For much of a decade, Alabama could only aspire to be on the same level as Clemson. The two teams annually posted similar records, but in three meetings, Clemson beat Alabama by a total score of 78-0. Three games, three humiliations. Alabama did not belong on the same field.
So, ever since then, whenever given the opportunity, Alabama has paid back Clemson as painfully as possible, in games that have served as periodic reminders of the two teams' national standing.
It has now been 110 years since Clemson last beat Alabama in football, so long ago that on the day before that last win, President Theodore Roosevelt made a trip to Birmingham, and on the day after, The New York Times ran a front-page story about John D. Rockefeller's newfound interesting in "automobiling."
Despite their relative proximity in the South, the Tigers and Crimson Tide have met only 15 times ever and only once in the last 40 years. In its 12 straight wins, Alabama has won by a total score of 334 to 54. Clemson has been shut out in seven of 12 matchups and stayed within 20 points only three times.
The most recent game came in the 2008 season opener, when No. 24 Alabama demolished No. 9 Clemson 34-10 in Atlanta, setting the table for the Tide's rise under Nick Saban and the Tigers' dismissal of Tommy Bowden a few weeks later, which led to Alabama alumnus Dabo Swinney being promoted to head coach. It's been a trend throughout history.
Five coaches have led Clemson to 10 or more wins in a season. Four of them played football at Alabama: Swinney, Danny Ford, Charley Pell and Frank Howard.
Now, Swinney -- a former walk-on who was a senior wide receiver for Alabama's 1992 national title team -- has a chance to win his first championship as coach against the program that shaped his career, and the program that Clemson and most everyone else in the South has aspired to be.
"I think God has got a sense of humor," Swinney said. "I really do. I think it's great."
For much of the history of the sport, Alabama has been the litmus test in the South. If Clemson is to win in Monday's national title game, it will finally, at least temporarily, have closed a gap between the programs that has been evident for over a century.
To kick off the 1900s, Alabama's eighth football team on record finished a 2-3 campaign by hosting Clemson in Birmingham on Thanksgiving. This was not Alabama as we know it, and Clemson was early in its run as a military school.
After losing 6-0 to Tulane and 53-5 in November, Alabama continued its embarrassing late-season run against Clemson, then led by coach John Heisman, who finished his first of four Clemson seasons with a perfect 6-0 record thanks to a 35-0 win over Alabama.
Even with Heisman gone, the dominant Clemson trend continued in 1904 (an 18-0 Clemson win in Birmingham) and 1905 (a 25-0 Clemson win in Columbia, S.C.). But despite the auspicious start, never again has Clemson tasted victory against one of the most powerful programs in college football.
The Rise of Alabama
The tide turned for Alabama against Clemson on Oct. 16, 1909, a historic day in sports in which the Pirates won the World Series and Jack Johnson knocked out Stanley Ketchel. In Birmingham at the state fairgrounds, Alabama's Del Pratt -- the 1916 American League RBI champion in baseball -- put on a punting exhibition and made a field goal from midfield to give the Tide a 3-0 win.
National prominence was still a decade or so away for Alabama in a sport still dominated by the North at the time, but it was one hurdle to leap over on its slow climb to relevance. Alabama won again 20-0 in 1913, and when the teams finally reconvened on the field in the 1930s, the differences were stark and the routs were on.
In 1931, two years before a young recruit from Arkansas named Paul Bryant arrived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama beat Clemson 71-7 on its way to a 9-1 record under new coach Frank Thomas. So it went for the rest of the '30s, with Alabama winning 40-0, 33-0 and 32-0. The 40-0 win was particularly noteworthy, as it came in 1934, a season in which Bryant and Don Hutson led the Tide to a perfect record and the Rose Bowl.
Even Bear Bryant's worst teams beat Clemson.
After a 30-year break, the two teams played a four-game series to cap the 1960s, with Bryant going 4-0 against Alabama alumnus Frank Howard in his final years on the job at Clemson. The Crimson Tide got progressively worse over these four seasons, but they still took care of business against Clemson: 26-0 in 1966 on the way to a perfect season, 13-10 in 1967, 21-14 in 1968 and 38-13 in 1969.
Bryant experienced a mid-tenure lull to cap the '60s with a pair of five-loss seasons, but wins over the Tigers helped ensure that he would never finish with a losing record in his 25 seasons as head coach at Alabama.
The two teams met one more time with the Bear in charge. In 1975, Alabama opened with a loss at Missouri, but it used a 56-0 win over Clemson as a springboard to an 11-1 record with a Sugar Bowl victory. Clemson finished 2-9 that year, a time in which national championship dreams would have seemed laughable.
Yet just a few years later, Pell -- the former Tide lineman -- led Clemson to a 10-1 record. He left for Florida, but in his place stepped Ford -- the former Tide tackle -- who took the Tigers to the 1981 national championship, their first and only title.
The 21st Century
Swinney is coaching Clemson in the national championship in part because of what happened on Aug. 30, 2008, in the Georgia Dome. With some of its highest expectations in years, Clemson was punched in the mouth by a breakout Alabama team to open the season. While the Tide ended up in the Sugar Bowl and then won three national titles in four years, Clemson started 3-3 and fired Bowden, leading to the unexpected promotion of Swinney from wide receivers coach.
Seven years later, Swinney has built Clemson into a burgeoning power, the No. 1 ranked team with a shot to claim its second national championship, against the team it has always been measuring itself against or aspiring to be, even if they haven't played often. It will be the first time Alabama and Clemson have ever met in a bowl game, and by far the most important matchup ever between the two schools.
"To me, this is what it's all about," Swinney said on Tuesday. "They represent the best, and there's really no way you can argue with that. This is their fourth national championship appearance in seven years, and they've won 15 already. We've got a lonely trophy sitting down there in that case. They've got a family of trophies in Tuscaloosa, and I'm proud to be a part of one of them."
More than 100 years of history say that Alabama will add another trophy to that case, but at long last the timing finally allows Clemson a chance to turn the tables back toward the way things began.