NEW ORLEANS — With all the confetti flying, identifying the happiest person in the Superdome wasn’t easy. Alabama players and coaches celebrated their 24–6 Sugar Bowl win against Clemson in a way they hadn’t celebrated previous playoff semifinal wins—or even previous national titles. Those celebrations were businesslike. A smile and a handshake and on to the next one. This one felt like a release. With apologies to the branding firm hired by Alabama’s conference, this one just seemed to mean more.
Of course the people who came from the SEC office were happy. Alabama will face Georgia for the national title on Monday in Atlanta. The league is guaranteed its ninth championship since the 2006 season. “Two of our teams and someone else’s officials,” a league official said. “It’s a perfect marriage.”
But that official wasn’t the happiest person in the Superdome. Maybe it was Alabama defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne, who was named the game’s outstanding defensive player for clogging gaps in the middle all night and for snaring a crippling interception of Kelly Bryant midway through the third quarter. Payne also deserved consideration for offensive player of the game when—moments after his interception—he caught a one-yard touchdown pass from Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts after being inserted in a jumbo goal line package.
“I think they listened to me. I had been talking to coach [Nick Saban] lots about it,” the 308-pound Payne said of his touchdown, which featured a Cris Carter-style tiptoe to ensure Payne caught the ball in bounds. “He said, ‘Just keep on working, and you might get it.’ And I tried my best to go out and practice and work hard, and they finally gave it to me.” Said Saban: “When he made the interception, there was no doubt that we were going to throw him the ball on the goal line.”
But even Payne wasn’t the happiest. That title belonged to the cornerback pulling on the custom houndstooth suit with black rhinestones Bedazzled on the lapels and jogger-style pants that rode high above black velvet bit loafers. “My mama made this suit from scratch,” Tony Brown said. The suit, Brown told a crowd, made him look good and feel good. After that, he was bound to play well.
The previous time Alabama played Clemson, Brown did not leave the field smiling. He had been assigned to cover Hunter Renfrow on first-and-goal from the 2-yard line with six seconds remaining. He’d gotten picked when teammate Marlon Humphrey engaged a slanting Artavis Scott. The next thing Brown knew, he was hitting Renfrow in a final desperate attempt to dislodge the ball from the former walk-on’s hands. But Renfrow held on. Clemson coaches called the play Orange Crush. The touchdown gave Clemson a 35–31 win and crushed the Crimson Tide’s hopes of repeating as national champs.
Needless to say, Brown wanted another crack at Clemson. “I hate to lose. I’m a competitor at heart,” he said. “I love this game. I love to compete. Losing in that fashion like I did, that’ll affect me for the rest of my life. I got a chance for redemption, and that’s what I did. So I’m very excited right now.”
Brown listed the slights he believes the Tigers delivered in the 357 days between meetings. First, Brown disputed a story Renfrow told The Athletic about a trash-talking incident between he and Brown in the last meeting. Renfrow claimed he trash-talked Brown and then apologized a few plays later. “Didn’t happen,” Brown said. Then, Brown took issue with Clemson etching Alabama’s name into a tombstone in the program’s big game graveyard.
Finally, Brown ripped Clemson coach Dabo Swinney for voting Ohio State No. 4 on his final coaches’ poll ballot. This may have been a Freudian slip on Swinney’s part. Why wouldn’t he want to play the team his team beat 31–0 last season instead of the team that pushed his team to the limit two consecutive seasons? But the reason didn’t matter to Brown. He considered it disrespect, so he used it. “They gave this team a lot of ammunition to come play this game to dominate every play,” Brown said. “They told us we weren’t ready—that we weren’t worthy of being a top-four team. That’s what happens when you talk trash to us. We’re going to show you.”
Alabama’s defense showed everyone Monday. A group that looked depleted while allowing 408 yards and 5.2 yards a play in a 26–14 loss at Auburn on Nov. 25 suddenly looked like the Tide defense again. After starting the playoff with 14 fewer sacks than they had at the same point last season, Tide defenders sacked Bryant five times. The Tigers averaged 2.7 yards a play and gained only 64 yards on the ground. Brown poked a ball away from lanky receiver Tee Higgins in the end zone in the first quarter, denying Clemson its best chance at a touchdown. Linebacker Mack Wilson doubled the Tide’s season total for non-offensive touchdowns when he returned an interception 18 yards for a score with 5:27 remaining in the third. Renfrow, who torched the Tide for four combined touchdowns in the past two meetings, finished with five catches for 31 yards.
Though Alabama was a slight favorite in Las Vegas, this didn’t feel like a typical Saban team until Monday. The Tide constricted Clemson in a way that no team has all season. “This game was about sort of our identity as a team,” Saban said.
Saban had said Alabama lost its identity at Auburn. Monday, the Tide reestablished that identity. “We try to dominate you and destroy your will for four quarters,” Brown said. “That’s what we did.”
Now it’s on to Georgia—the state and the opponent. The storyline all week will be about former Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart leading his alma mater against his old team and old boss. Brown loves Smart, but he doesn’t care who Alabama is playing. “I’m excited for the next game, regardless of if it had been whoever—a community college,” he said. Later, Brown was asked about preparing for the Bulldogs and the spotlight of the title game, and he reminded everyone of something that should be obvious.
“It’s not like we’re new to this,” Brown said.
They are not new to this, and now that Alabama has faced down its demons and rediscovered its identity, that familiarity will make the Tide even more dangerous.