It was the worst loss of Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama, on the biggest stage. Before falling, 44–16, to Clemson on Monday night, the Crimson Tide had never once lost by such a margin in their coach’s 12 seasons in Tuscaloosa. Math can tell us that, can parse the loss so simply: 44 points, one fewer than the most Alabama has given up in a game under Saban; 16, its fewest scored this season by more than a touchdown. Then there were the 347 yards Trevor Lawrence threw with something that looked like ease, the two interceptions caught from the hands of Tua Tagovailoa.
But math only goes so far, in the case of a game like this one. Math can’t capture the sense of a night like Monday, when the best team this century in college football looked like an also-ran, when the recruit lured away from Alabama ran roughshod and the kid barely a year removed from high school looked like he belonged in the NFL. When the orange-and-purple confetti fell onto the field at Levi’s Stadium, it seemed not just like a Clemson victory, but maybe a much larger shift.
Understandably, this year’s College Football Playoff championship game elicited predictions and excitement about the future: “little old Clemson” (those were Dabo Swinney’s words in his postgame interview) manhandled the Tide thanks in large part to two true freshmen, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and receiver Justyn Ross, and a sophomore, running back Travis Etienne. But for the team that was picked apart and left for dead at halftime, there’s cause to look forward, to wonder what this performance does for the unshakeable credit Alabama has garnered every season this decade.
It’s seemed as if the Tide could do no wrong. They could schedule an FCS team every November, could even look lackluster against that team from time to time. They could cycle through a rotating cast of coordinators. They could lose a tight title game to Clemson two years ago and still be the No. 1 team in the next preseason AP poll. Nothing, it seemed, could topple Alabama, and that’s shaped the way the country has consumed college football. This year, with the Tide’s dominant offense—it was averaging 47.7 points going into the title game—the season seemed like a slow march to Saban’s sixth title since becoming Alabama’s coach. Something like the opposite of Monday night felt inevitable, and it sapped a measure of excitement from the four months leading up to the title game. Maybe the slog that was 2018 was something more.
There’s no question, barring a catastrophe that’s impossible to even explicate, that Clemson will be the No. 1 team in next August’s preseason rankings. That’s never been the case, and it’s meaningful. For years, Alabama has been able to win games like Monday’s—and if it didn’t win, it came within seconds of doing so. It’s been able to peddle that invincibility to recruits, to reload over and over, to make boring appealing. This game felt like a blow to that cycle; what top recruit could watch Swinney and his players’ postgame glee and not want to pack his bags for Death Valley?
“I know we're not supposed to be here, we're just little old Clemson,” Swinney said in his postgame interview. “And I'm not supposed to be here, but we are and I am."
“If I can do it, if these Clemson Tigers can do it, anybody can do it, if you have a belief in yourself and what you’re doing and you surround yourself with a bunch of great young people that are passionate about winning. And tonight, we conquered a mountain that ain’t never been conquered.”
All winter, it’s been easy to bemoan the sameness of the college football postseason. Three of four teams in this year’s playoff got in a season ago, and the fourth, Notre Dame, hardly felt like a novelty. Monday, though; Monday was nothing if not a novelty. It knocked the playoff upside-down, and re-introduced the possibility of an upset to a system that’s seemed nothing if not predictable all year.
It seems cold to say a team’s loss might be good for the game, especially when that team is made up of unpaid teenagers and 20-somethings. But that’s the reality of this year’s title, of Clemson’s elevation and the first hint of uncertainty surrounding Alabama in years. An underdog hadn’t won a CFP game since the Tigers defeated Alabama in the title game two years ago—and that’s not a good thing. Possibility matters. Upsets are good. College football feels a little more wide open Monday night than it has in a long time—that is, until Clemson rattles off three straight titles and proves that possibility moot.