For two prominent football programs located only a couple states apart, Clemson and Alabama do not have much shared football history. They met just 14 times in the 20th century, with three Clemson wins from 1900-05 followed by 11 straight Alabama victories. After a 1975 Alabama win, the two teams didn't meet again until the opening game of the 2008 season. Clemson went 111 years between wins over Alabama.
Needless to say, Alabama and Clemson are making up for lost time, becoming fast rivals on the biggest stage that college football has to offer.
When the No. 1 Tigers and No. 4 Crimson Tide meet in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on Monday, it will mark the third straight year the two teams have met in the postseason. To end the 2015 season, Alabama beat Clemson in a 45-40 thriller in Glendale, Ariz., for the national championship. Last year, Clemson scored with one second left to beat Alabama 35-31 in Tampa, Fla., claiming both revenge and its own national championship. Now, the teams will meet in a semifinal rather than the national championship, this time in New Orleans, in a rubber match that will decide who advances to Atlanta to play either Oklahoma or Georgia for the national title on Jan. 8.
The games and locations are different, but this still marks just the second time in college football history that two teams will meet in the postseason three years in a row. They join Ohio State and USC, this year's Cotton Bowl participants, who are most known for their Rose Bowl showdowns. That included back-to-back-to-back meetings in Pasadena that started with the 1972 season.
It's a rarity across all sports. College sports are different from the pros in that the same teams can meet in the semifinals or championship, as Alabama and Clemson have done the past three years, but here are the most prominent examples of back-to-back-to-back postseason meetings that the Tigers and Tide are joining across major American sports:
College football: USC vs. Ohio State (1972-74). No-repeat rules prevented Rose Bowl rematches for decades, but the Pac-8 and Big Ten champions were free to meet every year in the 1970s, regardless of whether they had gone to Pasadena the year before. Despite some controversy, it quickly happened with USC and Ohio State three years in a row. In 1972, undefeated USC demolished No. 3 Ohio State 42-17 to claim the national championship. The next year, Big Ten athletic directors voted to send Ohio State back to Pasadena over Michigan after the rivals tied 10-10 at the end of the regular season. No. 4 Ohio State crushed No. 7 USC 42-21. In the third meeting, the two teams delivered a classic: No. 5 USC edged No. 3 Ohio State 18-17. With the help of Oklahoma's postseason ineligibility, the Trojans claimed a share of another national title.
MLB: Giants vs. Yankees (1921-23). The National League Championship Series has never featured the same matchup three years in a row, while the American League Championship Series did so once: three straight Yankees wins over the Royals from 1976-78. The Championship Series didn't begin until 1969, but the World Series has featured the same matchup three years in a row only once despite dating back to 1903. New York City was the center of the baseball world from 1921-23, with three straight matchups between the Yankees and Giants. The first was actually a best-of-nine series and the Yankees' first World Series appearance. The Giants won, 5-3, thanks to a 1-0 victory in the last Game 8 in World Series history. The Giants again won the next year with another oddity: Thanks to a 3-3 tie in Game 2, the series finished 4-0-1. It was the last tie in World Series history. In 1923, the Yankees got revenge and captured their first of 27 titles, winning the Series, 4-2, with the help of three Babe Ruth home runs.
NBA: Warriors vs. Cavaliers (2015-17). Despite their ample NBA Finals history with each other, the Lakers and Celtics never met in three consecutive Finals. The only teams to do it did so in the past three years. Upon returning to Cleveland, LeBron James led the Cavaliers to the Finals in 2015, but Steph Curry lifted the Warriors to the title, 4-2. In 2016, Cleveland got its revenge against a Warriors team that won 73 games in the regular season, claiming a 4-3 Finals win after falling behind 3-1. Last year, the Warriors bolstered their star-studded lineup with Kevin Durant and won 4-1. A fourth straight Finals meeting could be on the horizon this spring. Although it's happened in the Finals only once, teams meeting in three consecutive postseasons is more common in the conference finals, including the 76ers-Celtics in the 1980s and Pistons-Bulls in the late 1980s and early '90s.
NFL: Lions vs. Browns (1952-54). There has been only one rematch in Super Bowl history, back-to-back Cowboys wins over the Bills in the 1992 and '93 seasons. The only time the NFL has had the same two teams play in three straight championship games dates back to 1952-54, games featuring two of the four franchises that have never appeared in a Super Bowl. In 1952, the Lions won in Cleveland, 17-7, thanks to a 67-yard Doak Walker touchdown and a 2-0 turnover advantage. In 1953, the Lions won again, this time in Detroit, 17-16, on a Jim Doran touchdown catch and Walker PAT in the fourth quarter. The Browns finally got revenge in 1954 back home, routing the Lions 54-10 thanks to six total touchdowns from Otto Graham. Since the Lions-Browns championship games, the most prominent back-to-back-to-back postseason contests featured the Steelers and Raiders in the 1974-76 AFC championship games and the 49ers and Cowboys in the 1992-94 NFC championships.
NHL: Canadiens vs. Red Wings (1954-56). When Montreal and Detroit met in the Stanley Cup Final in three straight seasons, the NHL consisted of only six teams. The Red Wings won the first two championship matchups, with a 2-1 overtime win in Game 7 in 1954, then another seven-game series win in 1955. In '56, the Canadiens turned the tables with a relatively easy 4-1 series win.
Most examples featured 2-1 splits, and Alabama-Clemson will join them after the teams split their first two playoff meetings in two of the most memorable championship games ever. The above history does say that are all three matchups are rarely close, and Monday's Sugar Bowl has a lot to live up to after the Crimson Tide and Tigers produced consecutive championship games that went down to the wire. A letdown, relatively speaking, is certainly possible, because stringing together three straight classics is difficult. But another memorable game has to be on the table, given how evenly matched the two teams appear to be.
Alabama, of course, is nearly impossible to beat twice in a row, partly because it's so hard to merely beat once. After a 7-6 debut in 2007, Nick Saban has gone 123-14 in the past 10 years. At Alabama, Saban has lost to the same team in consecutive years only twice: 2010-11 against LSU and 2014-15 against Ole Miss. That makes Saban 10-2 in rematches after losing to a team the previous season.
Clemson hasn't had a winning streak against Alabama in well over a century, dating back to its three straight wins in 1900, 1904 and 1905 by a total score of 78-0 to kick off the series. After that winning streak, it took 110 years for Clemson to score more than 14 points in a game against Alabama again. That finally happened with 40 points in the loss in 2016, then 35 points in last year's win.
The spark behind Clemson's offensive outbursts the past two years is gone, given that Deshaun Watson is now playing for the Houston Texans in the NFL. Still, despite the unavoidable roster turnover that makes this year's semifinal look a lot different than the 2015 national championship game, the Sugar Bowl can't help but feel like the continuation of a burgeoning rivalry between teams that suddenly meet only when it matters most.
It's one of college football's greatest dynasties against a rising powerhouse. It's one of college football's greatest coaches, Saban, against a rising star coach in Dabo Swinney, who played at Alabama. It's two teams that recruit at a high level and produce NFL talent at a high rate.
Rivalries typically take years upon years to organically develop, but the Tigers and Crimson Tide have skipped the incubation period and gone straight into the type of rivalry rarely seen in sports. The rivalry might not last long, but as they enter their third straight playoff game with national championship implications, it's clear this has become a rivalry that will never be forgotten.