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Alabama-Clemson becomes college football's best new rivalry

By PAUL NEWBERRY
Jan. 1, 2018 at 6:03 a.m.

Clemson's Hunter Renfrow pulls in a pass during practice Saturday for tonight's Sugar Bowl against Alabama. The former walk-on caught four touchdown passes in the two previous College Football Playoff meetings between the Tigers and Crimson Tide, including last season's 2-yard game-winner.

NEW ORLEANS — The three-peat will be complete.

Then again, there might be a few more chapters in college football's most intriguing new rivalry.

For the third year in a row, Clemson will meet Alabama tonight in the College Football Playoff, only this time it will be in the Sugar Bowl semifinal rather than the national championship game.

They'll be hard-pressed to match the drama and excitement of the past two meetings: Alabama's 45-40 victory that featured 40 points in the final 10 1-2 minutes, followed by Clemson's 35-31 triumph on a touchdown pass with one second remaining .

"We haven't competed against each other a lot," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday on the eve of the New Year's night game (7:50 p.m., ESPN). "But all of a sudden you've got this three-game series that has just happened at the highest level. And this is kind of a rubber match."

Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson (12-1) is the top seed in the playoff, bouncing back from a shocking 27-24 loss to Syracuse in mid-October. Alabama (11-1) didn't even get a chance to play for the Southeastern Conference title, losing to Auburn in the regular-season finale after being ranked No. 1 all season by The Associated Press.

Despite the setback, the selection committee went with the Crimson Tide as the No. 4 seed over Big Ten champ Ohio State.

RENFROW VS. FITZPATRICK: Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow has been a real thorn in Alabama's side. The former walk-on caught four touchdown passes in the two previous meetings, including last season's 2-yard game winner.

The burden of shutting down Renfrow could fall largely on Alabama's star defensive back, Minkah Fitzpatrick.

"I think that's going to be the key matchup in the game," Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.

BANGED-UP LINEBACKERS: Alabama has endured a rash of injuries at the linebacker position, which really seemed to affect the Tide's stellar defense late in the season.

With more than a month off since the loss to Auburn, the situation looks a little better but remains a point of concern for coach Nick Saban.

Most notably, Dylan Moses and Shaun Dion Hamilton won't be able to go against Clemson, dealing a blow to the Tide's signal-calling inside linebacker position. That puts a big burden on Mack Wilson, who returned from a foot injury to play in the Auburn game but wasn't all that effective.

"It's very important to get the signal, get it communicated and get the defense lined up," Saban said.

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