The plan was for a Clemson coming out party.
The Tigers had finished strong in 2007 and entered the 2008 season with a Top 10 ranking. It seemed like the perfect time for the Tigers to take on a marquee Southeastern Conference opponent at an NFL stadium in a nationally televised game.
Turns out it was Nick Saban and Alabama that made the statement in the Georgia Dome.
Coming off a 7-6 season, the Crimson Tide crushed No. 9 Clemson 34-10 and Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty was born.
“I didn’t expect that type of outcome,” said former Alabama quarterback and current ESPN and SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy. “Most people didn’t expect that type of outcome. When Coach Saban was able to come to us after the game and say, ‘Look at the hard work you put in and look at the fruits of your labor,’ that allowed us to really have a perspective that we can beat anybody we played if we do what we’re supposed to do in the week leading up.”
Alabama went on to play for the SEC championship that season and the Tide has done nothing but contend for national championships since. The loss led to changes at Clemson that ended up putting the Tigers on the path to playing for a national championship seven years later.
Saban and the Tide try to make it four titles in nine seasons Monday night in Glendale, Arizona, when they face No. 1 Clemson (14-0) again, this time in the College Football Playoff title game.
Saban came to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with great fanfare after a short stint with the Miami Dolphins. Alabama had spent years trying to recreate the Bear Bryant era with only scattered success.
The ten years directly before Saban was hired were particularly frustrating. Only twice did Alabama win more than seven games, and four times the Tide finished with a losing record. The Tide went through five head coaches.
Saban’s first year was not much to get excited about. The Tide went 7-6, with a four-game losing streak to end the regular season that included a home lose to Louisiana-Monroe.
“I think that when you start a program … you really have to establish fundamental sort of intangibles that are going to help you build the kind of character, competitive character in the people that you have in the organization to get them to be all that they can be, and that says a lot about the attitude that the players have, and that’s certainly a challenge,” Saban said.
McElroy said some of the upperclassmen in 2007 were not quite ready to do the work the new coach demanded.
“The talent to a certain extent wasn’t overwhelming, but let’s be honest, Nick Saban is demanding,” McElroy said. “To the point where it can wear you out from time to time. The thing that’s fun, what makes it fun is you win.”
McElroy said the true turning point for the program was Alabama’s 30-27 victory against Colorado in the Independence Bowl to end ‘07.
“The Colorado game proved that we can come together and we can play for each other,” he said.
In the offseason, players such as center Antoine Caldwell and safety Rashad Johnson moved into leadership roles, younger players such as linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive back Kareem Jackson developed into impact players and a star-studded freshman that included receiver Julio Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower came on board.
“We realized that we were going to be better. Things were going to be going better. Maybe we’ll go 9-3,” said McElroy, who backed up John Parker Wilson in 2008 before leading Alabama to its first championship the next season.
Then came Clemson and a dominant performance. Alabama outgained the Tigers more than 2-to-1 and did not allow an offensive touchdown.
“We’re sitting there thinking to ourselves, if that’s a top-10 team in the country, well then what are we?” McElroy said. “I think that was a launch-pad moment for us.”
While that last meeting between the Tigers and Tide was just the beginning for Alabama, it was the beginning of the end for then-Clemson coach Tommy Bowden.
“Disappointment would be the correct word,” then-Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips said. “We finished the previous season in strong fashion. Then we had this opportunity to be showcased nationally with Alabama, and Alabama had struggled the previous season so you go in with a degree of optimism.”
By midseason, Bowden was out and wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney was elevated to run the program.
In a sense, that game was the start of something big for the Tigers, too. In nine and a half seasons under Bobby Bowden’s son, the Tigers had become so synonymous with inconsistency the term ‘Clemsoning’ was coined to describe a disappointing and unexpected loss.
Under Swinney, Clemson has won at least 10 games each of the last five seasons. The charismatic coach has improved recruiting, helping lure 5-star prospects like quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver Sammy Watkins away SEC schools, installed an up-tempo spread offense and has taken a top-to-bottom approach to building the program similar to Saban’s.
“He’s been able to take a program and build it to a level of consistency where over the last three, four years, every time you walk in that stadium you feel like you’ve got a fighting chance to win,” Phillips said. “Prior to Dabo, you really didn’t have that same type of feeling.”
Seven years since the last Alabama-Clemson game, both programs are as strong as they have ever been. On Monday night at the University of Phoenix Stadium, either Alabama adds to its dynasty or Clemson culminates its climb to the top.