Here we are in the first week of October, autumn finally beginning to clear its throat, and the notion of a three-peat is trying to seduce us. And succeeding.
Alabama-Clemson III is out there, people, appearing vividly on the horizon, the way a mountain stands right where you can reach out and grab it. Your brain understands that mountain is miles and miles away. The scientists call it a superior mirage, and find me a football fan who can top that name.
The season isn't even halfway over. Or, to put it another way, this week a year ago, Tennessee was 5-0 and ranked No. 9. There is still so much left to happen. The No. 1 Crimson Tide and the No. 2 Tigers are one injury away from losing their edge, one upset away from a New Year's Six bowl, one playoff loss away from a lifetime supply of wistful regret.
But that mountain is right there, a tantalizingly vivid version of unreality. The reason we think about a re-rematch is simple: If everything happens over the rest of the season the way it has in the first month, if Alabama and Clemson strike down their rivals, if they win difficult conference championship games against, say, No. 5 Georgia and No. 13 Miami, if they slug it out in the College Football Playoff with No. 3 Oklahoma and/or No. 4 Penn State and/or the Apple Cup winner and/or fill-in-your-favorite-overlooked-power, then we get the opportunity to see Alabama and Clemson play again.
The first time they played, the outcome remained in doubt until 12 seconds remained, when Alabama recovered an onside kick to extinguish Clemson's last hope. The rematch beat that result by 11 seconds, the Tigers scoring the winning touchdown with one tick left on the clock. It's difficult enough for the same two professional teams to play for the championship in three straight seasons. It has happened once in Major League Baseball, once in the NFL and once in the NBA, this year, when Golden State beat Cleveland in five games.
By the way, all of you pulling for someone other than the Tide and the Tigers: The Warriors and Cavaliers attracted the NBA's best TV ratings in 19 years, so don't try to blur the lines. You know you want it.
The other great third meeting that comes to mind is Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier's epic fight. Their first two meetings are known as Ali-Frazier I and Ali-Frazier II. History, and the level of competition, forever named the third fight the Thrilla in Manila.
Three-peats almost never happen in pro team sports, for which roster instability is not a function of the academic calendar. The idea of the same two college football teams playing for a national championship in a sport in which the best players stay only three seasons is absurd on its face. It's absurd on the field, too.
Clemson and Alabama each have a total of three players who started at least 10 games in the 2015 season. Let's hear it for Tigers wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, guard Tyrone Crowder and offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt, and for Tide wide receiver Calvin Ridley, guard Ross Pierschbacher and strong safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Yet here they are, No. 1 and No. 2 again, just as they were ranked for the last six polls two years ago, just as they started and finished the 2016 season, just as they are for three weeks and counting this year. Alabama has beaten consecutive SEC opponents by 59 and 63 points, respectively. If you saw any part of the 66-3 defeat of Ole Miss on Saturday night, you understand how little the Rebels wanted to be there. All Clemson has done is beat three top-15 teams in September, which no team has done in the 81 years of the AP poll.
We don't have to tell you that Alabama's Nick Saban and Clemson's Dabo Swinney have established themselves as the best coaches in the game, a wonderful example of how success comes by staying true to yourself.
Saban is a disciplinarian who does his best to hide his warm side. Swinney could warm up the coldest room, and cross him at your peril. Their mutual respect adds a protective layer of bonhomie to what otherwise could turn into a tense, toxic brew.
But the coaches are not the reason we continue to stare longingly at this mountain. It's just the idea that we might get another championship game as competitive and exciting as the past two. If you look at the schedules of the Tide and the Tigers, it's not difficult to envision them at least getting through the regular season intact.
Alabama has only one ranked opponent, No. 12 Auburn, on its remaining schedule. Clemson, having defeated those three top-15 teams already, has only one, as well -- No. 24 North Carolina State -- although Florida State and perennially ignored Georgia Tech await, too.
On we go. More than two months of the season await. No matter which two teams make it to Atlanta on Jan. 8, the level of pregame tension in Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be thicker than the skin on one of Saban's assistant coaches.
But in the first week of October, when the season is far enough along to have eliminated some teams and not far enough along to have any real shape, a person can stare out the window and dream of what might be. From where some of us sit, an Alabama-Clemson three-peat is the definition of a superior mirage.