The similarities are striking.
As a heralded freshman in 2012, Alabama receiver Amari Cooper waded through four games of middling stats before announcing his college presence with authority in Game No. 5, rolling for eight catches, 84 yards and two touchdowns against Ole Miss (victory).
In 2015, Tide freshman Calvin Ridley bore the look of lighting-fast decoy through four games … before raising the bar in Game No. 5, in the form of five catches, 120 yards and one TD against UGA (ranked No. 8 at the time).
(Entering college, Cooper was somewhere in the 6-foot-1, 195-pound range. Coming out of high school, Ridley stood at 6’1 … and just a pizza binge short of 190 pounds.)
In 2012, Cooper was part of an Alabama squad which suffered a gut-wrenching home loss to a rival SEC West club (Texas A&M) … before rallying for a conference title and national championship (destroying Notre Dame in the final).
Fast forward to the present: Ridley contributes to a budding Crimson Tide juggernaut that shook off a September home loss to an SEC West foe (Ole Miss) … before summarily crushing the next 10 opponents — including Michigan State in last week’s College Football Playoff semifinal (Cotton Bowl) — by an average margin of 23.2 points.
Of course, three years ago, Cooper and the Tide only required two postseason victories (including the SEC title game) to claim the national championship.
In the new Playoff era, Ridley and Co. must mow through Florida, Michigan State and Clemson to secure Alabama’s 16th national championship — and fourth of the Nick Saban coaching era (2009, 2011, 2012 … 2015?).
On first-year impressions alone, Cooper (now a star with the Oakland Raiders) and Ridley quickly demonstrated their worth as prominent fixtures in a balanced ‘Bama offense. But with Saban presiding over all game-planning phases, the Crimson Tide receivers must overcome the perception — fair or not — of being secondary operatives in a conservative, power-rushing attack.
That tag was altered a little bit during Cooper’s freshman year. Great change arrived soon after that, with Lane Kiffin taking over as Alabama’s offensive coordinator.
“Well, everything starts with the running game for (Alabama) … that’s just who they are,” says Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. “Those guys up front, this offensive line sets the tempo, and then obviously (Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry — 2,061 rushing yards, 25 TDs). I mean, they just beat you to death with that guy. He’s a different animal.
“And so you’ve got to commit people so they get a lot of matchups, and when you’ve got explosive guys, it’s hard for one guy to hold up consistently.”
Let’s take a deeper look at Alabama’s rout of Michigan State:
For its first three drives, Alabama modestly racked up 75 yards on 24 plays. But on the fourth possession, the offense collected 31 yards on the first four plays … thus setting up the Spartans for the game’s first major salvo: A 50-yard bomb to Ridley, who sprinted past every white-clad defender and caught quarterback Jake Coker’s rainbow pass, just one yard from the goal line.
Just like that, a meandering scoreless tie had become a 7-0 lead for Alabama. That was Phase I of the eventual reckoning. Phase II involved the Crimson Tide’s opening drive of the second half (up 10-0), a nine-play, 75-yard show of force, culminating with Ridley’s acrobatic touchdown catch in the end zone — a miraculous reception that was initially refuted by the officials.
Covering just a few minutes of game clock, the Ridley-led Crimson Tide quickly had Michigan State on the ropes. That feeling of helplessness grew exponentially in the second half, with Ridley (eight catches, 138 yards, two TDs) and Henry (two touchdowns) inflicting the scoring damage.
Alabama’s Cotton Bowl devastation ended up at 38-0, a galling point differential that might have never occurred without Ridley’s heroic efforts … and Kiffin’s penchant for pushing the vertical envelope, when necessary.
“(The Alabama coaches have) expose people with the speed. Ridley … he’s got to be a 10.4, 10.5 100-meter guy. That’s what he looks like. They put him in the slot, and you put him in the slot, and he’s getting free releases,” laments Swinney. “(Ridley’s) a problem for safeties. He’s a real problem. But they move him around.
“But all those guys are good. (Richard Mullaney) #16, (ArDarius Stewart) #13, they’re all good players. The tight end (O.J. Howard) is a great weapon. So they’re just very balanced,” says Swinney. “They force you to … if you don’t stop the run, you have zero chance. Absolutely zero, because they’re going to commit to it, obviously. Henry has had several games (when) he’s carried the ball 40-something times.”
Ridley (seasonal tallies: 83 catches, 1,031 yards, seven TDs) isn’t your typical freshman, in terms of enduring numerous peaks and valleys, performance-wise. Since Sept. 26 (versus Louisiana-Monroe), the Coconut Creek, Fla. native has notched either seven catches, 90 yards or one touchdown for all 11 games.
As such, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Alabama is the prohibitive favorite for another national championship, thanks to the viable vertical threat posed by Ridley.
“He’s an outstanding player. I’m very impressed with (Ridley),” says Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson, the team leader in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (23.5). “(Alabama’s) skill guys are good. I’m impressed by how they open things up to get their (pass-catchers) the ball — they can really hit you deep down the field.
“I really like (Coker), too. Makes a lot of smart decisions,” says Lawson, whose Tigers are vying to become the first 15-0 national champion in Division I/FBS history.
Citing crucial categories to Ridley’s existence, Clemson’s defense currently ranks second nationally in third-down conversion percentage, eighth in team sacks, ninth in passing yards allowed (177.2 yards per game) and 55th in red-zone defense. However, Lawson and his injured knee might be a game-time decision for Monday night.
That’s off-putting news for a Clemson defense long on raw talent … but short of decisive veteran playmakers. Unlike last year.
“(The Tide coaches) will run (Henry), they’ll tempo, they’ll do some no-huddle stuff, but the explosiveness that they’ve got on the outside (Ridley, Stewart, Mullaney) has been a real challenge for a lot of people,” says Swinney.
Taking the above comments in context, the Notre Dame coaches from three years ago likely had similarly robust respect for Amari Cooper’s rapid learning curve, in advance of the BCS championship bout.
After all, at this stage of a season, freshman is no longer a four-letter word … unless the new word is “fear.”
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.