Colleges

Sugar Bowl: Clemson vs Alabama | Monday 8:45 p.m. (ESPN)

Familiar foes meet again, this time in College Football Playoff semifinal

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and Alabama head coach Nick Saban, left, pose with the Sugar Bowl trophy for their upcoming semi-final playoff game, for the NCAA football national championship, in New Orleans, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney (left) and Alabama coach Nick Saban pose with the Sugar Bowl trophy before Monday’s CFP semifinal at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS — The three-peat will be complete.

Then again, there might be a few more chapters in college football’s most intriguing new rivalry.

For the third year in a row, Clemson will meet Alabama in the College Football Playoff, only this time it will be in the Sugar Bowl semifinal rather than the national championship game.

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They’ll be hard-pressed to match the drama and excitement of the last two meetings: Alabama’s 45-40 victory that featured 40 points in the final 10½ minutes, followed by Clemson’s 35-31 triumph on a touchdown pass with one second remaining.

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‘‘We haven’t competed against each other a lot,’’ Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday on the eve of the New Year’s night game. ‘‘But all of a sudden you’ve got this three-game series that has just happened at the highest level. And this is kind of a rubber match. But, to be honest with you, this is probably not going to be the last one. There will probably be more of these down the road.’’

Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson (12-1) is the top seed in the playoff, bouncing back from a shocking 27-24 loss to Syracuse in mid-October. Alabama (11-1) didn’t even get a chance to play for the Southeastern Conference title, losing to Auburn in the regular-season finale after being ranked No. 1 all season by the Associated Press.

Despite the setback, the selection committee went with Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide as the No. 4 seed over Big Ten champ Ohio State.

That set up Clemson-Alabama, Part III.

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‘‘This is kind of like a rivalry now,’’ Tide linebacker Rashaan Evans said. ‘‘This is something I will definitely remember for the rest of my life, just to be able to be a part of this whole big thing. I’ll have faced these guys three times, watched so much film of us winning and losing. Now we have another chance.’’

Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow has been a real thorn in Alabama’s side. The former walk-on caught four touchdown passes in the two previous meetings, including last season’s 2-yard game-winner.

The burden of shutting down Renfrow could fall largely on Alabama’s star defensive back, Minkah Fitzpatrick.

‘‘I think that’s going to be the key matchup in the game,’’ Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. ‘‘Obviously, Hunter’s had some really, really good games against these guys, so they’re going to be gunning to make sure they take him away and force other guys to make plays.’’

Fitzpatrick is looking forward to the challenge.

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‘‘He’s not going to out-physical you or outrun you,’’ the Alabama player said. ‘‘He gets the ball out in space, makes people miss, and he’s a real shifty guy, smaller guy, so it’s hard to tackle him in space.’’

Alabama has endured a rash of injuries at the linebacker position, which really seemed to affect the Tide’s stellar defense late in the season.

With more than a month off since the loss to Auburn, the situation looks a little better but remains a point of concern for coach Nick Saban.

Most notably, Dylan Moses and Shaun Dion Hamilton won’t be able to go against Clemson, dealing a blow to the Tide’s signal-calling inside linebacker position. That puts a big burden on Mack Wilson, who returned from a foot injury to play in the Auburn game but wasn’t all that effective.

‘‘It’s very important to get the signal, get it communicated, and get the defense lined up,’’ Saban said. ‘‘Mack is very capable. He doesn’t have a lot of experience doing it, but I’m sure he will do a good job in the game.’’

Clemson’s Kelly Bryant had some huge shoes to fill stepping in for Deshaun Watson, but the junior signal-caller made it a relatively seamless transition.

Bryant provides the same sort of dual threat as Watson, capable of beating teams with his arm or his legs, but it’s hard to envision him putting up the same sort of numbers on the big stage.

Watson passed for more than 400 yards in each of his games against the Crimson Tide and accounted for a total of eight touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts struggled with his consistency down the stretch, which might be a product of working with his third offensive coordinator (Brian Daboll) in two seasons.

Over his last three SEC games, the sophomore completed barely 50 percent of his throws (33 of 65) for 637 yards and three touchdowns. The passing game has been downright one-dimensional; Calvin Ridley leads with 50 receptions, while no one else has more than 14.

Considering how close the last two games were, this one could come down to a kick.

Alabama would seem to have an edge with Andy Pappanastos, who converted 15 of 19 field goals and didn’t miss from inside 40 yards.

Clemson had to switch kickers during the season after Greg Huegel went down with an injury . Alex Spence missed four of his first six attempts but he knocked through five of his last six, including a career-best 46-yarder in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.

Alabama needs a win to stay on course for Saban’s record-tying sixth national title.

Saban came up just short a year ago, leaving him one behind Bear Bryant.

Alabama has won four championships in the last eight seasons under Saban, who also claimed a BCS title at LSU during the 2003 season.

Sugar Bowl capsule

Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Clemson (12-1) vs. No. 4 Alabama (11-1) at New Orleans, Monday, 8:45 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Line: Alabama by 3.

Series record: Alabama leads 13-4.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

A third straight spot in the College Football Playoff national championship game. These teams have met for the national title each of the past two seasons, each winning once in highly competitive games. This time, they’re meeting in the semifinals, but it’s nonetheless and third-straight, late-season, high-stakes encounter between these programs.

KEY MATCHUP

Clemson’s dominant defensive line, led by defensive ends Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell, against Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. Clemson racked up 44 sacks this season and ranks third in the nation with 3.38 per game. But Hurts has exceptional mobility and has been known to scramble for big gains.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Alabama: DB Minkah Fitzpatrick was named the winner of the Chuck Bednarik award given annually to the nation’s top defensive player. He also received the Jim Thorpe award given to the nation’s top defensive back. RB Damien Harris rushed for 906 yards this season and his average of 7 yards per carry ranks second in Alabama history (among rushers with at least 200 carries).

Clemson: Ferrell and Bryant have combined for 16 sacks and 31½ tackles for losses. QB Kelly Bryant, in his first season taking over for Deshaun Watson, accounted for 3,504 yards and 24 touchdowns from scrimmage this season.

FACTS & FIGURES

The Crimson Tide is appearing in an NCAA-leading 65th bowl game, having won 35 and tying three . . . Alabama ranked first in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 11.5 points per game, while Clemson ranked second, allowing 12.8 . . . Clemson coach Dabo Sweeney, an Alabama native who played receiver for Alabama from 1989 to 1992, is 1-1 as a head coach against his alma mater. . . . Clemson has won three consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championships and is 40-3 overall, with one national title, since the start of the 2015 season.