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Fennelly: Clemson can beat Alabama, and it will get another chance in Tampa

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 31:  Deshaun Watson #4 of the Clemson Tigers reacts after scoring a third quarter touchdown with teammate Ray-Ray McCloud #34 during the 2016 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 31, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) 686850767
GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 31: Deshaun Watson #4 of the Clemson Tigers reacts after scoring a third quarter touchdown with teammate Ray-Ray McCloud #34 during the 2016 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 31, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) 686850767
Published Jan. 1, 2017

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Tampa Bay, meet the team that actually wants another piece of Alabama.

Say hello to coach Dabo Swinney and his Clemson Gluttons for Punishment.

It took well over a thousand Division I-A games, but we're right back where we ended up last season.

Alabama and Clemson playing for the national championship.

There has never been a championship rematch since playoffs were introduced to college football with the BCS in 1998.

Guess what.

Clemson can win.

It dotted the "I" three times while annihilating Urban Meyer and Ohio State 31-0 in the national semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night.

A mission statement if there ever was one.

"We've just got to finish it this time," Swinney said.

Clemson can win over Alabama.

The Tigers could have won last year, too.

They didn't, and I don't think they'll win this time either.

But they can.

They can beat Alabama.

Deshaun Watson and that relentless Clemson NFL pass rush and defense.

Ask dazed and confused, overwhelmed and humiliated Meyer and his Buckeyes.

The Buckeyes never knew what hit them in the very place where Swinney, Watson and Clemson came up just short in last season's national championship game, 45-40. Clemson led Alabama in the fourth quarter. The Tigers could lead in the fourth quarter this time, too.

Old Dabo has doubled back to Nick Saban and the Alabama Death Star.

Guess what.

Clemson can win.

"We wanted it be Alabama," Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said. "They handed it to us last year. We wanted it to be them."

I'm still trying to figure out how this defense, this team, gave up 43 points and lost to Pitt this season.

I'm still trying to figure out a lot of Clemson's season.

This team could have lost to Auburn. It could have lost to Troy. Troy! It should have lost to N.C. State and would have except N.C. State missed a field goal as time expired. Five times this season Clemson squeaked to victory.

Now the Tigers are 13-1. Now they are a victory from a championship, just like last time.

Alabama. Just like last time.

During the week, Watson said last time around might help.

"We were able to get that experience and take and have that chip on our shoulder and this year we want to flip the script and maybe be the team to sit on the stage at the end," he said.

Watson can lead them to victory. Yes, he threw two interceptions Saturday. He also ran for two scores and threw for another and went 23-for-36 for 259 passing yards.

Watson took the long way home this season, with his share of ups and downs, but the dual threat has become double trouble at just the right time. We saw it as he raced left, then cut back across the field, all the way across, for 33 yards. We saw it with his first-half TD pass to C.J. Fuller.

And you saw Clemson's defense shut down Ohio State. The Buckeyes had 111 yards of offense through three quarters and just 215 for the game with only nine first downs. Quarterback J.T. Barrett was under constant pressure from Clemson All-American defensive lineman Carlos Watkins and his teammates, who are third in the country in sacks this season.

"I mean, really, just indescribable," Swinney said.

Clemson can beat Alabama.

I've already mentioned that the Tigers led the Tide in the fourth quarter in last season's title game. Did you know Clemson put up 550 yards of offense? Or that Watson threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns?

Yes, that Alabama defense this season, the one that smothered Washington in Saturday's first semifinal, is a world apart.

I'm not even sure Alabama needs to play offense.

No matter.

Clemson can win.

No one else would have had a chance against Alabama.

Don't look now, but Swinney, laconic, country, easy going, has gone into the barn and built himself a rocket ship. Clemson has 69 wins over the past six season. Only Alabama, with 76, has more. Clemson has had six consecutive 10-win seasons. Only one team has matched that. Take a guess.

Better slap a heart monitor on Meyer just to be safe. He'd never been shut out as a head coach. It was the most lopsided loss of his career. Meyer has lost just three bowl games. He has lost two in three seasons to Swinney.

Watson and his teammates can pack the chips for their shoulders along with their helmets and pads.

A dynasty stands in their way. Just like last time.

Guess what.

Clemson can win.


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