National championship 2019: With history on the line, Alabama and Clemson meet this time as equals

SAN JOSE, Calif. --Austin Bryant was ready to pounce on the question like a loose ball. It was one of the throwaway inquiries to Clemson's defensive end meant to illicit a colorful response.

Guilty as charged. Sue me.

It went something like this: Fill in the blank …  If Clemson beats Alabama on Monday in the College Football Playoff National Championship, it means … what?

"It means we're the best ever," said Bryant. "Best ever in college football."

Wait, what? 

That's some territory that hasn't been covered in the lead up to the fifth College Football Playoff National Championshi. There's hype and there's … have you taken leave of your senses, son? Bryant does not subscribe to either of those summations.

The former All-American really believes it. Bryant has done his research.

"We'd be the first 15-0 team, first team to do that," Bryant said. "That means a lot. I don't think there's been a 15-0 team ever."

Bryant then quickly corrected himself. The last major-college team to win 15 games was Penn … 15-0 in 1897. (Three FCS teams have finished 15-0 since 1989.) Among other things, that's what at stake in the first CFP title game between unbeaten teams.

History, legacy, G.O.A.T. status!

Both No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson are 14-0. That's another indicator these two programs have separated themselves from the other 127 in FBS. You get the feeling Alabama-Clemson V, VI and VII are right around the corner.

With all the talk about a repeat -- a fourth meeting in four years, declining ticket prices and fan apathy -- Alabama and Clemson have delivered what the public has always demanded: The two best teams. The participants can't help it if the Crimson Tide and Tigers just happen to so on top their games the conversation has been started. 

"If they win, they'll be the best ever in college football," Bryant said. "If we win, we'll be the best ever in college football."

Entering this 150th year of college football, that's highly debatable. Undefeated doesn't necessarily mean best of all-time, but how are you going to argue?

Alabama became the first team since Yale in 1888 to outscore its first 12 opponents by at least 20 points. A bit more recently, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence would be the first true freshman quarterback to start and finish the final game for a national champion since Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in 1985. (Jalen Hurts failed in that attempt during Alabama-Clemson I two years ago.)

When the teams tee it up Monday night, they will combine to have played in 13 of the 15 CFP games -- semifinals and national championships -- held to this point. That's 86.7 percent.

On and on it goes.

Alabama might simultaneously have its best quarterback (Tua Tagovailoa), best set of receivers and -- aww, the heck with it -- its best offense of all-time.

They meet at this moment Monday night playing in an NFL stadium in Northern California that might include some empty seats as witnesses to history.

In a setting such as this, Alabama usually sees its opponent melt. The "I" word -- intimidation -- usually comes into play. Teams are beaten by the Tide before the coin flip.

"I don't know who would admit it or not," said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, "but I think they spook a lot of people before they ever get to the field."

Not Clemson. The Tigers are that rare team that can look Alabama in the eye. Why not? This fourth playoff meeting in four years has proven that these programs are near equals.

Since 2009, Alabama is No. 1 in total victories. Clemson is No. 3. In three previous CFP meetings, Alabama holds a 2-1 lead. The team have split a pair of national championship showdowns.

"I don't think either team is intimidated by one another," Bryant said. "They're top of the mountain right now. We're chasing them."

With a win, Swinney -- a former Bama receiver -- would be among only three active coaches to beat Nick Saban twice. (Hugh Freeze and Les Miles are the others.)

"I'm not going to apologize for having a great team and a great program, and neither is Coach Saban," Swinney said. "… If that's not what's best for college football, why are we even doing it?"

Swinney was asked when he got an inkling his program could go head-to-head with Alabama. He mentioned his first full season in 2009. The Tigers finished 9-5 as the Tide won the national championship.

"But I felt like we had a few pieces in place," Swinney said. "We just need to build an infrastructure. We needed to modernize out program in every sense of the word. … I felt like, from the very beginning, we could be a team."

This postseason rivalry started in the 2015 title game in Glendale, Arizona. Saban needed a recovered onside kick to survive, 45-40.

"Maybe the first time in '15," Bryant said referring to that "I" word. "We had never played them before. We knew our program was made of the right stuff. We just never had the opportunity to play the best team that was out there. For us to finally get our shot, it was definitely eye opening. It was like, 'Hey, we can do this thing.' It was definitely not easy."

The rematch came the next year in Tampa, Florida. Former slot receiver Hunter Renfrow caught the game-winning pass with 1 second left.

The only decisive result came last season, a 24-6 Bama win in a national semifinal.

"They're like Darth Vader, man," Venables said. "They're the benchmark, the standard in college football. Most of the times, it's not even close."

This time, they're extremely close. For the moment, Alabama has found its match in talent, experience, explosiveness and recent championships won.

"We feel like our best is better than anybody else's," said Clemson defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell.

But is it the best ever?

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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