threat running and passing.

Watson set the Atlantic Coast Conference mark for total offense with 4,731 yards, 1,032 of those coming on the ground.

Dual-threat quarterbacks give most defenses trouble and Alabama is no exception. Watson said in preparation for the Tide, he watched Alabama's loss to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in 2012.

Watson ran for a career-best 145 yards in Clemson's 37-17 Orange Bowl semifinal victory against Oklahoma.

HEISMAN HENRY: The Crimson Tide used Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who has set Southeastern Conference records for rushing yards (2,061) and touchdowns (25), as a complimentary part of its offense in beating Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl.

Henry had 20 carries for 75 yards. Don't be surprised if the Tide goes back to a heavy dose of Henry, who carried 90 times combined in the final two regular season games, to help control the clock and keep the ball away from Watson and Clemson's up-tempo spread offense.

HOLD THE LINE: Alabama's defensive line is the best and deepest in college football, led by All-American A'Shawn Robinson. The line has helped the Tide lead the nation with 50 sacks.

Clemson has some talented defensive linemen, too, though not quite as many as Alabama. That depth could be tested because All-America defensive end Shaq Lawson sprained his knee against Oklahoma and missed most of the Orange Bowl. He is expected to play, but how much? And how effective will he be?

Alabama's Road to the National Championship

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