NEW ORLEANS — Did you hear that sound riding along the jet stream along with all that chilly air? It was three letters. S-E-C, S-E-C. Alabama, the controversial selection for the No. 4 seed in the College Football Playoff, eliminated any doubt that it deserved its place by hammering No. 1 seed Clemson 24-6.
Here are three thoughts from a win that set up an all-SEC national championship:
1. An SEC team will win the national title for the ninth time since the 2006 season. Alabama will face Georgia for the title in Atlanta next Monday. The Crimson Tide will try to win their fifth national championship since 2009, while Georgia will be trying to win its first since 1980. This will be the second time since the 2011 season that Alabama has played for the national title without winning the SEC West. In that season, Alabama lost to LSU in the regular season and then beat the Tigers 21-0 in the Superdome.
Monday, Alabama whipped another set of Tigers in similar fashion. The Crimson Tide defense, last seen allowing 408 yards and an uncharacteristic 5.2 yards a play in a 26-14 loss to Auburn, suddenly looked like last season’s Alabama defense. Alabama held Clemson, which entered Monday averaging 204.1 rushing yards a game, to 64 rushing yards. The Tigers averaged 75.2 plays a season and gassed Alabama’s defense by running 99 plays in a 35-31 win in last season’s national title game, but they managed only 70 snaps against the Tide on Monday.
The Crimson Tide entered last season’s playoff with 45 sacks. They entered this season’s playoff with only 31, but a much healthier group of rush linebackers combined with the defensive line to sack Clemson’s Kelly Bryant five times and harass him frequently. Pressure by Jack linebacker Anfernee Jennings midway through the fourth quarter led to an interception by defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, who was rewarded with a touchdown pass minutes later when Alabama used its jumbo package on the goal line. That score stretched Alabama’s lead to 17-6.
Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide entered this season’s playoff with only one non-offensive touchdown after entering last season’s playoff with 14. Linebacker Mack Wilson doubled that total with 5:27 remaining in the third quarter when he intercepted Bryant and returned the ball 18 yards for a touchdown. Suddenly, Alabama had a 24-6 lead that felt insurmountable with the Tide defense back in smother mode.
The only sour note was a late injury to Jennings, who had to be helped off the field with 2:32 remaining. He emerged from Alabama’s injury tent minutes later with ice on his left knee. Alabama’s linebacker group has been decimated by injuries this season, and those injuries are the main reason why Alabama’s defense hadn’t been this dominant until Monday. Though Alabama lost Dylan Moses to an injury during practice earlier this month, the return of outside linebackers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis prior to the Auburn game bolstered a thin group, and the extended practice time before the bowl allowed coaches to practice with a more complete lineup
2. The biggest difference for Clemson was the lack of quarterback Deshaun Watson, who left after his junior season and is now a Houston Texan. Monday’s loss showed just how special Watson was. He carved up Alabama’s defense in the past two national title games. His play helped produce two instant classics, but the rubber match was far less exciting because the Tigers could not sustain drives against the Tide.
Clemson could barely take advantage of gifts. The Tigers got the ball on the Alabama 20-yard line after Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts and tailback Damien Harris mishandled an exchange on the first snap of the second half. Bryant lost two yards on first down. He completed a pass to Tavien Feaster for a three-yard loss on second down. Bryant then ran for no gain, and Clemson settled for a 42-yard Alex Spence field goal.
Still, the Tigers only trailed by four at that point. After Clemson’s defense forced a three-and-out, the Tigers finally began moving the ball. Deon Cain caught an 11-yard pass, and then Bryant and Travis Etienne combined to gain 22 yards on three carries. But on second-and-two from the Alabama 42, Jennings creamed Bryant as he threw, and the ball wound up in the massive hands of Payne. Clemson never threatened Alabama again.
3. Alabama’s offensive playcalling looked like a Crimson Tide message board poster’s dream come to life. After spending the past month getting screamed at in cyberspace—and probably at the grocery store, at restaurants and at church—to RUN THE DAMN BALL, that’s exactly what Alabama’s offensive coaches decided to do.
Alabama’s tailbacks combined for 18 carries (representing 29.5 percent of Alabama’s offensive snaps) in the loss at Auburn. Monday, the backs combined for 31 carries (representing 73.8% of Alabama’s offensive snaps). The play that best defined this schematic shift was a fourth-and-1 on the Clemson 18-yard line three plays after Payne’s interception. The Tide led 10-6, but instead of settling for a field goal or opting for a pass or Hurts run, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll called for a handoff to Harris. He launched himself over the line of scrimmage, landing well beyond the line to gain.
The damn ball had been run, and a few plays later Alabama had built a lead that all but guaranteed an appearance in a third consecutive national title game.