LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Of all the places for Alabama and Clemson to play again for the national college football championship, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA, is easily the most unlikely, and not just because it’s located on what Southerners call the “Left Coast.”
For openers, Levi’s Stadium is home to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, and every Southerner worth his or her weight in fried chicken knows that San Francisco is home to a lot of your basic hippies, deviants, intellectuals and wine-sippers, not to mention Nancy Pelosi.
Additionally, Santa Clara is located in the heart of what is known as “Silicon Valley,” that bastion of science, technology and innovation. Heck, a lot of the folks there probably believe in climate change, which President Donald Trump tells us is “fake news.”
When Trump speaks, a lot of folks in Alabama and South Carolina nod in agreement. Polls indicate that both states are part of Trump’s base. But it’s different in Santa Clara, which is such a liberal stronghold that it joined other California cities in a lawsuit to protect same-sex marriage.
So now Clemson and Alabama come to Levi’s Stadium, the place where Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback with the 49ers, began to take a knee during the pregame playing of the national anthem. His intent was to call attention to how blacks are still victims of police brutality, racism and injustice in the legal system.
But Trump jumped in and changed the narrative, portraying Kaepernick as just a spoiled professional athlete who was un-patriotically disrespecting the country, the flag and the military. His Vice President, Mike Pence, made a show of leaving a game between the 49ers and Colts, a sort of protest of the protest.
As recently as last October, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) supported rapper Kanye West’s idea that Trump and Kaepernick should have a “summit” meeting to address the issues raised by Kaepernick. Of course, that never happened.
When Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked about the Kaepernick firestorm, his response was measured. He pointed out he was a student at Kent State in 1970 when a Vietnam War protester was shot and killed by a National Guardsman.
He learned a lot from that tragedy, Saban said. So if his players came to him to talk about the Kaepernick protest, he would listen and talk with them instead of taking one side or the other. His position was in stark contrast to Roy Moore, an Alabama politician, who said Kaepernick and other protesters should be fired and punished.
So when the Clemson and Alabama fans check into their Santa Clara hotels, go out to the bars and restaurants, and walk the city’s streets, they surely will find they have more in common with each other than with their hosts. Then again, maybe the meeting of the cultures will be a good thing that tears down some stereotypes and builds more understanding.
For the rest of us, of course, it will be no more than the rubber match between the two programs that have dominated college football since the playoffs began in 2014. Of the first five national championship games, Alabama and Clemson have met in two, Alabama claiming the 2015 national championship with a 45-40 win in Glendale, AZ, and Clemson getting even a year later with a 35-31 victory in Tampa.
Monday night’s game in Santa Clara figures to be another classic. Both teams are 14-0. Clemson had a couple of stiff challenges during the regular season – a 28-26 escape against Texas A&M in College Station and a 27-23 squeaker over Wake Forest at home – but Alabama wasn’t really tested until the Southeastern Conference championship game against Georgia.
That game is destined to be remembered for a curious play call by Georgia coach Kirby Smart. With the score tied 28-28 and 3:04 left in the final quarter, the Bulldogs were in a fourth-and-11 situation at midfield.
Instead of punting, Georgia tried a fake punt and got stuffed. The gave the Tide excellent field position and backup quarterback Jalen Hurts, playing for the injured Tua Tagovailoa, needed only five plays to score the game-winning touchdown.
But Alabama recovered, and, with Tagovailoa healthy again after surgery, whipped Oklahoma 45-34 in a national semifinal game that was every bit as one-sided as Clemson’s 30-3 bashing of Notre Dame in the other semifinal.
The teams are remarkably alike, loaded with talented depth on both sides of the ball. Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence isn’t the magazine cover boy that Tua has become, but Coach Dabo Swinney loves his efficiency, toughness, and consistency.
Both teams use the running-back-by-committee approach, but the two to watch are Clemson’s Travis Etienne, who’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball, and Alabama’s Damien Harris, a native of Richmond, Ky., who’s averaging 126 yards a game.
Unsurprisingly, the rosters of both teams are heavily stocked with players from the South. Clemson has only six players from west of the Mississippi River and none from California. But Alabama has 18 players from West of the Mississippi, five of whom are from California.
They are running back Najee Harris of Antioch, offensive lineman Tommy Brown of Santa Ana, redshirt offensive lineman Elliott Baker of San Francisco, defensive lineman Tevita Musika of Miliptas and defensive lineman Taylor Wilson of Huntington Beach.
Of these, Harris is likely to have the most impact on the game. In last year’s championship game against Georgia, he rushed for 64 yards in the fourth quarter. Now he’s the Crimson Tide’s second leading rusher, averaging 102 yards per game.
Yet in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Harris, the nation’s top recruit at his position two years ago, indicated he’s a bit frustrated with Saban’s running-back-by-committee philosophy.
“I’m happy to be back home, but I wish I could do more,” he said. “I’m limited. I’m happy, but at the same time I’m disappointed. I just want to represent (the San Francisco area).”
Of all the places for Harris to lead his team to victory, Levi’s Stadium is the best. The folks in the San Francisco Bay area understand happy homecomings every bit as much as their Southern brethren from Alabama and Clemson.
Just don’t ask either group to explain the other’s culture and politics.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter from Louisville who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.