On my way into Raymond James Stadium Monday night, I still wasn’t sure who to pull for in the College Football Playoff title game.
Better to side with all the orange popped collars around me and root for Clemson to win its first championship in 36 years? Or cheer for Alabama, college football’s evil empire, so that Clemson, an annual opponent of my beloved Louisville Cardinals, didn't gain even more of an upper hand in the budding rivalry? Fortunately, I had 25 minutes in the shit show of a ticket line to think things through.
By the time I found my seat and looked out at the sea of orange shirts under Patagonia vests, it was hard not to side with the Tigers. When Deshaun Watson completed a touchdown pass to Hunter Renfro with one-second on the game clock, winning the game and the title for Clemson, I was glad I had. Not just becuase it’s more fun to be on the winning side, but becuase Clemson, with its cornball coach, devious tactics and up-tempo style, is a complete blast. And Alabama is a bore.
I’m not the first person to draw a contrast between the two teams, whose personalities are best represented by head coaches Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban. At Clemson, Swinney is an "aww shucks" good ole boy unafraid to look silly in celebration. If a 10-year-old football fan woke up in an adult’s body, Big-style, and was handed the reins of a college football powerhouse, he would be more grown up than Swinney.
Some think he's a goon, more head cheerleader than head coach. But in stuffy world of college football, it's nice that someone getting rich off the backs of young, unpaid workers actually wants them to have fun. Not that Swinney can't be serious. After Monday's game, Colin Cowherd, who called Clemson a "fraud," suffered the wrath of an angry papa bear whose not too PR-minded to tell off a human hot take.
Saban, on the other hand, is as pleasant as he is dominant. He’s won four titles at Alabama, another at LSU, and over the years racked up a reputation as a robotic sourpuss who displays the all emotion of a pylon. Saban is too wrapped up in game plans to respond to shock jocks. He has no time to have fun either. Just to win, and that's what he does. But a malcontent who wins all the time can't expect to find many fans outside of his own stadium. Just ask Bill Belichick.
On the field, these two teams are also a contrast in styles. Alabama had the best total defense in college football this season. Clemson had the top offense. And even with quarterback Jalen Hurts and running back Bo Scarbrough, two underclassmen with mega watt futures, Alabama's identity is stopping the other guys. Clemson, meanwhile, is built around Watson, an elite quarterback with weapons like the remarkable Mike Williams, who pulled down two highlight reel catches Monday, one of which kept the game-winning drive alive. That's just more fun than forcing punts.
Taken together, the styles of play and coaching personalities are enough to push a neutral fan toward the school where they’re putting up points and actually enjoying the game. But even without those factors, there’s a pretty good reason to be glad Clemson beat Alabama—the fans.
My experience with Clemson fans is limited, but from what I observed Monday night, they’re an enthusiastic bunch that was desperate for a taste of the glory that’s become old hat in Tuscaloosa. They were better represented in Tampa, far more visible in the streets around the city and in the parking lots around the stadium. The crying thirty-something a couple rows ahead of me made it clear how much these guys cared about their first title since 1981.
That’s not to say Alabama fans didn't care, but it was hard to not sense that the National Championship had become routine for them. As I walked out of the stadium, that sense was confirmed when I saw an exchange between two older Bama fans. “Well, see you next year,” one said to the other with a smirk. His meaning was clear. He's expecting the Tide to be at next year's CFP. When you’ve become that entitled to winning, it’s good to see you lose.