If college football fans squint their eyes just right when Clemson rubs on "Howard's Rock" and then runs down the hill in Death Valley amid thunderous cheers, many would swear they were attending an SEC football game. Folks down south view Clemson as the most SEC of teams that aren't SEC, so folks from everywhere else might look at the Tigers' showdown with Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T on Jan. 11 (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) in Glendale, Arizona, as a glorified SEC game.
Yet the inadequacy of that very sentiment -- obsessive regionalism! -- also enriches this game, which is already rife with enrapturing plotlines.
Yes, a good ol' southern brawl in the desert will decide the 2015 national championship, but the ACC-SEC schism is as real and freighted with meaning as the bitter divide between the SEC and everyone else. This game also is about darkness and light and the shadow of Bear Bryant. As Clemson coach Dabo Swinney would and surely will say, "Bring your own guts."
No. 1 Clemson and No. 2 Alabama more than validated their rankings with dominant showings in the New Year's Eve semifinals. Clemson rolled over Oklahoma 37-17, owning the second half by a 21-zip count. Speaking of zip, Alabama simply smothered overmatched Michigan State 38-0, outgaining the Spartans 440 yards to 239.
Everyone expected Alabama to be here. It will be aiming for its fourth national title in seven seasons. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban will get a shot at his fifth national title, which would tie him with Bryant as the only coach in major college history to win five.
At this juncture in college football history the Tide is the sport's Death Star. Alabama's longstanding dominance and seemingly superior talent as well as its often dour head coach force the program to don black hats.
Meanwhile, Clemson and colorful, quotable, dancing-king coach Swinney are the upstarts, the free spirits, the good guys. The Tigers' only national championship came in 1981, and only this season did we learn via Swinney that "Clemsoning" -- aka Clemson finding bizarre ways to lose -- is no longer a thing.
Free spirits? Who the heck calls a fake punt pass to a 322-pound freshman defensive tackle, as Swinney did against the flummoxed Sooners. Heck, Clemson is so contrarian that it's playing for a national title with a negative turnover margin for the season. The last 20 national champions were at least plus-three in turnover margin.
The nation's only unbeaten team, the Tigers are riding a 17-game winning streak and could become FBS football's first team to finish 15-0.
It's also notable that Swinney was raised in Pelham, Alabama, and is a former receiver and assistant coach at Alabama. More than a few folks have speculated he might be in line to replace the 64-year-old Saban down the road.
Alabama leads the all-time series 12-3, but the teams have played only once since 1975 -- a 34-10 Tide win in the 2008 opener. Various oddsmakers have initially listed the Tide as around a touchdown favorite.
Of course, oddsmakers rated Oklahoma a four-point favorite against Clemson, something Swinney didn't hesitate to note to his players, before and after the game.
Clemson, which is 7-7 against SEC teams under Swinney, also looks like a team that can physically match up with Alabama at the line of scrimmage and is decidedly superior at several positions, most critically at quarterback. As Alabama is an SEC team, it's mostly unfamiliar with playing against a good quarterback.
Deshaun Watson, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, will be the best quarterback the Tide have faced this season. Moreover, unlike Michigan State's Connor Cook, he's a dual threat, and athletic quarterbacks sometimes give Saban and his ravenous defense trouble. Watson has rushed for over 100 yards in five of the past six games while throwing for 3,512 yards and 30 touchdowns.
The Tigers' big question entering the season was their entirely rebuilt defensive and offensive lines. After outrushing Oklahoma 312 yards to 67, it's pretty clear that's no longer an issue. The defense dominated the Sooners even without the services of star end Shaq Lawson, who hurt his knee early in the first quarter. His status for the title game is uncertain at this point.
"They played in a more physical way than we did," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.
Of course, Alabama's utter demolition of Michigan State -- the Spartans rushed for 29 yards -- suggests a team that is playing on another level.
Alabama and the SEC are trying to win their first national title in three seasons, hoping for a return to their dominance of the BCS era.
Whether you view that as a return to the dark side or not, it will be part of what fuels the anticipation for what figures to be a heck of a brawl.