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Sugar Bowl Preview: Alabama, Clemson complete a classic trilogy

Alabama’s Damien Harris (34) works through drills Thursday, in New Orleans. (Vasha Hunt/AL.com via AP)

Alabama’s Damien Harris (34) works through drills Thursday, in New Orleans. (Vasha Hunt/AL.com via AP)

NEW ORLEANS — When you’re in the midst of a historic trilogy, it’s hard to appreciate what it will mean to the ages.

Alabama is focused on beating Clemson.

Clemson is focused on beating Alabama.

Taking time to savor the first two chapters between these college football juggernauts — and, ohhh, are they worth savoring — will only get in the way of preparing for the rubber match.

“I just try to take it day by day,” Alabama center Bradley Bozeman said. “I’ll look back on it when I’m 40 or 50 years old.”

No matter what happens Monday night when the top-ranked Tigers take on the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl semifinal game, this remarkable three-year run seems assured of joining all those great sporting rivalries that were doled out thrice.

Ali-Frazier.

Affirmed-Alydar.

Nadal-Federer.

Warriors-Cavaliers.

“We’re in a good place if we’re seeing them,” Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said of the Tigers. “So, no, I’m not tired of them.”

For whatever reason, the trilogy holds a special place in the sports lexicon.

They come in all shapes and sizes, from one side pulling off a sweep (Affirmed edged Alydar three straight times to claim the 1978 Triple Crown) to those who saved the best for last (Ali beating Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila” after they split their first two heavyweight bouts) to matchups that signaled a changing of the guard (Nadal’s epic victory over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final after losing to his Swiss rival the two previous years).

Which brings us to Alabama-Clemson III.

Already, they’ve produced a matching set of classics that rank among the greatest national championship games in college football history. Two years ago, Alabama won 45-40 in a breakneck affair that featured 40 points, a successful onside kick and a kickoff return for a touchdown in the final 10 1-2 minutes . Last season, Clemson rallied from a two-touchdown deficit and the Tide’s go-ahead TD with just over 2 minutes remaining to win 35-31 on Deshaun Watson’s 2-yard scoring pass to Hunter Renfrow with a single second hanging on the clock .

The stakes are a bit different this time.

Instead of meeting in the title game, Round 3 falls a week earlier in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Clemson claimed the top seed despite a loss to lowly Syracuse back in mid-October , while Alabama stirred up the biggest debate when it landed the fourth seed after a setback to Auburn in its final regular-season game and failing to even qualify for the Southeastern Conference championship .

In the end, it’s hard to fault the selection committee for bending to the will of history.

A deciding game only seems right.

“Oh, it’s a lot of fun,” Tigers defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “The reason why I came to Clemson was to compete at the highest level, play against the best teams and win championships. You know if you’re Clemson and you’re playing Alabama, then you’ve had a good season. They’re always going to be at the top. That’s just the kind of program they are.”

While many of the faces have changed — most notably, Watson moved on to the NFL after two brilliant performances against the Crimson Tide — there’s a familiarity between the programs that only adds to the buildup.

They know each other’s tendencies, the plays they like to run and the ones they shy away from, their many strengths and those handful of weaknesses that might be exploited at a crucial time.

Adding to the storyline: Clemson is coached by Alabama alum Dabo Swinney, whose goal all along was to turn the Tigers into a Atlantic Coast Conference version of the Tide.

“It’s been great to compete against Alabama,” Swinney said. “One of the things that was a goal of mine nine years ago was build a program that can be consistent and to build a program that can beat the best, and Alabama has been the best.”

Indeed, there’s still a sense that Alabama is college football’s top dog, even though Clemson is the reigning champion. Nick Saban has carried on the houndstooth legacy by guiding the Tide to four national titles in the last eight seasons. His program is the only one to make the playoffs in all four years of its existence.

The greatest testament to Bama’s decade-long dominance? Going back to the start of the 2008 season, Saban’s teams have played only three regular-season games — all at the end of the 2010 campaign — that didn’t have an impact on the national championship race.

“It’s like anything in life,” Saban said matter-of-factly. “You make up a goal, you understand there’s a process of things that you have to do to accomplish the goal, and you have to have the discipline to execute it every day. That’s not necessarily a feeling. It’s a choice that you choose to be persistent at the things that are going to help you be successful and you resist the things that are not going to help you be successful.”

For Saban and Swinney, that leaves little time to dawdle over how this trilogy will remembered in the big picture.

But Renfrow has some idea.

Maybe one day, long after his career is over, he’ll flip on the TV to watch a “30 for 30” documentary.

They’ll call it “Tide vs. Tigers: The Trilogy.”

“I guess the word is appreciation,” Renfrow said. “I’m just very appreciative for the opportunity to go out there and make the most of it and exhausting the moment. That’s something we talk about. Not wishing for tomorrow. Just living in the moment.”

You see, this budding masterpiece is not yet complete.

There’s still another act to go.